Randy Hollis: Former WSU basketball star Damian Lillard has made Wildcat Nation mighty proud

Published: Saturday, Feb. 2 2013 5:35 p.m. MST

Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers watches Utah shoot foul shots during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City, Friday, Feb. 1, 2013.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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Purple Pride was overflowing Friday night at EnergySolutions Arena.

And for good reason.

Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, less than a year removed from his days as a Weber State star, was in town to go up against the Utah Jazz. And a large contingent of Wildcat fans, along with what sounded like several hundred more Lillard fans, got to see him put on a pretty good show.

Lillard had a game-high 26 points in Portland's 86-77 loss, as he scored in a variety of ways — 3-pointers, dazzling drives to the basket, including a couple of highlight-reel dunks, and a couple of mid-range jump shots, too. He poured in 20 second-half points, 14 of those coming in the third quarter when he put on without question the most impressive performance on the court.

Indeed, more than midway through the 2012-13 NBA season, Lillard is well on his way to winning the Rookie of the Year award.

But as great a basketball player as Damian Lillard has turned out to be, he's an even better person — a rising star who seems unaffected by his celebrity, a confident athlete who has somehow still managed to maintain his humility.

It's so refreshing to see someone who has stepped into the spotlight and yet remains essentially the same guy who he was back before nobody had heard of him.

"I remember before all this happened," he said of his emerging stardom. "I remember when everybody didn't believe and everybody said it was the league I played in and how I didn't play against NBA-level competition. I didn't believe all the hype and what everybody was saying back then, so now that the tables have turned, I'm not going to start buying into it now."

But he admits that he used the naysayers' doubts he'd ever make it in the NBA as motivation to show those folks that he did, indeed, belonged and had the right stuff to succeed.

"Yeah, I did," Lillard said. "I think anyhody who's been doubted a lot, people always have a knock for you, and you always want to prove 'em wrong. And that was my big thing coming into this year.

"I know some people are probably waiting for me to fail at something because it's been a smooth transition. So I know people are waiting to say, 'He hit the rookie wall,' or 'He was just playing out of his mind.' So I'm just trying to be consistent and prove to people that I belong here and the level that I'm playing at is the level that I'm going to play at. So I think it's just constantly working and keep on proving people wrong."

Weber State has a rich basketball tradition going back more than 50 years. Former Wildcat coach Dick Motta went on to win an NBA championship and is one of the league's all-time winningest coaches; another former Weber coach, Phil Johnson, was an NBA Coach of the Year and served so many seasons as Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan's wise, loyal sidekick; the Wildcats have won a bundle of conference championships, earned plenty of NCAA Tournament trips and own a couple of giant-killing victories over Michigan State and North Carolina, and a handful of former Weber State players like Eddie Gill have had their moments in the big boys' league.

But no player who ever donned Wildcat purple has had the kind of impact, immediate or otherwise, that Lillard is having in Portland. He's already swept three straight Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards, is averaging over 18 points and nearly 7 assists per game, and has helped the Trail Blazers remain relevant in the playoff chase.

And while he's emerged as the favorite to win the league's Rookie of the Year award, he says that's far from his main goal this season.

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