When he was in 10th grade, Damian Lillard was T’d up for celebrating what should’ve been a game-winning bucket by ripping off his shirt—an illegal move in the world of high school basketball—and the ensuing free throw lost his team the game. Nowadays, when he drops in a buzzer-beater, Dame’s face stays stone cold. Point being: Portland’s star PG was heavily influenced by his upbringing, and he still carries the Oakland streets he grew up on with him every day. We spoke with the 25-year-old about his Bay Area roots.
SLAM: What are your earliest basketball memories?
Damian Lillard: Just shooting from across the street with the rounded curb and then it bounced back and hit the street—just learning how to shoot like that. Shooting on the street with my cousins. Shooting on milk crates on telephone poles. We had tree branches that were shaped like a hoop—it was a branch that came off of the tree that looped around like the front of the rim. So we would be shooting over it like it was the front of the rim.
SLAM: You grew up in a rough part of East Oakland—who kept you on the basketball path?
DL: My dad. He was just always pushing me to do things. Before I played on the AAU team, he was like, “Man, I got this traveling team you can play on. You’ll get to meet new people.” That was in, like, the fifth grade. When I started doing that, that’s a whole summer of practice, tournaments, traveling. So that’s taking me out of Oakland enough for the summer. That’s where I grew that serious love for it and wanted to be a part of it. So I give a lot of credit to him.
SLAM: I know you had a run-in with Steve Francis at a young age. Do you remember meeting any other players or coaches when you were growing up?
DL: The one with Steve Francis, that was the only real run-in that I had that was just him standing there. But me and my brother used to sneak in the back at Golden State games all the time. We’d be right outside their locker room when they were going to the parking lot. We would meet them all the time. That was like Adonal Foyle, Tony Farmer, Mookie Blaylock.
SLAM: Who were your favorite players?
DL: I was a fan of Mookie. I liked Chris Mills. I was a fan of Antawn Jamison, Larry Hughes, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson. All those guys.
SLAM: If we were walking around Oakland and I asked you to bring me to the one place that was really crucial for your basketball development, where would we go?
DL: To the rec center. That helped my growth a lot. Going there, playing against all the older kids. There was one full court and two baskets on each side. There was somebody playing on each one, every day. If you wanted to play, you had to compete. If you wanted the court, you had to play. You couldn’t be scared. People got mad and one thing led to another and fighting broke out and all kinda stuff. You coming on your own, you gotta defend yourself and be willing to play against bigger kids. That situation was huge for my growth.
SLAM: Did you play outside much?
DL: Yeah. The neighborhood I grew up in, there’s an elementary school in the neighborhood, and they had outside courts. And the rims were super low, like 7.5, 8 feet. So we would go hoop over there so we could dunk.
SLAM: Do you remember the first NBA jersey you owned?
DL: A Miami Heat jersey. I got it at All-Star Weekend. It was 2000. All-Star Weekend was in Oakland. I remember I got a Miami Heat jersey, but I put my name and number on it. I don’t know where it is now, I’m pretty sure if I go back to my dad’s house in Oakland, it’s somewhere in there.
SLAM: How about your first ball?
DL: I was like 10. My first Spalding ball—my dad ordered it off Eastbay Magazine. I’d take it to the rec—I actually left it up there. I had it for a whole summer and then toward the end of the summer I left it in the gym one day and I haven’t seen it since.
Adam Figman is a Senior Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @afigman.
Image via Getty
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