LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. — Damian Lillard has a story to tell. Its origin is rooted in the one you’ve heard before about the under-recruited kid from Oakland and mid-major unknown who became Rookie of the Year, guided by an irresistible ethos of hard work and disarming confidence. All of that is prologue for a natural storyteller who understands when a narrative has run its course. He’s done with the point guard lists. He’s over his frustration about the All-Star Game snub.
"I’ve always been driven by the odds," Lillard says. "My story that everybody talks about, being counted out from Day One, people put me at a disadvantage. I wanted to work hard enough to rise above it. I’m at the point where I’ve accomplished so much just from working hard. I’ve seen the results. Now I’m just trying to be my best self."
It’s a week before training camp starts on an impossibly beautiful day in the Pacific Northwest with a high sun overhead and gentle breezes blowing off the Willamette River caressing the city in a warm embrace. Everyone in the city is outdoors enjoying the late summer glow. Lillard is here at the Trail Blazers’ practice facility getting his work done.
That part is not unusual. He lives nearby, just a short drive from the gym. He gets to work early, laying the foundation for the new-look Blazers for whom he is no longer merely an important cog in a machine, but the entire engine itself. With four starters gone from a team that won 105 games the last two seasons, Lillard is establishing the standard. He flew to Las Vegas — in coach, no less — to sit on the bench during summer league games. He organized workouts both here and in San Diego where he and his new teammates bonded over lifting sessions, team lunches, and a Padres game.
The goal of the California trip, Lillard says, was not so they could know each other as basketball players, but so they could understand one another as people. He wanted to know them on a first-name basis and they, in turn, to know what they could expect from their point guard. "Now that they know me from that trip," he says, "They’re going to know that everything I say comes from a good place."
This is Lillard’s team now, a transition that happened suddenly over a few weeks in July when the Blazers’ core scattered to the free agent winds, but has been building steadily over the last few years. He was a unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year, a two-time All-Star and a third-team all-NBA selection, but those are just words in the bio. "He clearly has the game," general manager Neil Olshey says. "He has the resume. But it’s the other things that he brings to the table."
Olshey had scouted Lillard for several years as GM with the Clippers before landing in Portland in 2012. He loved Lillard’s shooting ability and the way he carried himself. He had been in town barely a week when Lillard arrived for his pre-draft workout. The two went out to dinner and promptly got lost, which gave them a chance to really talk. Olshey was impressed by what he called Lillard’s "gravitas" and "composure." He had seen the same qualities in Chauncey Billups during his final season with the Clippers, and he saw them in the 21-year-old point guard.
"By the time I got to the restaurant," Olshey says. "I knew he was our guy."
This is a story about a basketball player, but it’s not really about basketball. The points and assists will happen, just as the wins and losses will inevitably follow. As his coach Terry Stotts says, "The ball’s going to be in his hands but I don’t see how he could score more, take more shots. It’s much more the intangibles, which are difficult to measure."
This is about a 25-year-old man, no longer a kid, who is entrusted with the future of a franchise. His team may be underdogs in the hyper-competitive Western Conference, but that time is over now for Dame. He’s the franchise player for a team that’s starting over. He’ll be responsible for all of it, the good and the bad, and his teammates will look to him to set the tone and establish the expectations.
He’s used to this kind of pressure. He was the franchise player at Weber State, where he put the school on the basketball map. He’s a franchise player for adidas, one of their signature athletes with his own shoe line. He’s a franchise player for the Special Olympics and for an anti-bullying campaign he founded upon entering the league. He’s the franchise player for his hometown, where he carries the Oakland mantle proudly.
"I mean, I am," Lillard says. "People say stuff like, he’s not a franchise player or this guy is a franchise player, but the franchise makes that decision. I didn’t make that decision. The franchise did. It’s more than being the best player on the team, especially with a young team like the one we have. You’re the example and the standard is here."
In Terry Stotts’ office there is a photo of the five: Wes Matthews, Nic Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez and, in the middle, Dame. They were a special group in the team’s history, the one that restored pride for a franchise that had lost its way amid such doomed ventures as the notorious Jail Blazers and the late 2000s Dynasty That Never Was. These Blazers appeared out of nowhere, a fully-formed unit that complimented each other’s games and rekindled the city’s love affair with the team.
The 2014 Blazers were a revelation. Led by the starting five that played the second-most minutes of any group in the league, they won 54 games and knocked off the Rockets in an epic six-game series. That series win was their first in 15 years and was punctuated by the precocious Lillard draining a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer. The 2015 Blazers may have been even better. In early March, they were 41-19 and cruising to a potentially deep postseason run when Matthews, the Iron Man, tore his Achilles.
"Everything hinged on Wes’ Achilles," Stotts says. "That skewed everything. We were playing very good basketball. Depending on matchups and everything I thought we could have a good run. Not just that year, but moving forward."
That night was the beginning of the end. The Blazers went 10-12 down the stretch and were easily dispatched in five frustrating games by the Grizzlies. Afterward, it was noted by people in the organization that Lillard stuck around the locker room and answered all the questions about their collapse and his own sub-par performance. During their run there was a tension that bubbled underneath, imperceptible much of the time, but present nonetheless. From the moment Olshey arrived, drafted Lillard and hired Stotts, Aldridge’s free agent clock was ticking.
"We didn’t inherit the happiest player on Earth in LaMarcus," Olshey says. "To LaMarcus’ credit we asked him to give us a year. We couldn’t turn it around day one. He was the best player on a losing team and we were asking him to be the best player on a losing team again. We had a three-year plan with that group. We couldn’t ask LaMarcus to be in a long-term rebuild, so we had to make a decision."
To Olshey, the organization was working on separate, but parallel tracks. There was the veteran core and the development group. To the former, he added free agents on short-term contracts that were set to expire at the same time as his starters. To the latter, he drafted players like Meyers Leonard and C.J. McCollum. On draft night, Olshey added center Mason Plumlee, who he felt could play with both Aldridge and Leonard. The Blazers could have gone either way. Everything hinged on Aldridge’s decision.
Whenever a star player leaves a good team, there will be whispers of discontent that follow in his wake. There are those who felt that Aldridge was bothered by Lillard’s popularity and those who feel that any rift was overblown. Yet, both players have downplayed any issues between them and they clearly thrived together on the court.
"Our relationship was fine," Lillard says. "Me and LA never had an argument. People are searching for something that’s not there. When you have two All-Stars on the same team and one of them decides to leave, it’s automatically, ‘They didn’t get along.’ We had back-to-back 50-win seasons. We both made the All-Star team. We played through him and after that it was me and that was that. We played well together. We never had an issue."
Right up until the very end when Aldridge chose San Antonio, the Blazers felt like they were in the mix. When he left, the team’s transformation really began. Where once they were experienced and dependable, the Blazers are now young and unformed. A third of their players are working under their rookie deals and another third are recent second-rounders and undrafted players. Even the vets are young. In the wake of Aldridge’s departure, Olshey asked his new franchise player if he was comfortable with the direction they were going to take.
"This was not done without Dame’s participation," Olshey says. "If he was at all reticent, if he said it would be great if you could get me another vet to help out, we would have gone out and found a couple of other guys to take the pressure off of him. He’s not that kind of kid. He embraces it. He thrives on it."
In March, a Weber State professor named Vel Casler traveled to Portland. Lillard had left Weber a few credits shy of earning his degree in professional sales and he continued to work toward its completion. Prof and student worked for several hours on an off day. Lillard had taken Casler’s Senior Capstone course and the pupil had made an impression on the teacher. "A lot of students have to take some number of classes, so they’re in your class but they’re not really there," Casler says. "Damian was interested in learning."
Lillard had a 10-page paper to write on all he had learned as an undergrad that would prepare him for a post-graduate career. For his final project, Lillard wrote about using lessons from a class on negotiation to secure a reported nine-figure deal with adidas. Lillard had made a promise to his mother Gina that he would finish college, but he also made a promise to himself to actually earn his degree.
"I spent those four years going to class," Lillard says. "I wasn’t just some basketball player that knew I was going to the NBA. I went, I learned. If we weren’t on a road trip I never missed class. I felt like I owed it to myself to finish."
In May, Lillard went back to Utah for his graduation. During the ceremony, the university president, Charles A. Wight, called on various groups in the graduating class of over 5,000 students to rise. Then Wight turned to the stage and asked, "How many of you were Rookie of the Year and a two-time All-Star?" The arena erupted in cheers as Lillard addressed his fellow grads in an impromptu speech that thanked many who had helped him, including Casler.
There were other memorable moments from this past summer, including an adidas-sponsored tour of China, Japan and France, where Lillard met fans who did their own version of #4BarFridays in their native languages. He also went to great lengths to secure gyms to get in workouts. One was a glorified cafeteria with bent rims. Another was so hot that a fan was brought in along with a giant block of ice that melted all over the court.
In late July, Lillard attended the Special Olympics in Los Angeles as a global ambassador. He marched with the U.S team into the Coliseum and spent a day at the aquatics center for a swim meet. As a freshman at Weber, Lillard was struck by the athletes he met at a team-sponsored event and vowed to continue working with the organization when he made it to the league. "That was one of the best experiences of my life," he says. "Every opportunity that I get, I’m in."
Lillard also worked on his music, recording tracks for as-yet unreleased EP. He starts with a beat and then comes up with a concept for his verses. He writes everything down, often in his phone. His stories are personal and drawn from his own experiences.
"I don’t think people can deal with somebody that gives you the real them," Lillard says. "They see so much artificial stuff that’s what they’re used to. When I didn’t make the All-Star Game and I said how I felt about it, it was, ‘Oh he’s whining and he’s crying,’ instead of accepting this is how I feel about the situation. I take pride in writing my story, how I feel about stuff, and I make it into music and I put it out. Instead of them accepting the fact that this how I’m expressing myself they say, ‘Oh, he want to be a rapper.’"
Lillard shakes his head. You can almost hear the beat forming and the verses starting to flow.
"They say I want to do all this for adidas and I want to peddle shoes. They say that instead of saying that he wants to put out a quality product. That should say more about who I am, that I want it to be the best it can be. The first thing I do every day is come to the gym at 8:30. That’s the first five hours of my day," Lillard says in his typically measured monotone. "I’m going to be no good to this organization if I leave here and go somewhere else and shoot somewhere else. At some point I’m going to go home and watch more basketball. If a person has one job — a regular person with a regular job — if they get another job, they applaud them for working two jobs. They’re working hard. If I play in the NBA and I put out some music then I’m wrong for doing something else. It’s weird."
We live in the age of branding, where one’s personal value is rooted in some vague notion of authenticity. Social media has brought us all closer together and it has also raised the stakes. The old ways of pitching a product or creating a persona can vanish in the time it takes to send one ill-considered message or be caught in an unflattering moment. Lillard’s appeal is that he is entirely normal. From his music to his endorsements to his social media presence, what you see is what you get.
"It’s not a facade. It’s not me trying to play a role," Lillard says. "I’m just being myself. I can be comfortable because of that. There are people who really know me that can vouch for everything I say when I’m rapping. I have people ask me all the time, ‘who does your Instagram, who does your Twitter? You should let us do your stuff.’ I’m like, ‘That’s me.’ Personally, I think that they believe that athletes aren’t smart enough to handle themselves right on the Internet or using social media."
The same dynamic that attracted Olshey to Lillard as a basketball player is what captivated Chris Grancio and adidas. What’s striking about their descriptions of Lillard is how closely they parallel one another.
"When we had a chance to get to know him, he just carries himself with a demeanor that you can read that he’s going to be special," Grancio, the head of global basketball operations, says. "You knew he had the work ethic. He has a special dynamic in terms of how he wanted to engage with his fans, which is really special. He just had that IT factor."
Or, as Olshey put it: "Why are there hundreds of guys and girls in Los Angeles and they all look identical and one’s a movie star and one’s a waiter? At the end of the day you go, ‘I see IT.’ With Dame, he made it much easier to see than some other guys."
Lillard’s partnership with adidas is instructive. He wore the company’s shoes in college and elected to stay with them after turning pro. Lillard’s a loyal guy, but he and his agents are also savvy and they bet big on his abilities. The Goodwins had a clause in the deal that allowed Lillard to opt out if he reached certain performance-based parameters, which he did following his second season. Word of a major new deal became public just before he made his playoff debut against the Rockets, a series that was ended by Lillard’s 3-pointer at the buzzer. It was the biggest shot in a decade and a half for the Blazers, and proof that yes, Dame had IT.
"Dame’s got a special part in our brand," Grancio says. "He is absolutely one of the three or four guys that we plan on building our business around in the future."
Lillard’s branding essentially involves telling his story. It began back in college when he was injured during his junior year and the Big Sky Conference lent him a camera to record a project called, ‘Dame’s Diary.’ During the pre-draft process, he and his representatives from the Goodwin agency worked on another video series called, ‘Licensed to Lillard,’ that chronicled his rise from under-recruited guard to big-time prospect. By the time Portland called his name on draft night, he was no longer an unknown but a fully-formed character with a relatable tale.
"Damian is an incredibly hard-working, honest, genuine person," Grancio says. "That’s a real easy story to tell. Yes, he’s a fearless and intense competitor. That’s also an easy story to tell. When we talk about how do we bring Damian’s story to the public, it really writes itself. That’s not a disservice to our marketing folks, but it does give us a chance to tell really honest, clear stories about his point of view, his journey, coming out of Oakland, playing at Weber State, getting drafted sixth, coming to Portland. He’s always been on a journey to prove a point."
His endorsements are many, but he and his agents choose them carefully. In addition to sneakers, his name is attached to everything from Coach to State Farm, with video games (EA Sports), basketballs (Spalding) and headphones (JBL) in between. "The word, ‘Authentic’ comes into play again," his agent Eric Goodwin says. "We sit down and talk to him. What do you like?"
In September, Lillard released a line of gear and an adidas shoe collaboration with Oaklandish, a local brand that began as a public art project. "I wear their stuff all the time," he says. "Everything I do with adidas I try to tie it into something that’s a part of me or from my past. That’s my roots."
Lillard has another story to tell. Last summer he was home for a BBQ when a cousin asked him to take a photo. He was tired and begged off. The cousins joked about it, but word got back to his father who called him over. "My dad is no-nonsense," he says. "He was like, ‘We don’t do that fake stuff.’ That’s where it comes from."
There’s a seriousness about Lillard that belies his young age. He doesn’t talk trash on the court. He texts his former professors with well wishes and his shoe company with design ideas. He’ll carry Oakland with him forever — proudly — and yet he loves the slow pace of life in the Pacific Northwest. He’s become a national presence in a small market tucked away in a far corner of the country, but treats the everyday people who work for the Blazers the same way he did when he was a rookie. He makes a ton of money and likes not spending it.
Lillard carries himself throughout his day with the same self-assuredness that allows him to take over games down the stretch and handle the pressures and responsibilities of crunch time. It’s in those moments that his character is revealed and put on display for millions to see. He’s unhurried, calm, confident. It’s impossible to separate the man from his game.
"I want people to know that I’m a very unbothered person," Lillard says. "People don’t really know me, but they think they do. You can’t bug me. It takes a lot to piss me off. I want people to know that, because they feel like I get bothered by stuff more than I do."
He will be tested this season with an unproven supporting cast, but he wants the challenge. If they fail collectively, the burden will fall on his shoulders. That’s the cost of being so open and accessible, but realness demands accountability. That’s how he built his brand. That’s how he lives his life. "I can handle it," he says. "I’ll be fine."
Damian Lillard has a story to tell and he doesn’t mind sharing it. His journey has taken him this far, fueled in part by the doubts of others. Now as he assumes his most important role, being his best self and the franchise player the Blazers need, Lillard’s motivation comes from within.
Lead Photo: adidas
Editor: Elena Bergeron
Design & Development: Graham MacAree