Playing in those Oakland Athletic League gyms may be one reason why Lillard, now moving with the photoshoot into the Trail Blazers’ weight room, nearly comes to a full stop in his adidas Crazy 8 sneakers when asked if he’s ever played scared.
“Nervous maybe, but not scared,” Lillard says. He’s wearing a white T-shirt whose slogan — “Don’t Doubt Me” — seems laughable just months after his four seasons in the Big Sky Conference was an asterisk to many. “I’m not scared to play nobody.”
“He was always kind of like that,” says Durkin. “He always seemed to be, even in high school, a pretty mature player. I remember one of their league rivals, McClymonds, went 32-0 and won the state title. They faced off three times and nearly played in the Nor Cal title game for a fourth matchup. In a regular-season game McClymonds won on a three-pointer and he just said, ‘We’re going to see them again.’”
Over the phone from Sacramento, Oakland High coach Watkins is animated re-enacting McClymonds’ 54-51 win in Lillard’s 2008 senior season. “We were down and Dame had this look like, we’re going to get us this victory,” recalls Watkins. “The shot to tie the game he shot, no lie, was a foot behind the NBA line to tie the game. Then we go down, we get a stop, Dame actually got fouled four times. The fourth foul the ball spurted out and it spurted out for a wide-open layup and the teammate missed. The moral of the story is the young man dribbled through the whole team, got fouled four times and after the game he said I’m worried about the next time I play them.”
Lillard hasn’t forgotten Oakland. Both the Rebels and Oakland High are now outfitted all in adidas gear — for free — because of Lillard’s generosity. When he trains, he runs on local beaches and shoots jumpers still at his old haunts. During one post-draft workout at Oakland High last summer, Lillard watched as Watkins’ players couldn’t complete a conditioning drill. He walked from the end of the court where he was shooting, jumped in the drill alongside the team, and everyone made it.
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Portland’s well-known historic trouble with high draft picks came because the team was locked into getting the best player at its position of most need. That’s how centers Sam Bowie and Greg Oden were chosen ahead of Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant, obviously talented players whose positions were covered at the time by established Blazers talents Clyde Drexler and Brandon Roy.
Undaunted, Portland’s GM says he entered the 2012 Draft only looking for a point guard with his first pick and Lillard as its only target. (As for Lillard, he knew Portland wanted him – his Draft night suit included black pants and a red pocket square to match the team’s color scheme.) Damian reportedly missed just two shots in his entire pre-draft workout in Portland, a performance that isn’t hard to believe given the shooting displayed in his four-part “License to Lillard” YouTube series that has more than 400,000 total views — including one from Nuggets guard Ty Lawson.
“I looked at his YouTube and thought we had a big shot,” says Lawson when asked about the series. “When he got to the league he showed everybody.”
From that workout and Lillard’s dinner and interview with owner Paul Allen, the Blazers’ front office came away enamored as much by his on-ball skill as the way he carried himself. Like any talent evaluator, Olshey covets “translatable” skills.
“I think he’s a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, himself famous for his no-frills presentation, told the assembled media after that December loss to Portland. “His skills are obvious, but I like his demeanor as much as I like his skills.”
“I think it’s just my personality, it just carries over to the way I play,” says Lillard, explaining why he doesn’t often talk to opponents — smack or otherwise — when he plays. “I’ve had times where guys have pushed me to that point but that’s not me at all.”
The value of such an approach is plain as day in an NBA season’s typical ebbs and flows. What is remarkable for the rookie is just that there have been more exultant moments like his game-winning, 26-foot three-pointer to beat the Hornets just three days after stunning the Spurs, than there have been stumbles, such as 4-of-17 and 6-of-21 shooting nights against the Lakers and Wizards.
Take, too, his three-pointer in Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Day with a minute left in the fourth quarter. Isolated and dribbling slowly toward the top of the arc, he stepped back behind it to hit a cold-blooded triple to put Portland up six, ruining Amar’e Stoudemire’s season debut and Carmelo Anthony’s 45-point game.
“It wasn’t always like it is now. I just have to remember the position I came from and not to let it go to my head,” says Lillard. “The second it doesn’t go so well I’ll be right back to the way it was before.” By this he means, the player who’s been doubted for playing on the other AAU team, the three high schools, the unseen college. For the record, he has no such short leash with his new franchise. Back at Lillard’s mid-December photoshoot Olshey, wearing a black jumpsuit and an ear-to-ear smile, can see what’s happening from his office adjacent to the practice court but pops his head around the corner of its entrance anyway. “What’s up, cover boy!” he shouts toward Lillard, who hops over to hug his GM.
Olshey, who was a Clippers executive for Blake Griffin’s rookie ascension, recedes from the court to share a telling story about one interview for Portland’s head coaching job after Lillard’s selection: “We interviewed a guy at one point, and were talking about utilizing Idaho (of the D-League) and someone said, ‘Well, if you send this guy, this guy, this guy and Damian …’ And I just laughed and said, “Yeah, Damian won’t be spending any time in Idaho.’
“We all on draft day kind of walked away knowing probably six months before everybody else would learn, what we kind of hoped and knew back in June was that he’s a franchise-caliber point guard.”