There are a few players in the NBA with whom a team is readily identified after having been a keystone of the franchise for a number of years.
Stephen Curry, Golden State. James Harden, Houston. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City.
But perhaps no one fills the bill better than Damian Lillard.
Lillard, 28, is in his seventh NBA season, all with the Trail Blazers. He recently was selected as a reserve to the All-Star Game for the second straight time and fourth time in his career. Last season, Lillard was named to the all-NBA first team for the first time, joining Bill Walton (1977-78) and Clyde Drexler (1991-92) as the only players in the franchise's 49-year history to achieve that honor.
Lillard is having arguably his best individual season, on pace to average more than 25 points for the fourth straight year and ahead of his career average in most offensive statistical categories. He also has the Blazers on track for a 50-win season and homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Barring injury, Lillard will pass LaMarcus Aldridge this season to move into second place on Portland's career scoring list, trailing only the great Clyde Drexler. Lillard leads in 3-point field goals and free throw percentage and is third in assists. His legacy with the club and in the city is trending upward, and he has no plans for leaving.
Lillard lives year-round in West Linn in a home he shares with his long-time girlfriend, Kay'la Hanson, and their 10-month-old son, Damian Jr. An Oakland, California, native, Lillard cherishes the privacy he gets while living in the Portland area, along with the many friends he has made during his seven years as a Blazer.
Many of Lillard's extended family make Portland home now, including his mother, Gina Johnson, and siblings Houston Lillard III (32) and Lanae Lillard (21). It's part of what makes Lillard comfortable living in Portland and staying with the Blazers as they chase the ultimate prize — an NBA championship.
Lillard — the 2017 winner of the Magic Johnson Award, given annually to an NBA player recognizing excellence on the court and cooperation and dignity with the media and public — sat down with the Portland Tribune for an extended interview on life as he hits the midway point of his playing career.
Tribune: Let's talk individually first: How do you feel about your season so far?
Lillard: It's gone really well. Physically, I've felt really good this year. Mentally, I've been in a good place. Our team is having a lot of success winning games. We've been steady. We've beaten teams we're supposed to beat. We've been taking care of home court. We haven't won as many games on the road as we'd like, but we're always in competitive games. It's been my most efficient year in the percentages and the way the game is coming to me. The game is simple and so much slower and the numbers are there, and it's a more impactful game that I'm playing right now.
Tribune: You've made the All-Star team for the fourth time now. Do you feel like your reputation is established to a point that you deserve? Is the respect there nationwide?
Lillard: I think so, and I know that it takes time. When I first came in the league, there were guys who were right in their prime and had built up their reputation and were more highly regarded than I was. It was one of those "wait-your-turn" things. Over time, I've shown up over and over again. You have to honor and respect that consistency.
And there's so much more to my game than scoring — coming up big in big situations, being willing to fail in big situations, owning up to failures ... constantly being present, accepting the good with the bad, caring about teammates, having a positive relationship with teammates, having my mind in the right place. ... When it comes to all of that, I'm at the top. I think it's beginning to be appreciated around the league.
Tribune: You've not been a starter in the All-Star Game. Is that a goal? Can it happen?
Lillard: I really don't care. When you start talking about being a starter, that's more like what's behind you. (You're talking about franchise) market size, the gossip, the extra stuff surrounding you — that's just not who I am. I don't carry that extra stuff behind me. Never have; never will. A lot of that stuff leads to being a starter, unless you're playing out of your mind. I'm not going to attempt to do that just so I can be a starter. I'm in the All-Star Game with the best of the best. That's good enough for me.
Tribune: You were a proponent of keeping the Blazers' team intact and allowing the chemistry and familiarity with each other grow. How important has that been to your success this season?
Lillard: It's been really important. Many of our guys have been on a team before this, or two teams before this, where they weren't as valued or as needed. Not only do we need them here, but we lift guys up. Our coaching staff does a great job of allowing guys freedom to be comfortable enough so that they are able to grow into being at the next level. (Al-Farouq Aminu) wasn't expected to catch and shoot 3's and bring the ball up in transition and be trusted to make the right play. Same with (Jusuf Nurkic). Same with Moe (Harkless). So many guys have been forced to grow into a role with this team. That helps with self-confidence and belief.
Tribune: Plus you learn the nuances of your teammates' game over a period of years, right?
Lillard: For sure. That's a given. If you're around somebody for a week, you're going to begin to learn their habits — what they like, what they don't like. Many of us have been around each other for four years now. We know each other real well. It helps when you know not just a teammate's game but his personality. A lot of teams don't have that. If there is a team that does have it, I'm not sure how many (of the players) get along as well as we do. People might get tired of hearing that, but it's rare in the NBA. We don't have people competing against each other.
If I can be in that type of environment, and we're working toward the right things, I can live with that. I value those things. Sometimes players will say, "I want to win a title," and that they're willing to deal with all the other stuff. Well, you're chasing a ring. There are a lot of other things to value and take away from the game when you leave. That kind of stuff means equally as much to me — relationships and teammates' well-being and enjoying the process.
Tribune: You've chosen to make Portland your year-round home. Why?
Lillard: It's being in your own space. I love Oakland, but when I go back there, you know how many people are trying to find me? You become a public figure and you don't have as much privacy. Everyone you've ever known is trying to get ahold of you. "Dame, can I get some tickets? Dame, can you show up at this? Dame, my son is having a party. Can you come? Dame, can I borrow some money?" So many people are reaching at you. You don't want to put yourself completely out of reach of those people. It's not that I don't want to deal with them; it's just that I need to have my own happy, peaceful place.
I love that about Portland. If I want to go out to eat, I have places where I can go eat. I know the owners and the people there and I can get a room and go eat in peace. I like to skate. I know somebody who owns a skating rink. I can tell them I want to skate from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. and they'll let me skate and invite who I want. I know the owner of a lounge. If I want to have a private party, I can do it. It allows me to create my own environments and to enjoy that. When you have that, that's home. You're creating your own happy place. That's what I've done here in Portland.
Tribune: You said a couple of years ago that you hoped after your career ends, you will be considered the greatest Trail Blazer player of all time. Do you still feel that way?
Lillard: For sure. You have to have the production. I don't think being the all-time leading scorer makes you the all-time best, but I do think I will be (the best) when I'm done playing. I'll be No. 1 in points and maybe assists, free throws, 3-pointers ... I think I'll be No. 1 in a lot of categories. And since I've been here, we've won games. A championship would be great. That's our ultimate goal. But I'd like to have the kind of career that would make people consider me the best who ever played here. Part of that is wanting to be in Portland. I don't know how many guys have wanted to be here, enjoyed being here and wanted to stay here.
Tribune: Clyde Drexler retired when you were 7, so you're too young to have watched him play, but have you seen much video of him as a player?
Lillard: My dad (Houston Jr.) used to make me keep up with the game. He'd say, "You need to know the history of the game. You need to know who came before you." He would turn the TV to NBA Classics and say, "Check out Jordan against the Celtics. Check out Kobe against the Blazers." So I saw a lot of Clyde. And when YouTube came around, I really saw a lot of him.
I respect him, because (among the game's shooting guards) it was Michael Jordan and then it was Clyde Drexler. People were always talking about Mike, but Clyde was killing it, too. He was another guard who was on that elite level. He was unbelievable, but because he played in the era with Michael Jordan, people don't really talk about it the way they should. I know he's the person I'll have to pass (to become the No. 1 all-time Blazer).
Tribune: How has being a father changed your life?
Lillard: This might sound crazy, but that's been the difference in me as a player this season. I don't take the stuff home anymore. After a loss, I used to go home and be upset. I had a lot of animosity I took with me. I don't now. When I'm on my way home from the game, I'm calling the house and asking. "Is he up? Did he go to sleep yet?" I'm looking on the camera on my phone. I don't want to say I'm happier, because I've always been a happy person, but I'm more at peace now. It has put me in a different place. I'm able to play the game happier.
Tribune: Damian Jr. is nearing his first birthday. How is he doing? Is he walking yet?
Lillard: He's been crawling. I don't know where he got his size, but he's off the charts in both height and weight. He weighs 27 pounds. He just started taking some steps. He's taking swim classes. Yesterday, I was having to put him under the water and catch him so he can lose that fear.
Tribune: He's showing a little personality?
Lillard: Oh, for sure. It's funny. I'm looking at him and thinking, I recognize him as my son based on stuff that he does. At 10 months, how could he adopt that from me? I'm just like, "Wow, that's my kid."
Tribune: Do you and Kay'La want more children?
Lillard: Yeah, for sure. We'll have more kids. I'm not sure how many. Maybe two, three. I want them to be close in age, though. I know how important having siblings and cousins was for me, to have my back and me have their back and protect each other. I'm four years younger than my brother, and when stuff was going on, he protected me. When my sister was growing up and I was at home, I was protecting my sister. I know how much comfort it brings and the type of character it builds, having people there who care about you. I want my son to have siblings. He already has a lot of cousins. My brother has three sons. We want to continue that.
Tribune: When you're just chilling at home, what are you doing?
Lillard: I watch a lot of interviews (on TV). I like that because sometimes it's hard for me to be a fan of people when I don't know who they are, so I look up interviews of people. I want to hear how they think — not always celebrities, but people in sports, people who deal with sports who aren't athletes. Also, notorious kingpins, drug dealers. I really like those interviews.
People like Freeway Rick Ross, who was a drug kingpin, a young dude making millions of dollars. He was a non-violent kingpin. He was selling drugs, which is negative, but a really sharp dude. He couldn't read, but he was smart as hell. Like Pee Wee Kirkland, who was a basketball player in New York City, a really good player who played at Rucker Park with NBA players and was as good as them. He played at Norfolk State and was like killing, but he was making millions of dollars in the drug business. He got drafted (13th round, Chicago, 1969), but turned it down because he was making more money in the streets. If you listen to him talk, he never tried to justify making illegal money.
Also, my favorite rapper, J. Cole. I'm a fan of his music, and who he is as a person, too.
You listen to these people talk and you hear where their heart is, where their mind is, and you don't judge them.
Tribune: Who is your MVP in the league this season so far?
Lillard: It changes. James Harden is the front-runner for sure, but (the Houston Rockets) are only in sixth place in the West. If I had to pick an MVP, I would say it's between James and the "Greek Freak" (Giannis Antetokoumpo of Milwaukee). What James is doing is just crazy. It's hard to argue against him, but Giannis has the numbers, and (the Bucks) have the best record in the league.
Tribune: Who is your favorite player in the league who is not a member of the Blazers?
Lillard: I like watching (Denver's) Nikola Jokic, but I'd probably say (Oklahoma City's) Paul George. He's fun to watch. He's so smooth.
Tribune: You seem to be at a really good place in your life. Do you feel that way?
Lillard: For sure. You come into the NBA and there are so many changes in your life. You're making millions of dollars. Everybody is pulling you in different directions. Sometimes people around you feel neglected and they're not getting the time with you that they want. You deal with a lot of that stuff. Finally, you find that space where you balance it right and figure it out. That's where I am right now.
I'm enjoying spending time with my mom. I'll go over to her house. Yesterday, I took my son to swim lessons, and my mom came and she was with my sister and my cousin. One of my other cousins' son was in the swim class as well, and we all went to lunch. That night, me and my girlfriend and her sister and my mom and my sister and our cousin, we all went to dinner. After that, we hung out together for a while. And lots of times, my brother and I will go do something. And I have my son. I'm able to work more efficiently. I'm more at peace. I go home and I have a chef now and there's food right here. Everything is falling into place right now.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.