OGDEN — Damian Lillard came back "home" on Saturday for what can only be described as a pretty special day, one which few folks will ever get to experience.
After all, for the second time in his young life, it was officially declared "Damian Lillard Day" in O-town, where Lillard spent four years not only learning how to be a better basketball player but, more importantly, growing up, maturing physically and emotionally and learning how to become a better man.
The first time Ogden so honored him, though, was last June on the day of the annual NBA Draft, and Lillard couldn't be in attendance because he was in New York waiting to see where he'd land on draft day. It turned out to be Portland, where the two-time Big Sky Conference MVP wound up having a stellar Rookie-of-the-Year season for the Trail Blazers.
This time, though, Lillard was able to be there at The Junction, where several hundred Wildcat fans cheered as Lillard talked about his transition to the NBA, and how his experience at Weber State helped prepare him to succeed at the next level.
"I think the biggest thing was the fact that they pushed me," he said of the Wildcats' coaching staff. "Every year that I was here, they pushed me to get better.
"It got to a point to where I felt like I was the best player, and they didn't care. Every day in practice, I got yelled at just like everybody else; in private workouts, I got pushed just as hard, if not harder, than anybody else. And even in the classroom, when I didn't get work done, they were on my case. There was no special treatment, and I think just the fact that they pushed me and didn't cut me slack, they wanted me to be better.
"So just because they did that to me for four years, they helped me grow as a man and as a basketball player," Lillard said. "So the biggest thing with the Weber State program is how they help you develop as a man; they push you in the classroom to be a better student, and (to be) a better basketball player last. We're student-athletes first and they make sure we understand that."
Pushing himself, though, was something Lillard was pretty darned good at. He was willing to put in tons of extra time working hard on his game, especially after he suffered a broken foot during what would've been his junior season.
He was granted a medical redshirt year, then came back and led the conference in scoring with 24.5 points per game — finishing third in the nation — in what would be his final season as a Wildcat before declaring for the draft.
His college coach, Randy Rahe, said Lillard's incredible work ethic is one of the key things that helped propel him to the next level and allowed him to thrive once he got there.
"The beauty of it is when a guy who turns out to be your best player is one of your hardest workers, if not the hardest worker, that's the type of character Damian had," Rahe said. "And when he buys into our system the way Damian did, and our culture, then it's a blessing to your program. And that's what Damian was."
Coach Rahe said Lillard's success has not only helped put the WSU program on the map — "Now it's nice to be able to call recruits and not have to ask them if they've heard of Weber State," he said — but that D-Lill's genuine, down-to-earth personality and humility have endeared him to many people across the country.
"The type of person that Damian is and how he handles himself when he's doing interviews and when he's in the public eye, that's as good of an ambassador as you could possibly have, not just Weber State but for the city of Ogden and the university in every area," Rahe said. "He's a poster child for what we want our program to be about and when they see him out there, being the kind of person he is, that's as important to us and our community and university as anything."
Lillard considers his unanimous selection as Rookie of the Year ?— he averaged 19.0 points, 6.5 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game and set a single-season record for 3-pointers by a rookie — as a reward for all the hard work he's put in, but he knows he's still got a long way to go to become the player he someday hopes to be.
Despite it being his first year in the league, Lillard emerged as a true team leader. And now he wants to help lead the Blazers into the NBA playoffs, an accomplishment that eluded them this season, and he wants to be an All-Star performer along the way.
He realizes, too, that this opportunity is a rare one indeed, one that many athletes might never receive. And although his talent had an awful lot to do with his emergence as one of the best young point guards in the league, he realizes that he also benefitted from being in the right place at the right time.
"I came into the league at the perfect time," he said. "... The best point guards in the league are all scoring guards, but they can make plays. They can make the right plays and they understand the game, and I think that's the type of point guard that I am.
"The way that I play really suits how the point guard position is in the NBA now, so I think I came along at the perfect time for the type of point guard that I am.
"For me, I want to be an All-Star next season. I know that's going to take a lot of work, but that's what I want for myself," said Lillard, who will receive a tryout with Team USA this summer. "But most of all, I want my team to be in the playoffs. ... I want us to be a playoff team and make a run at a championship."
Sure, being a professional athlete brings fortune and fame, but there are other aspects of being in the spotlight that aren't so glamorous.
"It's good and bad," Lillard said. "Everything that I do, I've got to watch what I'm doing; I've got to watch what I'm saying. I've got to know what's around me, just the way you've got to conduct yourself because you don't know who's around you.
"You're so much more under the microscope and it becomes kind of difficult to live and be yourself. But I'm still me, man, and it doesn't bother me much because I'm not pretending to be somebody that I'm not. As long as I can continue to be myself, it won't be a problem for me."
Indeed, being Damian Lillard — both on and off the court — is a pretty sweet gig. And one which Weber State should always be mighty proud of.
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