He wears a scar and a smile, but the latter is the one that sticks.
Jalen Billups plays basketball like it’s always the first day of spring — free and easy, full of joy, a man riding shotgun on a sunbeam.
“I guess it made me hungrier,” said Northern Kentucky’s senior forward. “More than just the urgency to get things done, it made me more aggressive, free, just do whatever. And just have fun. Every time, just go all-out.
“I consider myself blessed.”
When you’ve been told this day might’ve been your last, funny how you scramble like hell to start seizing the rest.
The Cincinnati native leads the Norse, Horizon League newbies, in scoring (15.0 points per game), blocks (1.9 per contest) and perspective. Beneath a burly chest is a tiny defibrillator, a pager-sized device that monitors Billups’ heartbeat and delivers the occasional electrical shock to keep it on a normal rhythm. Without that, there’s no game. No sunbeam, either.
“You can see it when he has his shirt off,” assistant coach Sean Dwyer noted. “But you wouldn’t (know) watching him play. And the consistency he brings on the court, you wouldn’t know. You just generally expect him to go out there, (when) you throw him the ball in the block, he’s going to get you a bucket. That (defibrillator) is not something that comes up.”
Well, usually. Dwyer recalled a few of what he termed “a couple of false alarms” with the device a short while back, a wonky battery.
“He had to step out and get it looked at before he came back to practice,” the coach recalled. “It wasn’t a serious health issue. And I guess it’s a testament to him that (he’s) gotten through something very frightful, you’d think. And he must have a certain level of (reservation) … but he’s never shown it, and that’s really impressive.”
Billups has skills and a narrative, and does his stone-cold best to make sure the latter doesn’t step all over the grace of the former. Some three years ago this month — December 27, 2012 — the forward was switching drills during an evening practice when he abruptly collapsed, face-first onto the floor, a micro-second of a blackout.
“All I remember is getting back up and just seeing everybody around me and wondering what I was doing,” Billups said. “But that was about it. There wasn’t too much panic. There was more concern than anything.”
But the coaches and trainers looked at the tape, and what they saw — an instant collapse — scared them silly. The freshman big man was shelved for the season, undergoing tests in Minnesota and back in Cincinnati for various heart ailments, including a disorder called hyperthrophic cardiomyopathy, the condition that eventually lead to the death of former Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers in 1990. But there had been no family history of heart irregularities, no early warning signs.
“I have no clue (where it came from),” Billups said. “I have no clue at all.”
It was there. And it was real. In the spring of 2013, Billups was diagnosed with arrhythmia — an irregular heartbeat. That meant getting a defibrillator implanted to keep the heart pumping on a regular, consistent cycle.
It also meant taking a long, hard look at the basketball side of the equation.
“They said, at the end of the day, it was my decision whether I wanted to play with it or not,” Billups said. “And I decided to play with it. It’s my passion; I love to do it. So I was willing to risk it all for it.”
Late in the summer, a pacemaker was installed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. By October, he’d received the green light to start practicing and pushing again.
“My mother was scared; the rest of my family was, too,” Billups recalled. “She probably was more scared about than I was. She wanted me to do whatever I was happy with. So she supported me the whole way when I decided to play again.”
The motor returned, slowly, a piston at a time. But by the end of his sophomore season, Billups was playing at roughly the same clip he’d managed as a freshman — 19 minutes per contest. He’s averaged 21.5 minutes a game as a junior and as a senior, effectively serving as the program’s 6-foot-6, 245-pound metronome.
“I really don’t know if it was a gift in disguise or not,” Billups said. “I can’t ever really explain it.”
He leads the Norse (2-6) in field-goal percentage (.653), a tank blessed with dancer’s feet. Last season, Billups ranked third in the NCAA in 2-point field-goal conversion rate (70%) and true shooting percentage (69%), blossoming into the surest, safest bet on the block.
“He’s a huge part of what we do,” Dwyer said. “He’s the most consistent player we have from an offensive standpoint. At 6-6, finishing against bigger players or being creative, his using his physical strength or going through guys using angles or a spin here or there. He’s got (moves) you can’t teach someone.”
And about three extra gears, when the mood strikes. Almost a year to the day after his collapse, in December 2013, the Norse were visiting then-19th-ranked North Carolina, fodder for the Dean Dome masses. Billups had other ideas, though, and threw down a one-handed slam with a minute left in the first half, a viral dunk that cut the hosts’ lead to three. He was back, baby.
“Definitely,” Billups said. “Just being in Chapel Hill and doing something like that, it’s like, ‘Wow, did I just do this?’ It’s just crazy.”
Specialists still check on the defibrillator at least once every six or seven months. But the longer that little box has been a part of him, the less Jalen tends to think about it.
“I’ve gotten so much more muscles on top of it, you can barely see it now,” Billups said of the scar. “You can see it a little bit, but it’s not that noticeable (anymore).”
On the court, Big No. 21 is more the lead-by-example type than a rah-rah sort. But those examples linger, in the best ways possible. You never know what the days have on the menu, or how many days you’ll have left. Embrace the dickens out of each sunrise. Dance like nobody’s watching.
“He’s a guy that’s developed really good relationships with all of (the guys) and been a guy who really the rest of the guys lean on for a lot of things, a really caring guy,” Dwyer said. “Jalen probably had opportunities where he could have probably transferred to play at a bigger school. But he stayed at NKU and he’s really invested in the university.”
The Norse don’t like to think about where they’d be without Billups. In Jalen’s heart, the feeling is mutual.