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Inside the music and mind of Blazers guard Damian Lillard

The zero on the entrance and again of Damian Lillard’s Portland Trail Blazers jersey is definitely the letter “O.” It stands for Oakland, the place he grew up in the metropolis’s working-class Brookfield Village neighborhood. It stands for Ogden, the place he performed school ball at Weber State, and for Oregon, the place he lives and works and co-parents his son, Damian Jr. You can say he is representing, flying his flag. But he’ll inform you it is one thing easier than that. He’s being who he’s. He’s understanding what he is about. “I operate as me,” he’ll inform you. “How I feel and what I was raised on, all the time, regardless of where I’m at or who’s around. It’s the same thing, same energy all the time.”

THIS PAST SUMMER, Lillard, 29, signed a four-year, $196 million extension with the Blazers. At roughly the identical time, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George engineered a radical Clippers makeover, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving cooked up a fantasy Brooklyn reboot, and LeBron James wooed Anthony Davis for a Lakers glory reclamation undertaking.

But Dame Lillard operated as Dame Lillard. Be who you might be the place you might be. Stay rooted. Make this work. Make it the finest of itself. Bring the identical factor, the identical power all the time. Ask him whom he was this summer season and Lillard will not discuss to you about Leonard or Davis. He’ll discuss Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks legend who led his staff to a title in 2011 and retired after 21 years in Dallas.

“He just stayed with it,” he’ll say. “I respect what Dirk did. Like, I see that and I’m like, ‘It’ll be worth it. I know it was worth it for him,’ you know what I’m saying? Like, he’ll be forever, ever, ever respected in Dallas and in the league. So that’s like what I see from myself.”

BROOKFIELD VILLAGE IS a blended African American and Hispanic neighborhood in East Oakland, a few 25-minute stroll from Oracle Arena, the place a younger Lillard used to attend close to the gamers’ parking zone, hoping for autographs and to sneak into the area for video games. Homes in the neighborhood had been inbuilt two booms, one in the early 1900s and one other throughout World War II to supply housing for employees manufacturing munitions and provides. You do not placed on airs in Brookfield; you go to work, you are taking pleasure and you step to the problem, no matter it may be.

You can see Brookfield in Lillard’s infamous post-late-game-dagger stare. And you possibly can see it in the eyes of his father, Houston. “My dad would always tell me, ‘You don’t gotta be scared of nobody,’” Lillard says. “‘When you go in a room, believe in yourself.’ Like, I was always taught that.”

Lillard acquired into his first battle at Brookfield Park. He performed flag soccer there and suited up for his first basketball sport at age 6. He rode his bike throughout Brookfield, and he and his brother, Houston Jr., hit the fitness center at the park early and usually, enjoying in opposition to grown males, typically deep into the evening.

“I remember when they got locked in there,” says his mom, Gina Johnson. “I remember them always being over there and playing, and then staying and hiding so that they could play longer.”

There is ache in Brookfield too. The crime price (based on is 191% greater than the nationwide common. Drugs, prostitution and violence had been a daily half of life when Lillard was developing. In these days, as an antidote, the neighborhood held an annual summer season get-together known as the Never Worry Picnic. “The whole neighborhood would be there, and the rest of the city of Oakland,” Lillard says.

He remembers the music and his household grilling meals, remembers what it felt prefer to be along with his grandparents and dad and mom and mates. Most of all, he remembers all of them doing the Brookfield Village signature dance. It’s half shuffle, half swagger in the ft and all laid-back, never-hurried cool, with the fingers conducting at the identical time. “You can’t teach it,” Lillard says, dipping into it. “You gotta be around it. This is something you just can’t teach. Like, this is years and years in the making.”

The picnic went away when he was about 12 as a result of too usually the enjoyable gave strategy to strife — “It always ended in like a fight or a shootout or something like that,” he says — but it surely’s the means he felt about it when it was at its finest that he remembers even now.

The annual Never Worry Picnic in Brookfield ended when Damian Lillard was 12. Eleven years later, after a standout rookie yr in Portland, Lillard knew precisely what he needed to offer again to East Oakland: a rekindled Never Worry get-together. Ryan Young for ESPN

NEW YORK CITY, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles are well-known basketball factories. But pound for pound, the Oakland space may need the world’s finest assortment of hoopers.

Bill Russell, the star of the Boston Celtics and an 11-time NBA champion, went to McClymonds High School in Oakland earlier than dominating at the University of San Francisco. Gary Payton went to Skyline High, and Jason Kidd went to St. Joseph Notre Dame on his strategy to UC Berkeley. Paul Silas, Brian Shaw, the Barry brothers, Lester Conner, Antonio Davis, Eddie House, Greg Foster, Drew Gooden, Leon Powe, Ivan Rabb and J.R. Rider all have roots in and round “The Town.” If Lillard is now the world’s most well-known standard-bearer for the Brookfield Village Dance, he is additionally the newest in an extended line of gamers upholding the Bay Area basketball custom and representing its tight-knit basketball neighborhood. “Gary Payton, B-Shaw, Jason Kidd, everybody like that, we held on so tight,” he says, occupied with his time as a younger, growing participant.

Lillard’s brother went the juco route and performed soccer at Laney College after incomes poor grades in excessive school. Houston buckled down and ultimately earned a scholarship to Southeast Missouri State and consistently instructed his youthful brother to study from his errors by focusing and getting higher grades. “I applied a lot of pressure on him,” Houston says. Damian responded. He was academically eligible at commencement, although not extensively recruited, and ultimately signed with Weber State. Saint Mary’s and Washington State made late runs at Lillard, however he caught with the school that needed him first.

Ogden, Utah, is a school city of about 90,000 — 80% white and 2% black — roughly 40 miles north of Salt Lake City, and NBA goals appeared laughable at the time in the Big Sky Conference, which hardly ever produced professional prospects. But Lillard drew consideration, averaging 24.5 factors, rebounds and assists as a redshirt junior in 2011-12, and his father began to get a sense. “I kept it to myself. And then I started sharing it like with his mom and a few other family members and friends that I thought we had one,” he says. “That’s what I said, ‘I think we got one, y’all.’”

He was proper. Portland took Lillard sixth general in the 2012 draft, and his 19, 3.1 and 6.5 that season earned him Rookie of the Year honors. He’s been an All-Star 4 instances since.

It’s a giant factor to rise up and out, to play on the stage of your hometown heroes, to flee the risks you see in the streets, to really feel like you will have decisions on this life. I believe we acquired one, y’all. Lillard’s father knew what he was and knew what he was saying. Dame had an opportunity. But Houston Lillard Sr.’s son wasn’t seeking to go wherever. He was seeking to carry one thing again.

AT THE END of his standout rookie season, Damian Lillard needed most of all to rekindle the Never Worry Picnic in Brookfield Park, and this time with out the fear. With the assist of his agent, Aaron Goodwin, and Goodwin Sports PR director Mary Ford, he jump-started the custom, footing most of the invoice himself. “He said if he ever became a basketball player, he would do something for the neighborhood,” his grandfather Albert remembers. Entertainment at the first picnic included horse rides and video video games, and there have been hamburgers and sizzling canines courtesy of Oakland firefighters. They handed out school backpacks with the wanted goodies, plus T-shirts and Adidas basketball footwear.

There has been a Dame-sponsored Never Worry-like occasion in every of the previous six years. This yr there have been zip traces, mountain climbing partitions and bounce homes. Local barbers and beauticians reduce and curled hair, and Lillard’s uncle Oscar cooked his well-known ribs and hen on an enormous grill in the again of the parking zone.

All the whereas, Lillard shook fingers with of us from the neighborhood and took photos with children, signed autographs and reunited with previous mates. He needed individuals from dwelling to nonetheless contact him. And he needed to the touch them too. He thinks about “people’s everyday lives, like the struggle that they might have every single day,” he says. And about how “something like this brings a light.”

Brookfield has gone via adjustments since Lillard was on his bike in the park and in the fitness center in any respect hours as a boy. Oakland has lengthy been referred to as one of the most welcoming cities in the nation for African Americans. It’s the birthplace of the Black Panthers and is at present about 25% African American. But the various city is altering every day; new high-rise, high-priced condominiums, hipster eating places, a dropping black inhabitants and a rising homeless difficulty are all proof of the affect of a burgeoning tech business. Dame’s East Oakland remains to be predominantly African American, however for a way lengthy he would not know.

He notices the gentrification, which has raised the price of housing and over time modified the racial composition of the metropolis. In 2000, Oakland was 35.7% black and 31.3% white. In the 2010 census, the numbers had been reversed: 28% black and 34.5% white. “Every time I go home it looks a little different,” Lillard instructed The Undefeated two summers in the past. “I told someone the other day, ‘Home is not what it was anymore.’ … It takes away from the feeling of our neighborhood.”

So the picnic is not only a celebration. It is not only a reward from a celebrity to the of us he knew again in the day. It’s a dedication, an funding, a means of preserving one thing important to the place alive and a means of being actual in the place.

When a younger black boy at the picnic asks him if he is actually from Brookfield — “Lightweight tried to pull my card,” Lillard says with fun — the authenticity notice rings out for him and offers him added ardour for the significance of the occasion. “I needed to be more present,” he says. “He’s seeing everybody that hang out at the gas station and people that’s on the strip coming down east and people that live on his street. So if he sees my interaction with them, and he’ll see how regular it is, it’ll register.”

It additionally registers when Lillard steps onstage at the picnic as Dame D.O.L.L.A., maybe the best rapper who lists skilled athlete as a full-time job. “If you from Brookfield, I need you to circle around,” he says to the crowd, mic in hand, calling his neighborhood assembly to order. There are athletes who dabble in hip-hop, however this is not that. This is Brookfield. This is I function as me. This is, as the title says, Different On Levels the Lord Allows.

“Know that I’m from Oakland, so I’m too legit to stop. If you all in my part, you half of my assortment.”

– Dame D.O.L.L.A., in “Boss Life”

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