Damian Lillard is the real deal. Having grown up in Oakland, Calif. and going to college at Weber State in Utah, Lillard has flown under the radar for many basketball fans.
Lillard was a first-round draft pick by the Portland Trail Blazers. On Nov. 3, Lillard joined Oscar Robertson as one of the only players to record 20 or more points and more than seven assists in their first three rookie season games.
Lillard recently talked with Street Roots the Trail Blazers’ annual Harvest Dinner about his experience as a young basketball player and being humbled by the experience of playing in the NBA.
Israel Bayer: You recently tweeted, “I’m humble because I’m blessed. I could have been someone else and someone struggling could have been me.” Can you talk more on what you meant by this?
Damian Lillard: To me, it means I am humbled because I am blessed to be in this position. For a lot of people, sometimes poverty and hard times are out of people’s control. It’s hard to know where we all may end up. A lot of unfortunate things come up for some people. Not only was I able to go to college, experience that, and be successful. I am now making millions of dollars playing basketball. It’s a blessing to be here.
It could easily have been me or my family that fell on hard times and ended up homeless. Some of these folks could have been living the life that I live.
I.B.: You grew up in Oakland, so you know about poverty.
D.L.: It was tough. I come from a neighborhood where a lot was going on — violence, drugs, and a lot of homeless people. It’s stuff like this that I take to heart because I wish someone did something like the Harvest Dinner for people in my neighborhood. There were a lot of homeless people who don’t have this opportunity.
I am happy that I can come here and experience it all and talk to people. It’s funny, because I was just telling somebody that I would like to do something like this in my hometown. Just so that people know you want to help. You never know what peoples’ stories are. Anytime you can give back and help people, it’s a good thing.
I.B.: You have talked about your father being a role model. How important was having a male role model growing up?
D.L.: It means a lot when you have somebody that is solid and somebody that has really been a father figure for you. They can steer you in the right direction. They can be that person to tell you when you are doing something wrong and correct you.
A lot of single mothers break down sometimes because they have to deal with so much like making sure they keep the lights on, food on the table, paying the rent, making sure your child has clothes. Managing that stress can become overwhelming.
When a kid doesn’t have that father, you start to look to other directions for that comfort and support. That might be their friend’s who are falling into the wrong things. Having a father figure and that guidance is so important.
I.B.: Have these experiences prepared you for today. I mean, you are now living the dream.
D.L.: Having that support and foundation in my family really prepared me for this. It’s hard to even put into words. Again, I am humbled by this experience and work hard. I will do my best to take advantage of what’s been offered to me.
I.B.: For many people experiencing homelessness, they tend to hang onto every Trail Blazer game. Talk a little bit about what sports means to people in a community?
D.L.: I can understand for many people on the streets, they might not have a chance to go and watch a game — maybe they don’t have a TV. Anything we can do that might take these negative things off of people’s mind and have something positive to hold onto, even if it’s for a few moments is a great thing.
Knowing that NBA players have this type of impact on people — kids, families, people struggling, for me, it’s about lifting people up.
Being an athlete can pick you up when you are down, and pick other people’s spirits up. That’s what sports is all about. I’m not above the people.
I.B.: What are you hoping to get out of the next year?
D.L.: I am hoping that we can grow as a team and I can grow as a person. Anytime we can pick people up, I am all about it. We’re going to give our best.