Editor’s Note: KOIN 6 Sports Reporter AJ McCord had an extensive interview with Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard shortly before the coronavirus pandemic. In this, the second of two parts, she talks with him about what drives him everyday.
PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Damian Lillard has said he wants to be the “Best Trail Blazer ever.”
What does that mean? For Lillard, it’s best simplified in three components – locker room leadership, on-the-court dominance, investing in his Portland community.
First, locker room leadership
From Western Conference Finals, to sitting outside the playoff picture despite what they believed were championship level moves — that’s been the reality of the last nine months for the Portland Trail Blazers this season.
Despite that, Damian Lillard has been a calming force for this Blazers team. Fighting for every game, remaining surgical in his approach to each possession, and knowing when to push his own limits and when to let his teammates take control.
“For me I’m just focused on not giving into it, regardless of what the outcome of the season is or how it might look or what people say,” Lillard explained. “We want to just keep working and just keep building and get through it and you know wherever we land when the 82 games is up is where we land. But I think it’s important for us to have that type of mentality because when we up, say next year or like last year in the Western Conference Finals, when we up, you want people to be happy for you and be proud of it because of the times when it was a struggle and things didn’t go your way. They’re gonna say they stood tall in that moment so that’s how I’m able to just stay right.”
For Lillard, “right” depends on the circumstances.
Most nights it’s putting up 20+ points a night, around 10 assists, sprinkled with a handful of rebounds. But for a stretch in January, it meant scoring his first career triple-double, and averaging an obscene 45 points a game with no fewer than six 3s in that six-game stretch. Portland went 5-1 during that time.
“He’s the first one who does the hard work,” injured Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic explained. “Who’s going to come in and practice first. All the important little things you can’t say ‘Oh, he didn’t do this,’ because ‘Oh, yeah, he did.’
The evidence of that hard work is most prominently on display when the game is on the line, Lillard’s buzzer-beating, soul-crushing 3s have become almost certainly enough. Portland fans can confidently set their watches to Dame Time when the fourth quarter begins.
“He’s a guy with great faith,” teammate Carmelo Anthony said. “He’s a guy that believes that we’re never out of a game, we’re never out of a situation and when you have that confidence coming from a leader on your team, his team, that goes a long way.”
Second, on-the-court dominance
Lillard’s shoulders have been weighted with expectation since 2012, when the Blazers selected him as the sixth overall pick in the NBA Draft.
The Weber State product had earned his fair share of accolades in the Big Sky conference, but a foot injury that sidelined him for much of his junior season and no NCAA Tournament appearances made it easy for doubters to point out reasons Lillard wouldn’t make it in the NBA.
Since the Blazers drafted him Lillard has won Rookie of the Year, become a five-time All-Star, led Portland to their first Conference Finals appearance in two decades, and according to sports-reference.com, already has a 68.6% chance of making the Hall of Fame, still in the prime of his career.
“On the court has to be there,” Lillard explained. “You can’t just be the best Blazer ever because you’re the fan favorite in the community so the on-court has to be there and I think I’ve done that every year.”
Third – investing in his Portland community
Once Lillard was in Portland, he wasted no time investing in its people. His rookie year he began his RESPECT program, which encourages all youth to Show Up, Work Hard, and Be Kind. Teachers and counselors can nominate their students who then get chances to go to games, meet Lillard, and attend events he’ll occasionally host, including the time he invited the program’s leaders to the Oaks Amusement Park to go roller skating with him.
He also hosts basketball camps for the youth every summer and whenever the Blazers are on the road, his teammates say he always makes time for the fans, whether it’s after a loss, or 3 a.m. when they roll up to their hotel in a visiting city, Lillard always makes time. He always shows up for his fans and his community.
“Being genuinely involved in the community, even the stuff that is not on-camera, the city of Portland can vouch for [what I do].”
“When people look at the time Damian Lillard was a Trail Blazer, what are they going to say? All these things come together to make up, you know, are you the best to come through here? And when you look at the people, the other names that get mentioned, when they mention my name in that conversation I don’t think they really wanted to be here. you know what I’m saying? So that goes into that discussion too.”
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