Randy Hollis: Lillard's such a great ambassador for Utah — too bad he doesn't play for Jazz

Published: Saturday, April 12 2014 4:40 p.m. MDT

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard (0) passes the ball as Utah Jazz's Richard Jefferson (24) and Derrick Favors (15) defend in the second quarter during an NBA basketball game on Friday, April 11, 2014, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Rick Bowmer, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — Damian Lillard has been a great ambassador for the state of Utah.

Ever since he came from California to play college basketball at Weber State six years ago, he has often mentioned how much he appreciates the way he was treated by the people here during his four-year career with the Wildcats.

Since being selected by the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the NBA draft in 2012, Lillard has returned to Ogden on several occasions, whether it was to attend WSU's annual purple and white intrasquad game, to train and work out or conduct a youth basketball clinic, or for "Damian Lillard Day" last summer in Ogden, where he graciously accepted the proverbial key to the city.

Heck, the city's chamber of commerce couldn't possibly ask for any better publicity than they get from Portland's All-Star point guard and last year's NBA Rookie of the Year.

"The biggest thing is the way they embrace people," Lillard said of the Beehive State's friendly folks as he prepared for Friday's game against the Utah Jazz. "I remember when I first got here my freshman year, people just showed me that love that I wasn't used to back home (in Oakland).

"And I got on the court and it was like they cheered me on like I had been here already. And when I became a little more popular and a little more well-known, people recognized me and they were really polite.

"And there's a lot more to do here, I think a lot more than people realize is going on in Utah," he said of the state's unfair nothing-to-do-here bad rap. "You think Utah, the first thing people think about is it's a Mormon state, and I think you've got to experience it to see the value here. I tell (my teammates) all the time it's a really nice place. But it's my time and it's my decision on where I like to spend my time at in summers or where I like to go back to, and this is definitely one of those places."

Lillard's strong ties to Northern Utah even played a part when it came time for him to choose what jersey number he'd wear in the NBA. He wears No. 0, which pays homage to Oakland, the city he grew up in; Ogden, where he played his college ball; and Oregon, the state where he plays now.

He made a special trip back to his second "home" in Northern Utah last month, when he could be seen sitting courtside at the Dee Events Center, cheering on the Wildcats as they won the Big Sky Conference championship and earned their first NCAA tournament trip since 2007 — a year before Lillard arrived on the Ogden campus.

Asked if his affection for Utah meant he might possibly wind up playing someday for the Jazz — whose front office was definitely very interested in drafting Damian before the Trail Blazers beat 'em to the punch in 2012 — Lillard smiled sheepishly and did his best to deflect the question like he would an opponent's entry pass into the paint.

"I'm real happy in Portland," he said. "I love the organization, I love the city, and I think that's a great place for me. I fit right in and hopefully I'll be there for my whole career.

"It's not often, you know, it doesn't happen too often where people get to spend their whole career with one team, but hopefully I do."

He readily admitted, though, that it's very flattering how much the people in Utah seem to love watching him play and how they would relish the chance to see him in a Jazz uniform someday.

"It is, it is," he said of Beehive State fans' mutual admiration society with him. "It's just like I said, it's that same love and they show you that love. Just the fact that they would love to have me here, and people express that to me over social network, I'm honored by that. I could never look past it.

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