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TRIBUNE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Portland guard Damian Lillard says the Trail Blazers have come together as a team and this has been his best NBA season by far.When the subject of Damian Lillard’s comportment is proffered, his coach is a willing witness.


“I’m extremely impressed with how he handles everything,” Terry Stotts says of the Trail Blazers’ 25-year-old franchise player. “At a young age, he has national exposure, he has money, he has all those things.

“But at the heart, he wants to do what’s right. He wants to fulfill a responsibility to his team. He wants to compete. He wants to win. He wants to play the right way. That keeps everything in perspective for him.

“When your best player is about the right things, that for me is your team.”

When just about everyone else on the Blazers was leaving Portland after last season, Lillard was staying. The Oakland native was well-compensated to do that, for sure, signing a five-year, $120-million contract extension that will kick in next season. That’s not including his endorsement deal with Adidas, which puts as much as another $100 million over 10 years into his pockets.

But the two-time All-Star point guard has embraced the city of Portland and said, “This is the place I want to live.” He has bought a home in West Linn, where he resides with his mother, Gina Johnson, sister Lanae Lillard, a senior at Lakeridge High, and his girlfriend, who shall remain unidentified. “I’d rather not speak on that,” he says politely.

Nothing else is off limits during a wide-ranging 45-minute interview in which he talks about growing up in a life far different from the one he lives now, about his team and the upcoming NBA playoffs, about his game and his interest in hip-hop music and social media, about his relationship with Adidas and with his fans, about how he has handled being the face of the franchise, and about how this has been “my best season, by far.”

Tribune: How do you feel this season has gone from a team standpoint?

Lillard: When we came into the season, our whole mindset was to trust and enjoy the process. A young team with a lot of new guys, there are going to be ups and downs. The important thing was to continue to grow. We’ve done that. That’s the thing I’m most proud of. We’ve had our hard times, but we’ve stayed together. Different guys have stepped up a lot of different nights. We’ve come together as a team, and now we find ourselves with a chance to finish fifth in the Western Conference.

Tribune: You have far exceeded the team’s over/under of 26 1/2 regular-season wins set by Las Vegas oddsmakers. Sports Illustrated had you 14th among 15 teams in the West.

Lillard: We started off saying we’re going to be better than what everybody is saying. After we came out of the seven-game losing streak in November, we started clicking. Everybody seemed to figure out what his role was. We got a taste of what it felt like to win games, what we needed to do to win games. We got rolling, and it got to the point that, “This is who we are. If we do these things, we’ll win games, and against the better teams, we’ll at least give ourselves a chance.” We’ve been pretty good with that for a long time.

Tribune: You’re among the league’s top eight in scoring and assists, but didn’t make the All-Star Game. How do you feel the season has gone from an individual standpoint?

Lillard: It’s been great. It’s my first year being the (opponent’s main defensive) focus. At first, I had a little trouble figuring out how to balance getting other guys involved and then knowing when to take over the game in spurts, and how to get to spots to get quality shots. I knew I was going to have to make tough shots, and it was going to be like that every night. I had to figure it out on the fly. Over the course of the season, I feel like I’ve handled it a little bit better and a little bit better. It’s been a great season — my best season, by far.

Tribune: You’re the face of the franchise now, and you’ve seemed to embrace it. Is that a fun thing for you?

Lillard: There’s a lot more to it than who you are as a basketball player. There’s a lot of responsibility. No organization is going to say, “All right, this is a great talent, he can really play, we’re going to make him the face of our franchise.” It comes down to what type of a person you are. So I take a lot of pride in it. It has been fun, because I can be successful by being myself. I can play my game, and I can be the person I am off the floor, and it all works out.

Tribune: With LaMarcus Aldridge gone, you’re the unqualified leader of this Blazer team. What type of leadership do you provide? How much of it is vocal leadership?

Lillard: It depends on what the team needs. Sometimes the guys need me to speak up louder in the huddle, and I’ll do that. Sometimes on the court, I have to speak up to guys individually. That also means allowing guys to say something to me. There have been times where Gerald Henderson has said things to me. Times when “Chief” (Al-Farouq Aminu) has said something to me. (Mason Plumlee) isn’t afraid to tell me, “Dame, you gotta make that pass.” He’s done it before. It’s about holding guys accountable and seeing what the team needs, but it’s also being responsive to what other guys have to say. That’s part of why our team has been able to grow so much.

Tribune: We’re near the end of the regular season and you’re in the top 10 in the NBA in minutes played at about 36 a game. How’s your health at this point?

Lillard: I feel good. Since I’ve been in the league, I’ve always felt a little tired at the end of the season. If I’m not tired at this point, then I’ve not giving the team my all. With the responsibility — 25 points a game, seven assists, four rebounds, guarding the other team’s point guard — I’m not taking the night off. I’ve taken that responsibility of giving 110 percent to the team. When you do that, you get tired. But I feel fine.

I do enough things to allow myself to play every game. I go home and go to sleep after games. There are days I take naps. I come to the training facility and get into the cold tub and the steam room. I do massages. I take care of myself. I don’t do all those things that would hang my team out to dry. I do the necessary things so I can be out there every night. That’s what my coaches and teammates depend on me to do.

Tribune: You’ve gone through periods this season when your shooting has been off. When you go into what some people would consider a slump, does it worry you?

Lillard: Nobody shoots the ball well through a full season. Steph Curry even has off games, and he’s the best shooter who ever played the game. I understand shooting slumps happen. You can’t let that take your mind away from the team. The No. 1 thing is we’ve been successful. You can still impact winning without having crazy scoring games. One thing I know about myself — when I do have a shooting slump, I continue to show up and prepare myself to come out of it.

Tribune: You and CJ McCollum are the third-highest-scoring tandem in the NBA behind Golden State’s Curry and Klay Thompson and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

How vital has CJ’s play been to your team’s success?

Lillard: The balance he provides to our team prevents (opponents) from being able to completely focus on me. He has scored a lot of points and hit a lot of big shots. It takes the weight off your shoulders when you know there’s another guy who can hit a tough shot late in a game. With the ball in his hands, he can make something happen. The confidence is there, the swag is there and the game is there.

Tribune: You’ve had some extraordinary offensive outbursts this season. You scored a career-high 51 points against the Warriors in a game in which you were 9 for 12 from 3-point range, and you put up 50 against Toronto. You’ve had 22 games of 30 points or more. What’s it feel like when you’re in a zone?

Lillard: Like no matter what happens out there, you’re going to give your team a chance to win the game. Every time I have a big game like that, I know I’m going to have my team in there, regardless of what else happens. It’s an unbelievable feeling.

Tribune: Your deep range is as good as anybody’s in the game. How much do you practice the long 3s?

Lillard: I work on it. Even in high school, I shot the ball from deep. In college, I started doing it even more. That’s why the 3-point line wasn’t an adjustment when I got to the league. I was already shooting from two feet beyond the NBA line. It’s a shot I’m willing to take at any time. Some people say, “Dame, you can get a better shot at the end of the game.” I tell them, “I’m comfortable raising up and shooting that shot, and I work at it, and I’m going to make it a lot of the time.”

Tribune: You’re also one of the top clutch shooters in the league this season, with 86 points scored during the fourth quarter or overtime, with less than five minutes remaining and the game within five points. Do you feel pressure when you take a shot with the game on the line?

Lillard: I enjoy those situations. Down, one, down two, tied game — it’s all the same for me. I’m going to win the game. There have been times when we’ve been down two and I went for the win. I want to kill (the opponent). I can live with missing that shot. You want to blame me for a missed shot or not winning, blame me. I can take that, just as much as I can take Game 6 (his game-winner in the playoffs against Houston two years ago).

Tribune: You’ve not gotten into any reported trouble off the court. How important is your image?

Lillard: I’m not going out there saying, “I have to protect my image.” My interests are different than some other people’s interests. I’ll hang out with my friends. I’ll go out to dinner. I like to roller skate. I go see movies. I go to the (recording) studio. I have a nice, big house with my family around and a lot of property. A lot of things I enjoy allow me to keep myself out of harm’s way for the most part. Also, just the kind of city Portland is — a laid-back, everybody-loves-everybody type of city. That’s one of the reasons why I love living here.

Tribune: It’s much different than the environment in which you grew up.

Lillard: I’m a cleaner-cut person, but I’m from Oakland. I’m from a different place, a rough place. I’ve been around rough people. Went to rough high schools. There were guns in the schools. Robberies on campus. Stuff like that. To be in a place like this that is so much slower paced and so much more relaxed and completely different environment — you appreciate places like this. You appreciate being around these types of crowds.

I love (Oakland). I have a lot of family and friends there, but it’s a tough place to live. There’s a lot going on. You can be living in a place like (Portland) and remove yourself and be able to relax. Going into to my house, I’m not having to look around when I’m outside. Going out to dinner, you don’t have to be worried about all that stuff. I really appreciate being able to live in a place like this.

Tribune: You went to three high schools. How did that happen?

Lillard: My parents didn’t want me to go to school in Oakland. I did middle school in San Leandro, where my aunt and uncle lived. It’s the city right next to Oakland, but it’s different. When I got to ninth grade, big brother Houston and my older cousin went to Arroyo High in San Lorenzo. I played varsity my freshman year there and was having a good season, starting. A lot of parents complained. They had a program they were used to. We had a black coach, I was one of two black kids on the team, and they felt there was favoritism involved, even though I was good enough to be playing. They let the coach go, and I wanted to be somewhere else.

As a sophomore, I transferred to St. Joe’s (St. Joseph Notre Dame in Alameda). I made the varsity, but didn’t play. The coach wasn’t a fan of the way I played. He told me I passed the ball too soft, wasn’t fast enough, didn’t shoot fast enough. At the end of the year, we had a meeting. He asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I said I want to make it to the NBA. He put some numbers down — this many go to college, this many get a Division I scholarship, this many make it to the NBA. All small numbers. OK.

The next day, I transferred to Oakland High, where all my best friends were. That’s when it all started to happen for me.

Tribune: Can you see yourself as a career-long Blazer?

Lillard: That’s the plan. I’ve never been a fan of switching up, in any way. I don’t switch friends. I don’t switch my circle. I like the same things. People get on me about it all the time: “Are you ever going to eat at different restaurants? Are you ever going to try something new?”

Tribune: So what are your favorites restaurants in town?

Lillard: I go to Benihana a lot. Portland City Grill. Departure, at the top of the Nines (Hotel). McCormick and Schmick’s. I order the same stuff — steak, salmon, clam chowder, catfish, stuff like that.

Tribune: Would you like to play in the Olympic Games this summer?

Lillard: I would love to. Not a lot of guys get to have that experience. It’s a privileged group to be a part of. We’ll see how it goes. Right now, I’m focused on our team and what we can do in our postseason.

Tribune: You’ve had four “player edition” shoes with Adidas, and now two “signature” shoes. You named the latest shoe “Fool’s Gold.” Explain.

Lillard: It’s like, anybody can have a big night. Anybody can have a short run. I consider that fool’s gold. Or look at it this way: There’s a great high school prospect, ahead of everybody else. When he gets to college, he’s not ahead of everybody anymore. He might not be what you thought he was. That can be considered fool’s gold. You have to work, work, work to prove yourself over time. That’s the way my career has gone. Over a period of time, you know it’s real.

Tribune: “Fool’s Gold” retails for $105. You’ve kept the prices on your shoes reasonable. Why?

Lillard: It’s crazy that a lot of shoes cost $225, $250. I don’t want a parent to say, “This guy’s in the NBA, making all this money, and his shoe is $250?” If kids see a shoe they like and they might not be in the most fortunate (financial) situation, I’d like it to be available at a reasonable price. My shoe may not have the greatest technology, but if it’s good enough for me to play an NBA game in them, it should be good enough for kids to wear.

Tribune: How much input do you have in their design?

Lillard: A lot. Adidas (national) headquarters are in Portland, so I’ll visit their offices and we’ll sit in a room. They’ll show me some stuff, I’ll share my ideas and they’ll use a lot of them. I like small detail. Like the Easter shoe — they sent it out in an Easter basket.

Tribune: You’re active in social media. Do you enjoy it?

Lillard: I do. I’m on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, and I’ve been thinking about joining Periscope, where they can follow me live. I like people to see me for me. I don’t like them to get their entire vibe about me from what I do on a basketball court. I like to give people an opportunity to see who I am, how I think. I’m not going to put my whole personal life out there, but I’m going to let them see the person that I am. They might become a fan and be able to relate to me.

Tribune: Rapping is another of your favorite endeavors, and you’ve put out a few singles, including “Bigger Than Us.” Will you release an album in the future?

Lillard: I think I will. I was going to put something out late 2015, but I wasn’t willing to take that much of my time away from basketball to do it.

Tribune: You started your weekly “Four-Bar Friday” in 2013, offering fans and even other NBA players the chance to submit their MC skills on Instagram. Seems like it’s still going strong.

Lillard: We started off like this: You write four bars and you rap them over the 15-second video. We went from saying the bars to rapping over beats. Thousands of them get posted. A group of interns helps me look through them; we select the best (submissions) and post them on my page. When I made “Bigger Than Us” with JBL, that was the thing for that Friday, so (contest rappers) had to rap over that beat to that song.

There’s an MC who just (died) last week, Phife Dawg from the “Tribe Called Quest,” who was a legend in the rap game. Before he passed, he said I was the best rapper in the league and he wanted to rap with me. So last week’s contest was dedicated to him. They had to rap over his stuff — four bars with his music.

Tribune: What is it about rapping?

Lillard: Just being able to express myself. I’ve experienced enough where I can inspire people and I can share something somebody might be going through. And people want to know what my life is like, what I’ve been through and how I see things. That’s my way of sharing.

Tribune: Last year, you told me you would give your MVP vote to Houston’s James Harden. Would Curry get the nod this year?

Lillard: I’d vote for Steph. Not just because (the Warriors) are going to win 70-some games, but the way he’s done it. They have a target on their back. He has showed up every night. They have some guys on their team that might have a couple of shaky games, but he’s played at the elite level most nights. That’s special. It’s frustrating to see people try to take credit away from him. What he’s doing has never been done. He’s a high-character, team-first guy. Never too high, never too low. He deserves it.

Tribune: The Warriors and Spurs seem so far out ahead of everyone. Can any team challenge them in the playoffs?

Lillard: You just never know. Anybody can get beat. It’s tough to stop the Warriors because they’re so fast-paced and shoot a lot of 3s. But they can also turn the ball over and play a game where you can also be in the game against them. They can be beaten because of that. San Antonio gave them a lot of problems. Oklahoma City has challenged (the Warriors) each time; it’s taken some amazing stuff for them to beat OKC. And OKC beat San Antonio twice.

I think we can challenge anybody. We have nothing to lose. We can play small. Our bigs can run the court and protect the rim. Myself and CJ are capable of putting together a great three games back to back to back.

Tribune: Who are the players around the league around your age and younger that you admire most?

Lillard: I really like Kawhi Leonard. I like Kyrie Irving. I think Karl-Anthony Towns is the best rookie by far. He could be an All-Star next year. DeMarcus Cousins is the best center in the league. People get on him about his attitude and a lot of the things he does. Sometimes he’s wrong, but I know him personally. He’s just passionate. It gets the best of him sometimes, but I know he’s a good dude.

Tribune: Your thoughts on Kobe Bryant’s retirement?

Lillard: It’s crazy to even think of the Lakers and Kobe not being there playing for them. It’s like how the Spurs would be without Tim Duncan. It don’t sound right. Kobe has had a great 20 years. If anybody’s deserving of the farewell he’s had this season, it’s him.

Tribune: What are your goals for the playoffs? What can this team accomplish?

Lillard: You just never know. All my life, I’ve dreamed about being “the biggest.” Once we get in the playoffs, I’m not playing just to be there. I’m playing to win it all. That’s how we all need to be thinking, regardless of what everybody else thinks. We’re going to get in there and compete. I’m not getting in there to accept going to the first round and losing. That’s not why I’m there.

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