The Trail Blazers had two options for handling Chauncey Billups’s candidacy for their head-coaching position. One was to hire somebody else. The second was to hire Billups, then explain that while they feel secure in their vetting of the 1997 sexual assault allegation against Billups, they understand that some fans have questions and concerns and might not want Billups, and they respect that. The Blazers created and then chose a third option: hire Billups and tell everybody to shut up.
The Blazers did not say those exact words, of course. But they came shamefully close. Billups said the incident shaped his life, but when somebody asked him how, the Blazers’ PR staff shut down the question. Longtime general manager Neil Olshey, who should know better, said the team’s investigation was “proprietary. … You're just going to have to take our word that we hired an experienced firm that led us to the results we already discussed."
What a disgraceful reply. It’s 2021. “Take our word” is not a remotely satisfactory answer. It’s insulting to fans who have legitimate questions, and it makes the whole investigation look like a sham, whether it is or not. Billups looked ready to answer that perfectly legitimate follow-up question, too. The Blazers should have let him speak.
This is a broad outline of what we know about the allegation: A woman said Billups, then Celtics teammate Ron Mercer and a third man forced her into sex acts. She went to a hospital and showed signs of being assaulted. The players said the acts involving them were consensual. No charges were filed. They settled a civil suit.
People can reach their own conclusions from that. It is also O.K. to not reach a conclusion from that. Because the case did not play out in court, there was no verdict—but also, we did not get the evidence and testimony that would inform opinions about what happened. There are pieces of the story that are missing. That doesn’t mean those pieces prove Billups’s guilt or exonerate him. It just means they are missing.
If people think the Blazers made a mistake in hiring Billups, then that’s a reasonable opinion. And that is exactly what Olshey should have said: We respect those opinions. It’s not that hard! Show some compassion for those survivors of sexual assault who may find it painful to consider that their team’s coach might have committed such an act. Say that you are comfortable with hiring Billups, and you think the fan base will grow to love him, but you know there is some initial consternation, and you respect that. And share everything you have found that you can legally share instead of claiming it’s “proprietary.”
And let Chauncey Billups speak. If you don’t think he can handle these questions, you shouldn’t have hired him to be the coach.
There is no way to know exactly how the accusations against Billups and Mercer would play out today. In the 1990s, especially, though, signing a settlement was a fast track to making allegations go away, whether you were guilty or simply did not want the cost and public embarrassment of a court case.
This is, of course, precisely what happened. The story faded away. Billups bounced around and then became a star in Detroit. He played in almost every kind of market—L.A., Minnesota, Denver, New York—and the allegation almost never came up. He retired and did high-profile TV work, and it still didn’t come up. In 2017, the Cavaliers offered Billups a five-year contract to run basketball operations—a bigger job than head coach, and one in which this allegation is even more relevant because he would have supervised more employees. I recall no media firestorm around offering the job to Billups at that time. He turned it down, figuring he would have another opportunity he preferred at some point.
The world has changed for the better in the last four years. The allegation is a story now, especially in Portland, a market that sees its team as a reflection of the community. But the notion being spread in Portland that Olshey just hired Billups because he’s an old friend is not based on reality. Most of the NBA views Billups very highly.
I covered Billups for most of his prime and enjoyed talking to him, which doesn’t say much; he was a favorite of almost everybody who knew him. I used to tease him about being the mayor of the NBA because he had close friends on every team; part of the joke was that he had played with half the league before going to the Pistons. And in regard to the 1997 allegation, everything in this paragraph means absolutely nothing.
People we like, or think we know, do terrible things all the time. I do look back and wish I had pressed him and others about this case back then. At the time, we viewed it as old news. We shouldn’t have.
I do not presume to know exactly what happened on that night in 1997. But I knew there would be backlash this week. Everybody knew it. The allegation against Billups was discussed at length in Portland before he was introduced. The Trail Blazers had plenty of time to discuss how they would explain their decision. They opted, instead, to arrogantly proclaim: trust us, and that is why so many people won’t.