A few days after the NBA suspended its 2019-20 season on March 11, Damian Lillard flew to Phoenix. His plan was to hole up there with his fiancee, Kay'La Hanson, and their two-year-old son, Damian Jr. He'd find a private gym he could work out in until the COVID-19 pandemic blew over and he could get back to the task of dragging a broken-down Portland Trail Blazers team into the playoffs.
As with every other part of life in the year 2020, Lillard's plan would quickly be waylaid.
"When it first started, I didn't know how serious it was," Lillard says. "I didn't really know nothing about the virus. So I was like, maybe we'll be playing in a month or a few weeks. ... But then [the NBA] let us know: No third-party trainers. No third-party gyms. They basically informed us on how serious it really was."
So he scrapped the Phoenix plan and they returned to Portland, his adopted home and the home of Lillard's mother and some of his extended family. Since being drafted by the Trail Blazers in 2012, Lillard, a native of Oakland, California, has planted deep roots in the area, where he's become the face of the franchise and been the rare modern superstar to commit long-term to a small market, signing a four-year, $196 million extension with the team last July that runs through the 2024-25 season.
Lillard earned that contract by being everything the Blazers could ever want in a franchise player. There may be no better leader in any of the 30 NBA locker rooms, no superstar whose teammates—from backcourt co-star CJ McCollum to any number of benchwarmers over the years—more consistently swear by him in every regard. He's established a culture from the beginning of his career that disallows any drama or prioritizing of individual agendas, starting with himself. And he's brought Portland a level of sustained national relevance the city hasn't seen in the sports world since Clyde Drexler's battles with Michael Jordan.
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Beyond his on-court excellence, Lillard is a superstar in every sense of the word. He's the face of Adidas' basketball roster with his own signature sneaker, has a successful rap career and was recently announced as one of the cover athletes for NBA 2K21. Players whom casual fans can name don't often choose to stay in cities like Portland for the long haul, but he's bucked the team-up trend that's defined the past 10 years of the NBA.
Lillard knows it's possible he never wins a title in Portland. But the story of the current era of superstar movement cannot be told without acknowledging how unfulfilled Kevin Durant was after leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State in pursuit of rings, the hit Kyrie Irving's reputation has taken after ditching both Cleveland and Boston in a two-year span and the drama Anthony Davis caused by forcing a trade from New Orleans to the Lakers last year.
Lillard even saw it up close when LaMarcus Aldridge, who preceded him as the face of the Blazers, left for San Antonio in 2015. Aldridge had made comments about wanting to retire as the best player in franchise history before ultimately deciding to move on. He has been very good in San Antonio, but he joined a team whose fans will never love him the way they did Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker or David Robinson. If he's at peace with that, it's his prerogative. Different things are important to different players.
But Lillard has done the math and decided that being Reggie Miller in Indiana or John Stockton in Utah would be a better move, as far as his own legacy goes. He may retire without a ring, but his number will be retired in Portland. He'll probably get a statue outside the Moda Center. Maybe even a street near the arena named after him, like Drexler and legendary head coach Jack Ramsay have.
"I would hate to be somebody that is in this type of situation, and I start looking for other places like, 'All right, I want to join this guy or that guy and go play in this market,' just based off of the pressure of people saying, 'Well, you don't have a ring, you don't have stuff like that'—then I go somewhere and I'm in a bad situation and it's not working out and then I get traded somewhere," Lillard said last summer after signing that extension. "Like, if it don't work out when you make these kinds of decisions ... you start bouncing around and then you kind of let something go that was special because you got bored with it and wanted to be a part of where everybody else was going."
Lillard's belief in Portland was rewarded last season, when the Blazers made the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000. During their run, Lillard hit a 37-foot buzzer-beater to win the first-round series against the Thunder, one of the decade's most indelible playoff moments.
Doing that in the uniform of the team that drafted him made it mean more. Portland caught some breaks making it as far as it did—Paul George's shoulder, an inexperienced Denver opponent in the second round—but easily could have caught a few more and gotten past the shorthanded Warriors in the conference finals.
It showed Lillard that it was within the realm of possibility.
"For us to get over that hump and get into the Western Conference Finals, it was reassuring to me," Lillard said after the series. "Like, OK, it was hard, and it took a lot out of us, but it's definitely possible. It's a reality."
And that reality only connects Lillard more and more to his team, his city, while other players of his caliber flit from place to place.
Recently, it's only grown as he has been a part of his adopted hometown's role in the social justice movement. He attended a protest in downtown Portland shortly after the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. And he's watched from the NBA's bubble over the past week as President Trump has sent federal troops onto the streets of Portland, against the will of local elected officials, with the result, as summarized by the New York Times, that "confrontations there have escalated … with a line of protesting mothers facing tear gas, and then, Wednesday night, Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland experiencing the same." Friday night brought more conflict as troops "continued to release irritants and shoot projectiles toward the crowd" of more than 4,000 protesters, according to the Oregonian.
"I had a personal experience with the protests on a particular day, and it was all peaceful," Lillard says. "And every one that I've seen video of has been peaceful, so I don't understand why federal troops need to be on the ground and physically removing people from the streets. I feel like it's unnecessary, and it's definitely a scary situation.
"It definitely hurt to see people peacefully protesting—and they are not in the wrong for protesting—and to be manhandled and to be physically taken off and to be treated the way that I saw in these video clips. It was disturbing."
In June, Lillard released a song, "Blacklist," that addressed the protests and the injustices and discrimination that Black Americans continue to face.
"People who say 'All lives matter' … I do think everybody's lives matter," Lillard said after the release of the song. "But Black people's lives are a part of 'all lives,' and they don't seem to matter much obviously, based on Breonna Taylor getting killed in her own house. You know what I'm saying? I grew up with Oscar Grant, who was killed at a BART station while handcuffed, facedown. I've been racially profiled by cops before I was in the NBA."
And when it does, what should you expect to see from Lillard and the Blazers on the court?
As they try to climb out of a three-and-a-half-game hole to catch Memphis for the final playoff seed, they have confidence they'll be able to not only sneak into the playoffs but also become the first No. 8 seed to make a serious run since the New York Knicks team that made the 1999 Finals. Health is one reason. Starting center Jusuf Nurkic, out since a broken leg cut short a career year in March 2019, was set to return on March 15 before the season was suspended. He's now fully cleared and will have no restrictions during the restart. Starting power forward Zach Collins, who underwent shoulder surgery three games into the season, is also completely healthy with no limitations. Both have drawn rave reviews from teammates and Blazers coach Terry Stotts.
But it's not the return of two starters that has the Blazers most excited. They know that Lillard has come up big in do-or-die situations before, that he's motivated to keep his playoff streak alive (Portland has made it every year except his rookie season in 2012-13), that they'll have the best player out of the cluster of teams fighting for the last playoff spot
"I think it helps that everybody's coming back rusty," Lillard says. "Nobody's been playing. Our team is really familiar with each other. And the fact that our starting 4 and 5 are coming back from injuries, the process of I've been hurt, I haven't been playing, I'm coming back, I've got to ease myself back in, get comfortable, get in rhythm with everybody else—that's out the window. Now they're coming back into a situation where everybody's in the same boat."
When players and the league were considering their plan for a restart, Lillard was vocal about wanting a chance for the Blazers to make the playoffs. They have it now, and he's determined not to waste it.
"It's a great opportunity for us," Lillard says. "So let's not come out here and take the easy way out and waste a month of our time. Let's make a run."
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.
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