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.
"But I understand the position that I'm in and I know that I have to value that, because a lot of people don't get to be in the position I'm in. But I appreciate it a lot, though."
And getting an opportunity to come back and play here — even if it is while wearing a Trail Blazers' uniform — is something he definitely looks forward to.
"Always," he said. "I think we come here two times a year, and I'm used to being around these people all the time throughout my college experience. Now it's every so often I come back and play a basketball game, and a lot of times it's just for one night.
"Just to see those familiar faces and them see me get out here and play the game that they watched me play almost every night for four years, it's always special being able to play in front of 'em again."
He was delighted to see the Wildcats and coach Randy Rahe win the Big Sky title and earn their trip to the Big Dance, where they turned in a respectable showing in a first-round loss to top-seeded Arizona. He watched that game and was proud of his old program's spunky performance as a No. 16 seed trying to slay one of college basketball's giants.
"It was big, it was big. I mean, they deserved it," he said of the 'Cats finally getting a chance to win the Big Sky crown again. "I was here this summer training with them and they worked really hard and that was their ultimate goal.
"Coach Rahe puts a lot of time into that program, and the fact that we hadn't been to the tournament my whole time here is kinda crazy. But I was just as excited for him going back to the tournament as I was for the players.
"I think they had a real shot at winning the game," he said of Weber State's second-round NCAA loss to those "other" Wildcats from Arizona. "If three or four more shots go in, I think that's an upset. They made a push at the end of the game, but they had a stretch where they couldn't make a shot and they still found a way to stay in the game. So that tells you right there they had a shot. They cut it down at the end, but they just ran out of time."
Lillard says he's hoping Rahe won't be swayed to leave Weber State, even though his college coach's success at the Ogden school is bound to have other schools come calling in the future.
"I know Coach Rahe real well. We have a great relationship and I talk to him all the time, and it's kind of hard for me to see him any other place," Lillard said. "What he's built there is big. They love him there, he loves the school. His impact here is incredible. So hopefully he will be (there a long time), so I can keep coming back here."
Now, having earned Rookie of the Year and All-Star honors his first two years in the league, and having helped push Portland to the NBA playoffs by averaging 21 points and 5.6 assists per game this season, what's next for Lillard?
"I'm not sure. I'd like to be consistent at what I've accomplished," he said. "I'd like to be an All-Star more than one time, I'd like to consistently be in the playoffs, and I think that's what tough — being able to sustain that same level and keep getting better.
"But for right now, that's what I want — I want to be able to stay at this level and keep climbing."
And when he does, there's no doubt that a lot of his proud, faithful fans back in Northern Utah will still be cheering him on — even if he's not wearing a Jazz uniform.
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