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Pistons' Atkins hangs on to his NBA dream

"I'm just trying to improve every year ... ,'' 28-year-old says.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2002

"I'm just trying to improve every year ... ," 28-year-old says. "I'm just trying to improve every year ... ," 28-year-old says.

TAMPA -- Every year in the NBA is a fight for Chucky Atkins.

Just because his dream has come true, doesn't mean it's always going to stay that way.

The 5-foot-11 point guard left South Florida in 1996 as one of the top players in program history. After two years in the Continental Basketball Association and two years playing overseas in Croatia, he earned a roster spot in the NBA with Orlando in 1999. He was traded to Detroit in 2000 as part of the deal that brought Grant Hill to the Magic.

Last season was the third-year pro's best. Atkins started 62 games for the Pistons, averaging a career-high 12.1 points and 3.3 assists, and he averaged a career-low 1.62 turnovers in a league that doesn't favor players his size.

The 28-year-old Atkins came into camp in the best shape of his career, and has been the standout of the preseason, averaging a team-high 13.3 points, 3.5 assists and 2.3 rebounds -- off the bench, that is. Free agent Chauncey Billups has been starting in his place.

But that's okay with Atkins. After all, he wouldn't be a pro if he didn't handle himself like a pro.

"I'm just trying to improve every year I've played ball," Atkins said. "You can look at my stats, the amount of games I've won as an individual. I think my whole ballgame has improved every year I've been in the NBA.

"I think I have the determination not to give up when things didn't necessarily work out as planned, and the ability to continue to work hard and just to learn the professional game and to try to be a better professional through consistency."

Atkins hopes to continue his improvement tonight in Detroit's preseason game against the Heat at the St. Pete Times Forum.

"He's been one guy who regardless of his situation -- starting, coming off the bench, playing, not playing -- he has taken a professional approach," Pistons coach Rick Carlisle said.

To Atkins, his career is a testament to the veterans who came before him, who helped guide Atkins' maturation as a pro.

"Jack Haley in the CBA, he really showed me the ropes," Atkins said. "He was a guy coming from the Bulls, he won two championships there, and then you get to know a guy like Michael Curry who you learn from and Darrell Armstrong, the way he conducts himself.

"Those guys showed me the ropes and what it takes to be a professional, and then you get here and there's a guy named Cliff Robinson, who you get to pick his mind to see what needs to be done to stay in the NBA for 14 years."

So when Billups considered the Pistons' offer, Atkins understood what needed to be done. He called the free agent and welcomed him, one of many reasons why Detroit management raves about Atkins.

"This kid has shown so much class and professionalism and everything that's all us old guys around here talk about," team president Joe Dumars told the Detroit Free Press. "You couldn't ask for anything better than Chucky. He epitomizes professional. He's a great little guy. On top of all that he has stepped up his game. He has a big heart."

Which is why Atkins intends to stick around for a long time.

"I haven't surprised myself," the Orlando native said. "I haven't exceeded my expectations. I always expected to be a professional basketball player when I found out I had the ability to be one. Now I try to live day by day, I try to get better every day."

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