Damian Lillard is a superstar. He might not know it yet, but he is.
The Portland Trail Blazers guard is spending his Tuesday conducting a parade of phone interviews. Random journalists from all across the country are peppering him with questions about everything from standing up for kids with special needs to his experience trying out for USA Basketball. Someone even asks whether he can join in on his patented 4 Bar Friday custom. (It didn't go well.)
Nothing prepares you for this, but you take your lumps, figure it out and get better at it over time.
All this is happening because Lillard is the new cover athlete for EA Sports' NBA Live 15. The announcement, which preceded Team USA's decision to cut him from its final roster, is one of several signs that Lillard's Q rating is continuing to grow.
Lillard wasn't always this well known. A lightly recruited Oakland kid who was overlooked by many of the top schools he initially sought out, the East Bay product ended up taking his talents to Weber State in Utah. After averaging nearly 20 points per game as a sophomore, he came home for the summer looking to play in the long-standing San Francisco Pro-Am. He was eager to show the Bay Area they'd missed out on showcasing one of their own at a prominent in-state school. But when Lillard arrived, the unthinkable happened.
"They didn't even put me in the game," Lillard told SB Nation.
The man who became the best Bay Area hoops product in years couldn't get any run in a local pro-am.
Lillard would instead continue to develop his game in Ogden and surged up draft boards until Portland took him sixth overall in 2012. From there, the familiar story we know began to unravel. He was the clear Rookie of the Year in his first season, an NBA All-Star in his second and the subject of one of the most iconic highlights in recent history: his series-clinching jumper to beat the Houston Rockets in Game 6.
That shot alone propelled Lillard to a new level, one he's now trying to downplay. Talking about these indelible achievements often seems like a chore. Lillard is appreciative of the praise, but he's wary of buying into it. When asked about that shot, he initially perked up when mentioning interactions with James Harden and then-Rocket Chandler Parsons while at Team USA's camp.
"Every time I had the ball and shot the ball near Chandler, he'd say that the ball's going in every time," Lillard chuckled.
But after he laughed a few times, he tightened up, as if he was telling himself not to enjoy the moment too much.
"I'm over it," he said. "It happened so long ago, I'm already thinking about next season."
Still, the response he's received this offseason from the general public validates his arrival as a star. He introduced Drake at the 2014 ESPYs, where he was nominated for two awards. He made a hilarious cameo appearance stealing Dave Franco's girlfriend in the epic Madden NFL 15 commercial. He was one of several stars who were supposed to appear in an unsanctioned Philippines event that the NBA controversially squashed in July. Now, he's the cover boy for NBA Live 2015. All walks of life are learning Lillard's story.
"As soon as I stepped off the plane everyone recognized me," Lillard said about his time in the Philippines. "They knew everything about me."
That recognition comes with increased expectations, but Lillard's always zipped by every obstacle in his path. The slight of not being picked for Team USA's final 12-man roster is fuel for another huge step in his career arc. Could he become the best point guard in the NBA? It's kind of up for grabs. Could he become an MVP candidate? A long shot, but never say never. Could he lead the Blazers deep into the NBA playoffs? The West is loaded, but the Blazers do have arguably the best all-around starting five in the league.
Lillard's career is still very much on the rise. Soon, there'll be even more endorsement opportunities.