Damian Lillard is as humble as he is talented. When Kobe Bryant penned an open letter to the game of basketball announcing his retirement, my mind wandered like a car rolling through a poorly illuminated highway in the darkness of night. My thoughts were scattered, as I was trying to find the answer to which athlete would I intently watch in the immediate future.
It didn’t take me long to rest on two options: Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard. They both wear the same number, and both want to win more than anything.
A few hours before the Blazers played in Philadelphia recently—and a few hours after the Flyers played their nemesis the New York Rangers—Lillard was warming-up, stretching, and putting up shots. I wasn’t too far away, as I got some photos, recorded video, and took mental notes on how he prepared for the Sixers. On my way to shootaround, I listened to some of his music (The Villains, Full Stomach, and Dead Presidents are some favorites) to mentally prepare for our conversation.
Dame sat courtside after he was finished (typically the stars will go back into the locker room), and after telling me I looked familiar (we’ve never spoken) we talked about a bevy of topics, including the difference and reasons for playing at at small school/program, versus a big time university.
“The grind and the whole mindset from growing up in Oakland is what allowed me to get here, but I think everybody has their own journey, everybody has their own story to write,” Lillard said. “For some guys they’re big time high school athletes and they go to the big schools because that’s the level that they should be playing at. For some other guys they go to a smaller school, but it’s all about developing, working hard and getting results. When I went to Weber State I wasn’t an NBA player. When I went to Weber, I didn’t belong at Kentucky. I wouldn’t have played, but I went to Weber State which is where I was good enough to play at the time, and I just continued to work and got better.”
He has a very calm, cool resolve about him, a testament to his wisdom and maturity. Right now his team is playing to find ways to consistently win, and because of that he doesn’t accept losing in the least bit. After losing by double digits in Philly, he gave no excuse: “It all comes down to respecting your opponent and doing the things to give yourself a chance to win the game, and we didn’t do that.”
When the team leader says things like that, people take notice. Lillard has the work ethic, humility, and desire to take Rip City to a higher level. Have patience, Portland.
Anthony Gilbert is a SLAM contributor. Follow him on Twitter.