Evanson: Lillard following Drexler's trail in Blazers lore
Damian Lillard may not be the greatest Trail Blazer of all time — that moniker belongs to Clyde Drexler — but while nipping at the heels of the 1980s and early '90s icon, it's only a matter of time before the 29-year-old is exactly that.
Why do I bring this up now? Because I was reminded of just how special Lillard is and has been to this organization while reading Kerry Eggers' in-depth piece on Drexler in a recent issue of the Portland Tribune.
Drexler is an interesting study. His talent was through the roof, and his resume reads like a Hall of Fame instructional manual, including an NCAA final; three trips to the NBA Finals (one championship); 10 All-Star selections; a trip to the Olympics as a member of the original "Dream Team" — and in 1996 he was named to the list of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. He is and always will be a Blazer legend in a town that loves its Blazers. But while beloved by the fans of Rip City, it never seemed as if Drexler fully embraced the city in a similar way.
That's not to say he didn't enjoy his time here, nor that he didn't do his part both on and off the court. Drexler gave back by way of countless charitable contributions and has always spoken highly of the fans and the organization during and after his time in Portland, most recently in Eggers' piece. But while high on the city and team, Drexler never felt like one of us, but rather an employee punching the clock — a far cry from Lillard.
The Oakland, California, native came here by way of Weber State University, as the sixth pick in the 2012 NBA draft. Since then he's played in 604 games, scored more than 14,000 points, led his team to the playoffs five times and on more than one occasion made one thing abundantly clear — he loves this city.
In an interview in 2016, Lillard said the following:
"When I really like what a place is about, that's what I want to stick to. I want to stick to things that click with who I am as a person."
And went on to say this:
"It's been like a hand-and-glove fit,'' Lillard said. "The fact that they have embraced who I am, the person along with the basketball player … I don't think there is anything more comfortable than that."
This isn't lip service. While Lillard is talking the talk, he's walking the walk as well. Amidst rumors of overtures from some of the league's greats in recent years, Dame — as he's often called — politely declined and last year put his money where his mouth is by signing a five-year contract extension that would keep the All-Star in Portland through the 2025-26 season. He's committed not only to winning a championship, but doing so here.
"(Wanting to leave) is the easy thing to do. It is. That's the easy thing to do,'' Lillard said in an interview with CSNW in that same 2016 interview. "I have always been the type of person, when things are hard, to not think about how hard it is now. I think about what it will be like when we get through this, and how it turns into what I want it to turn into. Then, that will be the ultimate satisfaction.''
Well said, and spoken like a man who's up to the challenges that playing in an NBA city like Portland inherently pose.
That's not to say he'll never leave. After all, if a handful of years from now at the age of 34 or 35 he decided to chase a title alongside a couple of the league's best in the waning years of a certain Hall of Fame career, who would blame him? At that point he would've given the best years of his basketball life to the franchise, and if a title opportunity somewhere else sat before him, it'd be selfish on the fans' part to deny him. He'd have paid his dues, given his best and left it all on the court for a city that benefited from watching it all. And after all, Drexler did it and won a championship in Houston, and he's the best Blazer in franchise history — at least for now.
Wade Evanson is sports editor of the News-Times.
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