Amir Billups was remembered by friends and coaches this week for the perpetual smile on his face, his amazing jump shot and his passion for chasing his dream of a professional basketball career.
Billups, 24, was killed Saturday in a bad-weather traffic accident in Ohio. The Lockport resident starred on the basketball court for Starpoint High School, Fredonia State College and, for the last two seasons, the Buffalo 716ers semi-pro team.
“He wanted to play pro, and he wanted to go overseas,” said Damian Goodwin II, who played with Billups at Fredonia and serves as an assistant coach of the 716ers. “He was driven to play somewhere he was getting paid, because working 9 to 5 was not his daily routine. He had four jobs, counting playing basketball. He wanted to be a full-time basketball player above anything else. Basketball was his calling, and he was damn good at it.”
Billups’ death rocked the 716ers, who are in the middle of their 20-game season in the Premier Basketball League. Their next game is 2 p.m. Saturday against the Philadelphia Flight at the Tapestry Charter School in North Buffalo. They plan to retire his No. 1 jersey in a halftime ceremony.
“The players are still trying to wrap their heads around it,” said team coach and owner Tawan Slaughter, who gathered the team for a practice Monday night. “It was very emotional. They still feel empty because he was missing. To not have him there, it just didn’t feel right.”
Billups finished his Fredonia career in 2013 on a high note, leading the team with a 12.2 scoring average and posting a 46.4 three-point shooting percentage, among the top 10 in the nation in Division III. His pro career was showing some promise. The 6-foot-2 guard played well enough in a Los Angeles summer pro league in 2013 to earn a tryout with the Sacramento Jam of the NBA Developmental League. He had traveled to Mexico and Italy to play in events to get more exposure and try to win a pro contract.
“For a guy who went to Fredonia State, he had a very impressive resume in only two years,” Slaughter said. “The potential was there, he was getting better, and I think the sky was the limit for him.”
“Sometimes when you look to play overseas, it’s about the living conditions, it’s the pay, and it has to be worth it to go there,” Slaughter said. “So he didn’t have an opportunity yet that he felt was worth it at the time.”
“I thought he was a good shooter in high school, and I thought he became a great shooter in college,” said Kevin Moore, who coached Billups at Fredonia. “He was one of the best shooters I’ve ever coached.”
“Every kid has an aspiration to play at a higher level, and as a young man I think he felt like I’m going to go hard at this for a few years and give it my best and see what happens,” Moore said. “I really applaud him for wanting to do that. A lot of guys out of college think about it but don’t try to go for it like that. Amir was making the sacrifice of not getting a full-time job to chase his dream, and that says a lot about his dedication and his love for the sport.”
Billups, who had a degree in business administration, was a co-captain and the top outside shooter for the 716ers, a team comprised mostly of players from Division II and Division III college programs.
“He led by example,” Goodwin said. “For a person who lives in Lockport and had to drive 40 minutes to practice three times a week, on top of working three part-time jobs, he was always the first one at practice.”
“He was always in the gym,” Goodwin said. “I remember his senior year I was assistant coaching the women’s basketball team, and we’d come in the gym, and he be there by himself shooting. He shot hundreds, 500 shots a day. It was constant.”
“There was not one time I had to tell him to go harder,” Slaughter said. “He was first in sprints, he was pushing his teammates, dragging them along. He was that guy who you could depend on.”
Teammates said he was the kind of player who pulled people up.
“Everybody who ever met Amir says the first time they ever met him he was smiling,” Goodwin said. “He was outgoing, energetic. When you met him, it was like you’d known him for 10 years.”
“The warm smile he had, he brought every day to practice,” Moore said. “Being a college athlete, particularly at the Division III level, is a grind. It’s a big-time commitment, and there are a lot of days guys don’t want to be there. I never felt that with Amir.”
“He was a jokester, always cracking jokes, being silly,” Slaughter said. “Even in practice sometimes I’d say, ‘Amir, bring it back. We’ve got to get focused.’ He was a lighthearted person.”
Billups was a passenger in a car that hit a tractor-trailer from behind about 4 p.m. Saturday on Route 71, about 40 miles north of Columbus, Ohio. He was killed instantly, police said.
The 716ers have eight games remaining, beginning with Saturday’s contest, at 65 Great Arrow Ave. “Everything moving forward with the team has to do with his memory,” said 716ers teammate Devon Dawson. “It’s definitely difficult for myself, the coach, the team. He was brother. I didn’t consider him friends anymore. He was family.”