Damian Lillard’s stoic manner allows for no tells. “This must be from ’96. What is this, a 3X?”
Movement ensues and wonderment begins. Is he serious? Does he need another shirt? Is he upset? It’s hard to read Damian Lillard. It’s clear that he isn’t happy with the fit of the tank top he’s been given for an upcoming camera interview—too baggy for the Kanye era. People tug at his shirt from behind, attempting to tighten the fit at all angles. Suddenly, Dame breaks character with a smile. He’s just razzing his boy from adidas, JR Duperrier, giving him some shit about the tank just for fun, lightening the atmosphere in the process.
Dame’s agent, Aaron Goodwin, is in the building, as are several executives from adidas and a few members of the media. Lillard is feeling good, rested from a long season of nearly 100 games, a year in which he helped lead the Blazers to a shockingly successful 54-win regular season.
The suite at the Loews Santa Monica Hotel overlooks the Pacific Ocean, the bright blue waves feel close, as if the room is filled with sand. Lillard doesn’t like to vacation; his off-season movements usually reside on the West Coast, where he feels at home. He’s here to do some work with his partners at adidas and right now he seems to be at ease while pontificating on the significance of the wildcat print on his PE of the Crazylight Boost. His verses are polished as he sits under the lights with the camera rolling—it’s amazing to think how much he has accomplished during the course of his first two seasons of the NBA.
He dominated the 2012 Summer League, channeling the momentum into the real season to win NBA Rookie of the Year. Following year, he’s an All-Star, becoming the first player ever to participate in all five of the weekend’s showcase events. Off the court, he became one of the most important assets for adidas, pushing the brand forward through his unique style of play and creative use of social media networks. It all came together for Lillard in year two in Portland; he led the Blazers to the Playoffs, capping off his first post-season appearance with the signature moment of his career: a buzzer beating game-winning three-pointer in Game 6 versus Houston, clinching the series on his home court.
The clutch play that Lillard describes as “the best moment of my career” was glorious on the surface, complemented by a backstory illustrating his leadership.
With the Blazers down 2 points with 0.9 seconds remaining, Nic Batum was inbounding the ball at halfcourt, with the play call being a lob to LaMarcus Aldridge in the post on the near side, while his teammates spread out on the opposite end of the court, essentially giving him a one-on-one look on his favorite block. When the huddle broke prior to the play, Blazers guard Mo Williams pulled Lillard aside and told him to come to the ball and shoot a three to win it. He initially resisted the encouragement and cited the play but Williams stressed it again. When the ref handed Batum the ball, Dwight Howard fronted Aldridge deep in the post, complicating the pass.
Lillard’s instincts took over: He broke off from the wing, curling to the top of the key, above the three-point line. Batum hit him in stride and in one quick beautiful motion, the ball went up and through the net—it was a wrap. The roots of Lillard’s decision to break off his assignment trace back to the Blazers training camp in October. Coach Terry Stotts had told the team that they were in for a special season and what needed to occur for their goals to fall in place. The key element resided in the players holding each other accountable.
“Everything can’t come from the coaches,” Lillard explains. “If I’m not playing a good game or not playing hard enough, it’s up to LaMarcus to say something to me and vice versa. Once everybody understood that’s what needed to happen, it showed throughout the season. We pushed each other, not accepting the limit and pushing each other past that.”
Several veteran free agent signings were also a key piece to the Blazers resurgence. “It was huge for us to add vets like Earl Watson, Robin Lopez, Dorrell Wright,” Dame says. “It obviously made our team better, because of what they’ve experienced in the League—the togetherness.”
The Blazers are undoubtedly on the right trajectory in the West. They will be a fierce squad in the coming years, and Lillard is a big reason why. He’s an NBA star now and his ascent into that upper tier has changed his life. Two years ago, most basketball fans were trying to figure out who he was—now he receives hate messages on Twitter from fanatics of his opponents.
He loves hanging out at the mall and going to movies, but those days are gone. “If I try to go to a movie now, I’ll never actually make my movie,” he says. He can no longer enjoy a few moments to himself over a meal at his two favorite Portland eateries—Wingstop and Benihana—without numerous requests for autographs and photos. He’s not complaining, just reeling off some of the changes to his everyday life. “Anybody that wants to pursue a career as a professional athlete has to understand that this all comes with it,” Lillard says. “And I think it’s worth it.”
He’s thankful for the support because he understands what it’s like to not be wanted. When Dame attended prestigious St. Joseph Notre Dame High as a sophomore, he had a difficult time acclimating to his new surroundings at the private basketball powerhouse in Alameda, best known for producing Jason Kidd. His peers became kids that were going to make it no matter what, something he wasn’t accustomed to.
“I had a barrier up, if somebody said something to me, I was mad,” he says. “I had an attitude.” His advancement on the court was non-existent. He couldn’t get any playing time and when he opted to transfer to Oakland High, he was invisible. “Transferring didn’t matter because nobody knew who I was,” Lillard recalls. “Basically I was trying to find a way to make a name for myself, find minutes. My parents didn’t want me to go there, it wasn’t in an area my parents wanted me in. It turned out being perfect for me.”
Lillard found his lane. Success at Weber State brought notice from adidas, who has been on board since day one. Being in Portland near the company’s US headquarters has aided in the growth of his relationship with the brand. He’s a frequent visitor to the adidas offices, constantly offering his input and tastes—feedback that is much appreciated by the brand.
“It’s great how much they respect my opinion, I realize I can call [the guys in adidas Basketball] and I can say something to them and it’s not like, ‘Whatever,’” Lillard says. “If I see a random shoe I like or a certain pattern I think will be good on a shoe, I will take it to them. Like this shoe here [picks up his PE], I always brought up the wildcat/cheetah print. They didn’t do this because of me, but they knew it would be something I’d like. It shows me that they’re always working on something in my favor; they want to have something that I like. Every time I have brought something to them, they took action. And that showed me that they respected me and understood what I liked. I’m thankful for how they’ve been able to work with me.”
The wildcat print on Lillard’s PE of the Crazylight Boost pays homage to his Oakland High and Weber State lineage. “I like having the Boost part of the shoe because when you’re an athletic guard in this League trying to grab rebounds and get over big guys, you get fouled constantly coming down,” Lillard says. “That can take a toll on your body. This shoe is more efficient on my heels, it has great traction and with how I change direction, that’s helpful. It’s important for me to have a comfortable shoe with cushioning inside of it. And it’s a good looking shoe.”