Grand County ‘coach’ cited by NBA’s Billups as instrumental in shaping him |

Grand County ‘coach’ cited by NBA’s Billups as instrumental in shaping him

Tonya Bina
Sky-Hi Daily News

Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi Daily News

Chauncey Billups’ illustrious basketball career ” 2004 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, starting point guard for the Detroit Pistons, prospective U.S. men’s national basketball team member for the 20O8 Olympics and holding a $46 million four year Detroit contract with a team option for a fifth year at $14 million ” had its humble beginnings.

In the heart of Denver as far back as fifth grade, Billups showed promise as not only an athlete, but someone who might have the gumption to look beyond city concrete and gang influences to a world that might recognize him by his first name and the number 1 on his jersey.

The making of a role model

In a heartfelt segment produced by the National Basketball League and Turner Network Television, Billups gives props to those who helped sculpt him into the recognized role model he is today.

Billups singles out Rick Callahan of Winter Park Highlands.

The segment, as part of a greater “Who Helped Make You?” series featuring a variety of professional athletes, is predicted to air during tournament play or during the Summer Olympics.

Callahan ” attorney, husband, lifetime coach ” was Billups’ mentor.

He “wasn’t from the neighborhood,” Billups recaps during the five minute television piece. Billups’ Denver neighborhood was Park Hill, where gang activity was becoming increasingly prevalent.

Callahan, who interviewed for the segment in Denver, was once point guard for the University of Denver and his former teammates Harry Hollines and Horace Kearney were directors at Denver’s Hawatha Davis Jr. Recreation Center, a place where basketball was “the carrot” that could lure youth away from gang culture. A 5th-grade through 8th-grade coach was needed, and they called on Hollines’ roommate Callahan to fill the volunteer position.

“People up in Grand County have no idea what it’s like for kids to live in a gang-infested neighborhood like that,” Callahan said, “kids being scared going to and from school.”

Callahan stuck with the coaching gig for 15 years.

One of his players was a young Billups, who today remembers the recreation center as having been a “safe-haven” from the streets.

Billups also recalls coach Callahan’s 1982 Ford Bronco. The vehicle was used to tote 12 young players to and from games throughout Colorado, even as far as Grand Junction. “Driving through the mountains was a big deal for them,” Callahan said.

“To hear (Billups) talk about it today lets you know how important that was.”

Callahan still has that Bronco, but instead of stuffing basketball players inside it, these days, it’s stuffed with firewood.

“My wife Sue had always wanted a bed and breakfast in the mountains. I wasn’t too hot on the idea. I’d always been a city boy. But once she got me up here I enjoyed being a mountain boy,” Callahan said.

“When Chauncey comes up here, he loves seeing that Bronco.”

Yes, athlete and coach still keep in touch, and Billups and wife Piper have been known to visit Callahan’s and Sue’s Bear Paw Inn, which they’ve owned since 1995, during stealth visits in summer.

A commitment to give back

It was the chance to “give back” that fueled Callahan’s desire to coach under-privileged youngsters back then, a message he passes on to others, even now.

“I was very fortunate to have had good coaches, and I asked my high school coach, John Thiel from Illinois, how could I pay him back for what he did for me?” Callahan said. “He said, ‘What you can do for me is to give back to the kids coming up behind you.'”

Billups was highly scouted during high school, and Callahan helped Billups with college recruiting interviews.

Once, when Billups and Callahan were out to lunch, Billups expressed that he was thankful for the help and wanted to repay Callahan.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

“I told him, ‘Give back when you become the successful strong man I know you are going to become, I know you’re going to be an all-star player.'” Callahan said.

“I had kids that were just as talented as he was. A couple more guys as good if not better. But he had the strength to overcome all the obstacles that knocked out the other two.”

Callahan said he strove to teach his players that it wasn’t all about being an all-star player, but about being an all-star person.

Although Billups was the only player Callahan ever coached who actually made it to the NBA to become an all-star, he says he is just as proud of other players who went on to become successful, teachers, barbers, carpenters and electricians.

“No one will know their name, they’ll go unrecognized, but in my mind they’re just as successful,” he said. “Chauncey never forgets how fortunate he is to be who he is. He respects former teammates who are successful in their own right.”

In several ways, Billups has taken Callahan’s message to heart. He is one of the few NBA players who visited the Houston Arena immediately after Hurricane Katrina; he has set up a college fund for under-privileged students; every summer, Billups holds a free basketball clinic for thousands of Denver’s youngsters; and, the basketball all-star set up a $50,000 fund at the University of Colorado to allow inner-city youth the opportunity to see a game for free, hot dogs and all.

Back when Billups was a youngster himself, Callahan would take teams, such as Billups’, to Nuggets games as a reward for their grades.

“I think they cared more about how many hot dogs they could eat than they did the game,” Callahan said.

It takes a network

Callahan admires program volunteers and administrators at the local National Sports Center for the Disabled for carrying out the same principles of “giving back.”

Granby’s Tom Pierro, also a former basketball player, and Winter Park’s Jancie and Kent Hughes are others who exemplify the will to give of themselves for the betterment of the community, he said.

“I would like to acknowledge coaches up here who have the same philosophy I had,” Callahan said. “Two right off the top of my head are James and Robert Newberry, especially the way they expect kids to take care of business in the classroom, off the court as well as on the court.”

For Billups, it took “a whole network of people, including solid parents, teachers, community members and coaches,” to make him into the “great player and great man” he is, Callahan said, adding that it’s rewarding to discover that the now-famous athlete recognizes it.

The NBA All-Star makes a point to bring his three daughters to his former neighborhood in Denver to teach them that not everyone has the same upbringing.

“You got to know you’re blessed,” he says in the NBA segment.

Billups made headlines two years ago when he turned down a chance to play with Team USA in order to stay home and help take care of his new baby.

He had made a promise to his wife, Piper, that he’d be there for her.

“It’s tough because I want to be there,” Billups was quoted as saying in a Detroit newspaper. “I think I can help out the team. But I made the commitment to my wife, and I won’t go back on that.”

When Callahan heard the news, “I wrote him a note and told him I thought that was huge.”

” Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail