It means a lot. It’s always an honor to be an All-Star period, but to be here for the third time in my six years is truly an honor in California. —Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard
LOS ANGELES — Nothing was state of the art.
Imagine playing on wooden backboards with black tape to form the boxes. The floor was always dusty and the rims weren’t breakaway.
This is exactly how it was at Berkeley Adult School, also known as “West Campus.”
Less than 400 miles away from the Staples Center, in that gym, is where young Damian Lillard learned the game of basketball.
Utah Jazz assistant coach Johnnie Bryant, also a mentor to Lillard, can certainly vouch for him.
Bryant was in there putting in work right alongside the Portland Trail Blazers star.
“Literally if you worked out with a ball, your hands were going to be black when you’re done,” Bryant described. “Our mentor, his coach at the time, Raymond Young, it was raw and uncut in there. We did defensive slides with bricks in our hands, walking around the gym with sand bags.
Building his foundation in that tough environment is what ultimately helped the Oakland native reach Sunday night of the NBA All-Star Weekend for the third time of his career.
Lillard shared the Los Angeles stage Feb. 18 with the league’s top stars as a member of Team Stephen during the 2018 NBA All-Star Game. He ended with 21 points, three rebounds and two assists on 9-for-14 shooting as Team LeBron came from behind to beat Team Stephen 148-145. Cleveland’s LeBron James was named MVP of the game with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
Lillard joined LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, Clyde Drexler, Maurice Lucas and Sidney Wicks as the sixth player in franchise history to earn three All-Star berths.
This is quite an accomplishment for an unheralded recruit, who would blossom into a promising talent at little-known Weber State in Ogden, Utah.
“It means a lot. It’s always an honor to be an All-Star period, but to be here for the third time in my six years is truly an honor in California,” Lillard said. “A lot of my family was able to make the trip without it being a hassle. Some people was able to make the short drive from Oakland.”
In his sixth season, Lillard continues to evolve as a player, averaging 26.1 points, 6.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game. Ahead of the All-Star break on Feb. 14, he lit up the defending champion Golden State Warriors for 44 points and eight assists to help the Blazers win, 123-117.
Warriors star Kevin Durant dropped 50 points and always knows it’ll be a tough battle whenever Lillard is on the floor, even if he doesn’t always receive the same attention as his peers such as Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook.
“Once you’re on that court, we know what Dame can do so it’s not about the respect from anybody else but those 10 guys on the court, the guys on the bench and the coaches,” Durant said. “We’re not going out every game and not even talking about Dame on the scouting report. We know he can go off at any time, so we always had that respect.”
Warriors All-Star Draymond Green agrees with Durant and has built a solid relationship with Lillard over the years. They became close during the 2012 NBA Draft Combine and still converse frequently. Green has even participated in a few of Lillard’s local charity events in Oakland, and they enjoyed being teammates for Team Stephen during the All-Star game.
“Dame is just a great guy,” Green said. “A fantastic player, but even better person. I’m definitely looking forward to playing with him. Maybe I can get a couple assists.”
One word that is frequently used to describe Lillard more than his sweet step-back stroke or ball-handling ability is “family.” He maintains close ties with all the influential people in his life such as Bryant, Green and even his Weber State coach Randy Rahe. Don’t be surprised to see him pop up to a Weber State game this week to check out the squad, either. He also frequently visits Utah in the offseason to train near campus.
“He is a big deal but he doesn’t think he’s a big deal,” Rahe said. “He hates it when people thinks he’s a big deal because he think he’s a normal guy that’s working hard to try to be successful.”
Now that Lillard has established himself as one of the elite guards in the league, it would be easy to pump the brakes a little bit.
Over the All-Star break, Lillard unveiled his Adidas BAPE Dame 4 collaboration that was on display at the 747 Warehouse Street event and released his second album “Confirmed” under the name “Dame D.O.L.L.A.” in October.
Most guys would be satisfied with the money, fame and All-Star pedigree, but most guys aren’t Lillard because they weren’t grinding in the slippery, cramped West Campus gym with Bryant and Young.
“All the stepbacks you see him do, he had to make 50 of those in one direction then you gotta go 50 in another direction,” Bryant said. “That’s ultimately where we learned how to work hard and perfect your craft.”
As Lillard continues his evolution, the next step is competing for a title. He’s at a different point of his life where he’s enjoying the moment a little bit more, having a little more fun while experiencing different things, according to Bryant.
For him, it’s about staying in the moment. Portland fans refer to this as “Dame Time.”
“I’m at the age now, where I’m looking at people who are on my career arc and I’m seeing the success that they’re having with their teams and I’m like that’s what I want,” Lillard said. “I don’t want to be one of those guys that does this, has this record and does all these things and I don’t at least give myself a chance to compete for a championship.”