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Loyalty Over Everything

Dec 10 2019
Photo by
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
Photo by
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
Damian Lillard
Portland Trail Blazers
Dec 10 2019

Dude pulled a gun out the pillowcase. Pulled a gun out the pillowcase and drew on the guy. It started over nothing.

Southeast Oakland, middle of the afternoon, 106th and Bancroft. The neighborhood neighborhood. Right by our grandma’s house. Me and my brother Houston were on our way home from the barbershop, talking about whatever. I’m 10. He’s 13. So probably talking about whatever nonsense Stone Cold just did to Vince McMahon on Monday Night Raw.

We turn the corner, two blocks from our grandma’s house.

Two cars in the middle of the street. Two grown men. One guy gets out, talking crazy. Other guy gets out, talking, “I’ll kill you.”

There’s things you don’t forget, you know? I can still hear these dudes.

Pulled a gun out the pillowcase and drew on the guy.

“Man, you ain’t gonna do s***.”

“Motherf*****, I’ll kill you.”

Here we go. They about to fight. We’re standing on the corner, 40 feet away. My brother’s Spidey senses are tingling. He’s pulling at my shirt, like, “D, come on. Let’s go.”

But I’m getting older, right? I’m not trying to run. I’m trying to see this. My brother’s pulling at me, pulling at me.

Then, I’ll never forget, the one dude ducks back into the car. Grabs something from the passenger seat. Pulls out a pillowcase.

“You think I’m playing?”

Dude takes a gun out the pillowcase. My brother will tell you it was a shotgun. I just remember it was big. Time froze.

Three o’clock in the afternoon. Middle of the street. Nobody around. It’s us two and them two. Dude is holding up the shotgun, about to kill the guy. My brother takes off running. He’d seen it before, you know what I mean? Just a reflex.

But I was young. I’d never seen it before.

So I freeze. I’m kind of hypnotized. I’m kind of drawn to it. I want to see what’s gonna happen.

Then I just remember the sound of my brother’s footsteps. He’s coming back for me, and he’s yelling, “You don’t wanna see this, bruh!”

He grabs me by the shirt and starts dragging me away.

“You don’t wanna see this!”

We turn around and take off running toward our grandma’s house. It’s three in the afternoon in the neighborhood. Dead quiet. Sun shining. Dogs in the yard. We’re running, running, running. We’re not looking back. We’re just waiting to hear the sound.

Waiting to hear the sound. Waiting to hear the sound.

We’re not looking back.


Courtesy of the Lillard Family

People think they know how deep this goes. You really have no idea. Everything I am, it goes back to where I’m from.

This story isn’t for everybody. I don’t usually talk like this, but I’m telling this story for the people who know about selling See’s candy on Fourth Street in Berkeley for travel money.

I’m doing it for the people who know about Brookfield rec and hot chips and Sprite.

For the people who know about the WWF Cumberbund Championship Belt.

This story is for you.

We gotta go back to the beginning. This didn’t start with basketball. Go on and ask my bro. I was not trying to be an NBA player. I wasn’t trying to go to the league and play for the Lakers or whatever. When I was seven, eight years old?

Everything I am, it goes back to where I’m from.

The league wasn’t the plan.

I was trying to be the Ultimate Warrior, bruh.

I was about it. Go on and ask my brother. We’re not for the fake or the phony in this story. Bring him out.

Dame’s brother, Houston: This fool … listen. One time we were Christmas shopping at Old Navy — me, Damian and my mom. I’m like 11, Dame’s 8. Mom’s got us looking at some polo shirts or whatever, and I turn around and this fool is strutting down the aisles, flexing. He’s going up to random strangers in the khaki aisle like, “Ohhhhhhh, yeah, brother!”

My mom starts chasing him, trying to straighten him out. And he’s running down the aisles, just turning to random people, like “Whatcha gonna do, brother?” Turning to another one, “Whoa yeahhhhh, runnin’ wild, brother!” I’m dying. I’m like, What is this dude doing? Hulk Hogan had just won the belt the night before, so Dame was Hulk Hogan for the whole weekend. He became him. Running up on Old Navy shoppers talking about his “24-inch pythons.”

That’s just the dog in me coming out. Me and Houston shared a bedroom until he was in high school, and it was like East Oakland Wrestlemania in there — I’m talking every single night. Going for the belt. But it wasn’t the normal WWF belt. We had to be creative. When my grandmother had her 50th birthday party, she made all the boys wear the old-school tuxedos with the silk cumberbund. So that was perfect. My cumberbund became the Undisputed Lillard Family Heavyweight Belt.

Hou was so much bigger than me, so I’d make him fight on his knees. And I still don’t think I ever pinned him. He was like 900-0, but I’d come running in the room every night while he was trying to chill. I’d walk in super gully wearing my Mankind mask, like, “Let’s go, Hou. No DQs. Hardcore rules.”

Houston: I used to whup his ass every single night. I had to prepare him. Growing up in Oakland, it’s a lot of chiefs and not a whole lot of Indians out there, you know what I mean? When you go outside, you gotta have your boots strapped up, or you’re getting your lunch took. And I’m not trying to have a soft little bro. So I’d whup him every night. And the next night, at some point, he’d come back for more, hollering, “Hou! Hou! Come be Triple H!”

Knowing me, you know, I was probably trying to talk to a girl on the phone or something, and I’d be like, “No.”

He’d be like, “O.K., come be Bam Bam Bigelow!”

I’d be like, “No.”

He’d come back 10 minutes later with a tie-dye shirt, a leather mask and a grimy-ass white sock. Mr. Socko. Remember that? And this wasn’t like the official WWF merchandise, O.K.? Dame used to make this stuff himself. Arts and crafts. I don’t know how he did it.

So he’s like, “Come on, Hou! I’ll let you be Mankind tonight.”

Relentless. I’m like, “Alright, alright.”

I hang up the phone. I get on my knees. He’s like, “No, no, we gotta do our entrances.” Dude used come in singing his own theme song. So I get up to do my entrance, and Dame throws me the tie-dye shirt.

He’s like, “I’m Mankind. You Dude Love.”

Sam Robles/The Players' TribuneIt was war. We were so competitive. The basketball thing only started for real when I skipped school one day to hang out with Hou and one of my older cousins. I faked sick, and they let me come play 21 at the park with them.

They were swatting me. Doing the Mutumbo no-no-no, bruh. Doing the Iverson crossovers. They were busting my ass. That probably changed my whole life, for real. Because I was so competitive with my brother that it was like, “You laughing, huh? I’m about to devote my whole life to this.”

I was hot.

You know in comic books, when the villain whups the superhero before he really becomes the superhero? When he’s just a regular dude? And he’s sitting there all beat up, plotting his revenge, like, “I must … get … stronger.”

That was me at the park. I literally went off by myself, like, O.K. … O.K. … we’ll see.

Thing about it was, I had to use my imagination. We always had to take the bus to my grandma’s after school — me and all my cousins. I don’t think there was one real basketball hoop in her whole neighborhood. But she had this oak tree out in her front yard, and somehow, by some miracle, there was this one branch at the top that curled into a circle. Just like a rim. That was my hoop.

Creativity was key, though. If the ball hit the front of the branch and went in, I’d never count it. On a real hoop, it would’ve rimmed out, you know? I’d come home from school and be out there shooting all day, pretending I was A.I. Older dudes from the neighborhood used to walk by and laugh, like Mannnnn, this little dude. But that was my whole world out there.

There was this one branch at the top that curled into a circle. Just like a rim. That was my hoop.

Then when I was like 10 … I’m not even really trying to talk about this.

Crazy.

I came home from school one day, and my grandma was already waiting for me at the back door, looking like the dog had died or something. She was like, “Damian, did they tell you?”

I said, “Tell me what?”

She said, “The city had to come and cut the tree down.”

I ran outside and it was gone. Just a stump, sitting there. I went crazy. My mom will tell you.

Dame’s mom, Gina: Oh, he lost it. He was beside himself. I thought he was going to have a nervous breakdown.

You gotta understand the environment. We couldn’t just be running around the streets. We were either at my grandma’s, or we could go up to the Brookfield rec center, but only with the whole family – I’m talking 12, 13 cousins. When the street lights came on, we had to be home. Home home. My granddad wasn’t playing about it. If you didn’t beat the street lights … no comment. So literally, we’d be playing in the gym and you’d hear somebody scream, “Hey! It’s getting dark!”

Cut to like 15 kids sprinting out the back doors of the rec. The whole gym used to clear out. That was just the reality, you know? We took it seriously. So a lot of the time, I was in the yard. Me and the tree. It really stretched my imagination. When the city cut that tree down, I was hot.

Courtesy of the Lillard Family

Couple of days later, I guess my granddad couldn’t take it anymore. He’s like, “Come on, help me out with something.” We walk down the street to the elementary school and he starts fishing around in the dumpster out back. He pulls out a couple of those plastic milk crates. I still had no idea what he was doing. We get home and he goes to the garage.

Couple of minutes later, he comes out holding this milk crate like, “Got you a new hoop.”

He sawed out the bottom. Nailed the crate to the telephone pole out in front of the house. New hoop. There was a street lamp right at the top of the pole, and it would shine down on the crate even when it got dark. I’d be out there shooting until 10 at night. That’s when I started getting really good. The pole was round so you couldn’t bank the ball in. And you weren’t getting a friendly bounce on a square rim. You had to hit it dead-on, wet.

And it was funny because the older dudes would be out on the corner selling drugs or doing whatever they were doing, and at first they’d come by kind of laughing like, “Come on, little dude, let me get a shot.”

But then they saw me out there every night getting buckets, so then it was like, “Come on, Dame, you can’t guard me, bruh.”

I’d be playing one-on-one or 21 with whoever came down the street. All comers. I didn’t care. Me and Hou used to play to 100, and if you hit a jumper over a car that was coming down the street it was 10 points. He’ll probably tell you that nine out of 10 games ended with me trying to swing on him, and then running for my life. This was real Oakland basketball. It’s different. This is what I came up playing. That’s what made me.

I mean, you should’ve seen my first real squad.

THE OAKLAND REBELS.

PROUDLY SPONSORED BY NOBODY.

Courtesy of the Lillard Family

We were like the Bad News Bears of Northern California AAU. We were all working-class kids. Our families didn’t have all this extra money lying around to go to tournaments, so we used to hustle. We used to take the BART to Berkeley and we’d be out on Fourth Street selling raffle tickets, magazine subscriptions, See’s candy bars, literally anything and everything.

I was that kid. You seen me. I was that kid coming up to you when you were coming out of the Starbucks like, “Excuse me, ma’am.”

And man, some of the looks we used to get. We were just trying to sell candy bars so we could get enough money to stay four-to-a-room in Reno or whatever, and people used to look at us like we were trying to get one over on them. That was really embarrassing. But on the flip side, those experiences made us all so tight.

Those are my guys, forever. They were like a second family. My best friend was PJ, and PJ’s dad was our assistant coach.

PHIL.

Phil was a legend.

He was a house painter, and he used to show up to our practices still in his painter’s pants. Paint splatters everywhere. He wouldn’t even change. Coach K in the white overalls, ready to go.

He was like a father figure/psychologist/trainer/stand-up comedian. Not just for me, but for all of us kids. He’s one of those guys in Oakland — and in a lot of other neighborhoods — who never get enough credit. You don’t know their names. They’re not training guys on Instagram. They’re still in the neighborhood. But those guys changed lives. Phil shaped my whole mentality.

I remember in seventh grade, we were in Sacramento for some tournament, and the whole team was in the hotel room, chilling. Dudes on the couch. Dudes on the bed. Dudes sitting on the floor. Dudes leaning against the wall.

Phil’s sitting there, doing what he does best. Capping on us. Talking about, “Y’all ain’t talking to no girls, man. What you talking to these girls about? Y’all ain’t doing that.”

You know the vibe. Phil is like, “What you kids know about rap? Y’all can’t rap.”

Dudes are saying, “I can rap. I got bars!”

So then P starts his little thing. I can still hear him. He puts up his fist, like he’s holding the mic. 

“Uh! Pass the mic, number one young brother. Pass mic, number two. Pass the mic, number three young brother. Young P … it’s on you.”

And then PJ would rap a few bars.

Then Phil would start again.

“Pass the mic.…”

I’ll never forget him saying, “Pass the mic, number three young brother. Young Dame … it’s on you.”

Everybody’s eyes on me. I was sitting on the floor like, Oh s***.

I don’t even know what I rapped. The point wasn’t that you were any good. The point was that you did it, whether you were comfortable or not. Ready or not — you ready. We took that whole persona on. We were about it. By the end of the year, we would be at the BART station on the way to some game, drumming on the seats, beatboxing, freestyling. Before every road trip, you came ready. You’d be in the shower trying to think of some cold bars for the next day. We’d be piled in Phil’s van driving through the middle of Texas, rapping about the grass, rapping about the cows, passing the mic.

We’d be piled in Phil’s van driving through the middle of Texas, rapping about the grass, rapping about the cows, passing the mic.

Phil introduced us to the whole Oakland mentality. We took it on. Sometimes, we’d play against bigger teams, and they looked the part, you know? They’d show up in their fancy warmups and all that, and they just looked like basketball players. That used to get in our heads at first.

We’d be rushing, turning the ball over. And Phil would beat the message into us. You should’ve heard this man.

“Where you boys from? You from the realest place on earth. You from East Oakland. You need to be gully. You need to be grimy. What are y’all afraid of? These kids out there, they haven’t seen half of what you’ve seen. So be poised. Be calm. Be ruthless. Let’s go.”

The first time I ever heard the word poise was from Phil. He had this mantra. We were supposed to repeat it to ourselves before we went out onto the floor. But you had to earn the mantra. You had to work so hard and be so prepared for war that you really believed it, you know what I mean?

It’s been 15 years, but go ask every single Oakland Rebel about the mantra and they could probably tell it to you, word for word. Go ask PJ He’ll tell you.

Dame’s friend, PJ: When you stepped out onto that court, you told yourself seven words, and you meant it: “Can’t nobody out here f*** with me.”

That was my whole mindset. Still is. When I step out on that court, I’m trying to take your soul. It’s not personal. Off the court, we’re cool. But when we get out there, it’s different. I’m not here to talk trash. I’m here to take the life out of you. That’s just what it is. That’s the Oakland in me. That’s Phil. That’s my brother, my cousins, my dad, my mom. That’s us.


Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

Dame’s mother, Gina: I used to tell them, “This is Oakland. There’s lions and tigers and bears out there. And if you want to be out there with the lions and tigers and bears? You can’t be a poodle.” You can have a kind heart — and Dame did. He really did. But he wasn’t a poodle.

Ruthless. That was the mentality. Once that clicked, I just took off. I had that conviction like, No, this is really going to happen. I’m really going to the league.

Houston: I can tell you the day I realized he was different. Dude was always forgetting his basketball stuff at home. He was in seventh grade, and I was up at the high school. My mom called me: “Dame forgot his bag again. He’s got a game. Can you come and get it? I’m like, Pssshh, no. I’m teaching this dude a lesson, right?

I turn up to his game in the second quarter, and Dame’s out there playing in khakis and a pair of Steve Maddens. Killing. In a polo shirt. I was rubbing my eyes. This fool dropped 37 on ’em in the brown Steve Maddens. Thirty-sev-en. I went back to my high school the next day, telling all my boys, “Hellllll no! Y’all gotta come see my little brother! This dude’s crazy!”

I remember the turning point. End of eighth grade. It was just a random Friday night, going into the weekend. Everybody was at my grandma’s after school. All the aunts and uncles came to pick everybody up. All the adults were sitting in the cars in the driveway, talking. All the kids playing in the yard. Sun’s going down. Nobody in a rush to leave. You know that vibe I’m talking about?

For some reason, I went to ask my mom something, and she was sitting in the car with the windows rolled up, talking to my two aunties. She didn’t look right. Just kind of defeated, you know? She was having some problems with her boss, and working overtime constantly, and I think she was just burned out with everything. She rolled down the window, and I could see how stressed she was. I asked if she was O.K.

She said she was fine, and I knew she was lying.

And I don’t even know why it came over me, but it came over me.

I was like, “We’re gonna be alright. You know that, right? I’m going to the NBA.”

I mean, I’m 12. She kind of looked at me like, “Is he serious?”

I was like, “We’re gonna be alright. You know that, right? I’m going to the NBA.”

There was a show that was on TV at the time, Beyond the Glory. All these superstars would tell the stories of their lives. But it was stuff you never knew they had to overcome. I used to watch it all the time. So I was telling them my Beyond the Glory story, right in the driveway.

And everybody started laughing at me. All my aunties, cracking up.

But I just kept going through everything. All the things we’d been through, all the fights, all the things we’d seen, all the ups and downs. It ended with me in the league. I remember, when I got about half way through, they weren’t laughing anymore. People started coming out of the house, gathering around me. At the end, they didn’t even clap. Everybody was just looking at me like, “Oh, he’s serious. This is real.”

Gina: I can remember every word. He said, “Mom, don’t worry about anything. I’m going to the NBA. I’m going to be Rookie of the Year. I’m going to be an All-Star. I’m going to make a lot of money and you won’t have to worry about anything.” I mean, this was a 12 year old with that much inside of him. I was sitting there with tears rolling down my cheeks.

My whole thing was — and look, plenty of people said it was stupid  — but my whole thing all the way through high school was, I’m only doing this with my guys. The Oakland Soldiers were the bigger AAU squad, and they kept trying to recruit me. And I was cool with those guys, but my mentality was like, “Y’all didn’t sell raffle tickets with me at the racetrack. Y’all didn’t have to stand out on the corner selling candy bars with me.”

That wasn’t my program, you know what I’m saying? I probably missed out on a bigger stage, but that’s not what it was about for me. For me, it’s loyalty over everything. Those times with my brothers on the Rebels? Man, you can never take that away from me.


Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

And it’s so funny to me when people are like, “Damian Lillard, where’d he come from?” Man, I was out here. I was doing my thing. Come down to Oakland High and you would’ve seen it. For a lot of guys, it just comes down to money and exposure now, as sad as that is to say. It was crazy … going into my senior year, I had 25 scholarship offers. All from the smaller schools. Weber State, Montana State, Montana, Portland State, Boise State.

The North Carolinas weren’t seeing me. The Dukes weren’t seeing me.

It was all the mid- to low-majors.

I’ll never forget my grandma … man. I had a really good feeling when I visited Weber State. They were the first school to recruit me, and I went out there to Utah and saw that they had a real arena — 11,000 in that dome. So I’m telling my grandma about it like, “Yeah, grandma, I’m feeling good about Weber State. They got a real arena. Utah, you know. I’m gonna be the guy. I’m gonna set the city on fire.”

And she says, “Utah? U-tah?”

She said it like I was thinking about going to Neptune or something. She was going off. And she never gets like that.

I was like, “Grandma it’s gonna be O.K.! They’re real nice! They’re solid!”

She like, “U-tah, Damian?”

She was skeptical. But the coaches from Weber State flew down to visit with my family, and after that it was a wrap. My uncle is a cook, and he cooked for all the coaches, and they were loving it.

My grandma was looking at them like, Mm-hmm. Alright.

They got her blessing, and I committed to Weber State. For a lot of guys, maybe a school like that isn’t a big deal. But ever since we were selling See’s candy, the motivation was like, “Man, I’m out here trying to get a scholly.” No student loans, bruh. That was not on the menu. So when I committed to Weber State, yeah, it was a place I’d never been. Yeah, it was a smaller school. But at the very least, no matter what, I had a free education. That was the dream.

I’m on my way. I’m good. I’m out.

Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports

Then I’m coming home on the bus from practice, senior year. It’s late, but not that late. Maybe 9:30. I’m at Eastmont bus station, switching from the 57 to the 40. I’m the only one there. But there’s a McDonald’s and a police station right across the street, so I wasn’t even tripping.

I see three guys walking toward the bus stop. Still not tripping.

They walk right up on me. Still not really tripping. McDonald’s right across the street. Police station right across the street.

The one dude says, “Empty your pockets.”

Me, I’m sizing them up. I’m lifting weights every day at that point. I’m looking at them like, two of you dudes could probably get handled real quick. Then the last one, we’ll see. I had my book bag on my back. Dude in the front went for the strap. I turned. Just a reflex. There wasn’t really anything even in it. Maybe like $15 and a MetroPCS phone.

Next thing I know, the dude behind him pulls out a gun. He’s got it dead in my face. I’m looking down the barrel. I just remember freezing for a second and looking at this gun, thinking, “What if this kid panics right now and accidentally pulls this trigger? All of this … it’s over. For what?”

He’s got it dead in my face. I’m looking down the barrel.

They grabbed my backpack, took out the 15 bucks and started dumping everything else into the gutter in front of the bus stop. Isn’t that crazy? My notebooks or whatever. Down the gutter. Then they took off running.

I was standing there at the bus stop for like 10 minutes, just froze. I couldn’t even process what to do. I’ll never forget walking into the McDonald’s across the street and going up to the register, probably looking like a zombie, like, “I need to use a phone.”

It didn’t feel real. I’m standing there in middle of the McDonald’s, next to the soda machine, calling everybody. My brother, my mom, my dad. Nobody was picking up, for some reason.

Houston: I was so torn up, because Dame called me first. I was away at college in Missouri, and I missed the call for some reason. I think he tried me a couple of times, and I finally called him back. He told me he was sitting in the Eastmont McDonald’s, and he got robbed. I lost it. The fact that I wasn’t there … look, me and Dame would go at it. We were so, so competitive. But if you were in my circle in Oakland, you knew. Nobody — I don’t care who — touches my brother. Nobody.

So when Dame called me … listen, man, I don’t get emotional. Can’t nobody get a tear out of me except my mother and my brother. But when he told me what happened … my mind just went to this time right before I was leaving for college. Dame was in the 10th grade, and he was having some scuffles. He was back and forth between different schools. He didn’t have any scholarship offers yet. He’s a punk-ass 10th grader at this point. You can’t tell him nothing. I’m leaving for Missouri the next morning, so I’m lying in my bed. Dame walks in the room. He comes and lays on my chest. He’s sobbing.

He’s taller than me at this point, and he’s hugging me, saying, “Please don’t leave me, bruh. Just don’t leave me.” When he told me that he got robbed, my mind went right to that moment. Because I wasn’t there for him. Being the older one, I saw a lot of stuff that no kid should see. I probably never really processed it, to be honest. But I always wanted to protect Dame from it, you know? And I know he’s probably gonna cut this part out. But I really feel like people should know the real Dame, and everything he went through to get to where he is. There’s a lot of kids out there who are living that life now, who are really in the neighborhoods, who have seen a lot of things, who got the same dream. 


Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

The one thing that sticks out in my mind about that night, more than anything, is my dad. He’s the kind of guy who never shows any emotion. No matter what. Like my senior year, I hit a pull-up three to beat the best team in the state, and the whole gym was going crazy. Man, I was going crazy. I look up into the corner of the gym — the very last seat in the last row, where my dad was always sitting, all alone.

Whole gym is losing their minds. Teammates are jumping on me. I’m flexing. I’m going crazy.

I look up in the corner and see my dad. He ain’t move a muscle.

He’s sitting down. No expression.

We lock eyes. He gives me a little nod, like, O.K., now what?

That’s my father.

But after I got robbed, I was sitting at my grandma’s house, in a daze. I heard him riding up on his Harley Davidson from way down the block. I walked over to the window and looked out, and I’ll never forget him throwing that bike down on the curb, like a toy.

He was so upset that he didn’t even use the kickstand. He just hopped off and threw the Harley down on the ground like it was a bicycle, and he came sprinting to the front door.

I’ll never forget that image.

My family, it doesn’t get no tighter.

As bad as that night could’ve turned out, it gave me a lot of strength. Going away to Weber State that summer, I just felt like I was on this whole other wave compared to most regular college kids. I had lived a life already, you know? I was grown. I was on a mission. I mean, if you talk to my coaches? They might tell it different.

Dame’s former assistant at Weber State, Phil Beckner: He was the most intense guy I’ve ever coached. Every single basketball coach, if they’re being honest with you, has had a basketball thrown at them before. Many times. It happens. Guys throw balls at you. Dame is the only guy who has ever thrown an entire ball rack at me. We’d go at it. He’d be in the gym at 6 a.m., and I’d tell him, “You’re not working hard enough.” Because I knew how great he could be.

So one morning — we’re the only ones in the gym — and I kicked him out of the gym because I thought he wasn’t going hard enough. He storms off into the locker room in frustration. I make the genius decision to follow him in and yell at him some more. The ball rack was still in there, because it was before practice. Eleven balls on it. He picked up the entire thing threw it at me and walked out. That’s the only time I thought, “Maybe he’s actually never coming back.”

Well, he was back in the gym the next morning at 6 a.m. He was the best teammate I’ve ever coached. The hardest worker I’ve ever coached. The most special person I’ve ever coached. And he will absolutely tell me that I’m soft as hell for saying all this.

So I’m rolling.

Freshman year: Big Sky freshman of the year.

Sophomore year: Big Sky MVP.

Junior year, I’m on all the NBA draft boards. I’m on my way to the league, guaranteed.

I should’ve known, right?

Mark Johnston/The Daily Herald/AP Images

Nine games into the season, I break my foot. Miss the rest of the season. Now my name is slipping off the draft boards. Now I’m in a cast, and I’m already 21. I know those GMs don’t like an old draft pick. People are questioning me.

I’m stressing.

Houston: The big thing at that time was Dame vs. Jimmer Fredette. Dame broke his foot five days before he was supposed to square off against Jimmer and BYU. I remember he called me damn near crying, saying, “Mannnnnn, I was about to bust his ass, too.”

But in the end, Dame became who he is when he broke his foot. He became a monster.

When I saw my name go off the boards it was like, Nah. It wasn’t going down like that. When I was in my cast, I’d bring a chair into the gym and shoot 400 shots sitting down. I changed my whole release to get more arc on the ball because of that. I’d stand up and shoot 200 shots on one leg. I’d sit in the chair and go behind the back, behind the back, behind the back. Doot-doot-doot. Shoot it. Doot-doot-doot. You from Oakland. Can’t nobody out here f*** with you. Doot-doot-doot. Can’t nobody stop you.

When I came back my junior year, I led the country in scoring for most of the season, and that still wasn’t enough for some people. Going into the draft, they were still doubting.

He’s coming from Weber State. He’s already 22. He’s this and that. He’s not a Top Five guy.

O.K. Alright. Lemme file that away.

Bruh, not being a Top Five guy was the best thing that ever happened to me. Thank God I didn’t go 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Bruh, not being a Top Five guy was the best thing that ever happened to me. Thank God I didn’t go 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Because who was at six?

Who was at six?

Portland.

My city.

My people.

I’m saying, you think you know how deep this goes, but you have no idea. When I say that I will never, ever switch up on the city of Portland, I mean what I say. When I say that I will never, ever switch up on this organization, I mean what I say.

They might switch up on me. That’s business. That’s basketball. But I will never switch up on the city. I don’t want it easy. I’m drawn to the struggle. When I came here, we hadn’t won a playoff series since 2000. You had so many injuries to franchise guys like Brandon Roy and Greg Oden over the years, and it’s so tough to come back from that. Even going way back, you had All-Stars like Clyde Drexler and Bill Walton who didn’t choose to end their careers as a Blazer.

Well, I’m going to be that. I’m going to carry that. I’m going to bring a ring to this city or go down swinging.

Houston: This fool … I’m telling you. He ain’t lying. The world’s not ready.

He texts me just the other night, out of the blue: “It’s over for everybody.”

It’s 12:05 a.m.

I’m like: “What you talking about?”

He’s like: “I’m not playin’ with ’em.” Angry red emoji face, bruh.

And I know that face he’s making, too. I been seeing it since we were kids. This dude is about to go Stone Cold. He’s about to be in Honey Badger Mode. He’s coming for that belt.

And listen, I hear it all. I hear it.

“Oh, he’s just staying in Portland for the contract and he’s not gonna win.…”

Nah, bruh. You really don’t understand. You really don’t.

I ain’t turning my back on the city, because the city has been riding with me since Day One.


Craig Mitchelldyer/AP Photo

I’m not for the fake or the pretend. Too much of that going around these days. I’m for the authentic. It’s the same as it was when we were sleeping four-to-a-motel-room with the Rebels. I’m trying to win with my people. Everything I ever experienced, every chapter of it, the good and the bad and the grimy, that’s what made me.

That’s what’s so funny to me, when people want to talk to me about the buzzer-beater against OKC, or the one against Houston — like, “That’s a bad shot.”

You think I was improvising? You think I was panicking? You think I didn’t know exactly what I was doing?

We didn’t grow up playing in a lab, bruh. We didn’t grow up getting boxes of shoes in the mail. We didn’t grow up with a trainer and a video team. That shot is 20 years old. I’ve been making it since 2001 on a milk crate on Beverly Ave.

A 37-footer, it’s not for everybody, I know.

But you know what? This story is not for everybody, either.

This story is for the people who know about Brookfield rec and PJ’s little after-school cooking class and me rolling up on my bike with some hot chips and Sprite for my guy.

This story is for the people who know about the Cumberbund Heavyweight Championship Belt and my little suitcase full of plastic wrestling men.

This is for the kids who gotta beat the street lights home.

For the kids who seen some things they shouldn’t have seen.

For the kids who are really growing up in those neighborhoods.

For the kids outside the Starbucks, outside the wherever, still hustling for a dollar, still selling people those candy bars, still trying to get a scholly.

This story isn’t for everybody.

This story is for you.

Damian Lillard
Portland Trail Blazers