R-E-P-E-A-T?

How do you measure Big Time? Chauncey Billups was in an L.A. hotspot this summer, sitting at a table with such recognizable NBA faces as Kevin Garnett, maybe the best player in the league, and Sam Cassell, who has won two titles and been around forever. And this customer walked in. He looked around. He squinted, then began to yell.

“We got Chauncey Billups in here! Chauncey Billups is in the house!”

How do you measure Big Time? Billups was in Las Vegas for an Oscar De La Hoya fight, and he was sitting next to Charles Barkley, who played 16 years in the NBA, was an 11-time All-Star and the MVP of the league in 1993. Barkley leaned in at one point and got serious.

“I tell you, Chauncey,” he said, “I got that MVP trophy, but I’d trade mine for yours any day of the week. The one you got, you can’t get that unless you win it all.”

How do you measure Big Time? Chauncey the Guard, like Chauncey the Gardener, has learned what it’s like this summer just being there. The fuss that is made by his mere championship presence makes the Peter Sellers movie look mild by comparison.

“I was in Puerto Rico,” Billups says, “on a Saturday afternoon, and I went to a mall — and got mobbed. At a mall in Puerto Rico? They were talking Spanish, and the only word I understood was my name!”

Tonight, the Pistons return to work for the first game that counts since they stormed off the court last June with the Lakers’ heads on a platter. Since then, they have been feted and flattered, praised and paraded, applauded, adored and adulated. They did the late-night television circuit. They got deals they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. They got instant tables in the hottest parties they otherwise might have been denied.

Tonight they get a banner. Tonight they get rings. And tonight they get the first of a million questions, and all of them will fall under this general heading:

How do you handle it?

For one summer, best of the best

How does Rasheed Wallace play when a new contract is secure, and about $60 million is guaranteed? How does he approach the game now that he needn’t disprove a shadow — that he was a disruptive force who couldn’t win the big one?

How does Ben Wallace approach the nightly grind of being a one-man wrecking crew now that the respect issue has been settled?

How do Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince deal with being the targets of defenses, and a point of pride when those defenses shut them down?

How does Larry Brown manage the one thing he never has had to manage before: championship success?

“I’ve gotten so many compliments from around the world on how our guys played,” Brown says. “The way we played like a team, the way we played unselfishly. I know this: It’s gonna be easier for a lot of other people to coach because of the example our players set.”

Yes, but will it be harder for the Pistons? The reward of hard work also can be its undoing: You achieve, you are prone to relax. Is there a down for every up?

Billups, no doubt, has been on the biggest roller coaster of all. A journeyman guard before he got to Detroit, he rose to new heights in the playoffs, nailing killer three-point baskets and directing a potent offense on a team known for defense. When he won the MVP award for the NBA Finals, it was more than an honor, it was vindication — for him, for the Wallaces, for Hamilton, for all those Pistons who at some point had been cut, snubbed, overlooked or misjudged.

“I was talking to Joe Dumars about it,” Billups says, “because he won one with the Pistons’ first championship. And he said, ‘Chauncey, do you realize what that trophy means? You were the best player on the team that played the best. That means for one summer, you’re the best player in the world.’

“I never thought about it that way. But when you do, it’s unbelievable, man.”

He laughs. “You know, I had the MVP trophy at my house in Denver, and I shipped it here when I shipped my car. I put it in the front seat. And then to keep it secure I put a seat belt around it. My wife saw me, and she started laughing. She said, ‘You’re treating that like it’s your baby.’ And I said, ‘It is. That’s my little baby right there.’ “

Will success spoil the Pistons?

Success can be glorious, but it also can make you dizzy. So when the Pistons assembled for this exhibition season, there was a sense of grounding, the exhale of reuniting with others who had gone through your same scattered summer. If home is where they understand you, then the Pistons were finally home.

“It was great and it was different,” Billups said. “For the first time, you really felt happy to be back. You were champions. In other years it’s like, ‘Man, we got training camp, and we didn’t get it done last year, and we gotta try to get it done this year.’

“But now, we all hadn’t seen each other, and we wanted to share these stories, you know? ‘Hey, what happened when you went here or went there?’ Or ‘Hey, did they treat you this way or that?’

“We all have these crazy stories and we can share ’em because we won. We feel like right now it’s ours, the title is ours, and whoever wants it has got to come here and get it.

“We used to say, ‘We gotta get past so and so to win,’ but now they saying it about us. People are saying ‘We gotta worry about the Pistons.’ “

Funny. The question in Detroit is pretty much the same. “Do we gotta worry about the Pistons?” Will success go to their heads? Will “goin’ to work” be more like “goin’ to the limo”? Will hunger be the same once bellies have been filled?

Over the summer, Billups was sitting with Cassell, and they were teasing about their respective teams, the Pistons and the Timberwolves, meeting in the NBA Finals this season.

“Just remember, Chauncey,” Cassell said, “every really good movie has a sequel.”

Billups looked at him. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, if it was really good, they make a sequel, and if it wasn’t, they don’t.”

Billups laughed. “Yeah, but you gotta make a movie first.”

The Pistons’ movie was made last season, with a surprise climax and a happy ending. Now we learn: Does a sequel get the green light? Cameras are rolling. Trophies are strapped in.

Jump ball.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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