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Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Damian Lillard Reaction, Image, Fishbowls, and Racism

A Mailbag devoted to the reaction storm surrounding Damian Lillard's late-night bar incident and the questions following in its wake.


This (second!) Mailbag today addresses the reaction to the incident with Damian Lillard's entourage and a possible bar altercation detailed here. If that's not your cup of tea (and it's not mine either but we might as well get the questions over and done with instead of dragging it out for weeks) then you can find the Draft Lottery Drawing Day version of the Mailbag here.


Damian Lillard, entourage, bar fight, AAAAAAAHHHH!!! My stomach just turned a loop. How serious is this? Innocent, dumb mistake, or sign of bad things to come? Help! I want my innocence back!


Two clashing waves of reaction come from situations like this. Half the people accuse while the other half excuse.

"He shouldn't have been out there thugging it up at 2:30 a.m. and why does he have an 'entourage' anyway?!?"

"Those guys who got beat up must have been looking for trouble, probably to get rich off of suing an NBA millionaire!"

We don't have enough knowledge about the actual incident to go down either of those paths. Nobody knows except the people involved and they likely have wildly different interpretations of the events in question. We're not ever going to know exactly what went down or why. There's nothing to accuse anybody of at this point, nothing to excuse either. Confrontations like this happen all the time. Usually they go by the boards as everybody gets on with life. One of the onlookers (perhaps an interested party) in this event will get on with a life of NBA stardom. That's the only odd factor in this whole story and it's not indicative of anything much.

If such incidents become commonplace for Lillard then we have a problem. But you can't deal with that unless it happens. Until it does--and hopefully it never will--take a couple antacids, calm your stomach, and get back to rooting for the guy.

If folks aren't satisfied with that, I can add some generalities:

1. If the JailBlazer era, yellow hummers, drag races with loaded guns through downtown streets, and police reports about hotel assaults had never happened, how big would the reaction to this story be? The stomach churning comes more from old scars than new fears. Damian Lillard should be aware of those things but he's not responsible for them. We're responsible for factoring in the source of our reactions before we lay stuff on him. That's true whether this incident ends up as nothing at all or a major deal.

2. People are entitled to be young. If there were mistakes here (and we don't know that there were) then people are entitled to a few of those too. That includes NBA people and people taking pictures of NBA people.

3. As we grow older we start to realize that we can't have everything. Having access to every relatively uninhibited public environment in town, partying among a social-media generation, and retaining complete control over photo images may be mutually exclusive goals. Working that out may be a learning process. All of us have those learning processes. Most of us don't go through them under media scrutiny.

4. Risk assessment is also part of life. In my opinion nobody should get sanctimonious about bar hopping at 2:00 a.m. Almost everybody has done it. Mostly it's fine. But personal confrontations in this day and age seem to carry more risk than they used to. Get into enough of them and you're going to run into somebody who considers himself a legit gangster or tough guy. Sometimes those guys pack more than fists. Neither you nor your friends want to be handling those situations. It's a bad idea from personal safety and media relations standpoints and neither one of those go away. The risk-reward of random clubbing versus finding a place where the owner can give you your own space and vet the people coming into contact with you (including handling the "no picture" thing) may be something to examine.

Summing up: Damian Lillard was somewhere near a situation which proved volatile both immediately and in its ripple effect. He may or may not have been responsible for the immediate scenario. He's certainly not responsible for all of the ripple effect but that's not something he can control either, nor will it change. He'll have to decide who he is (and who he wants to become) personally and professionally, make a risk-reward assessment, and plan for the future accordingly. Each of us has to do the same at some point in our multiple points really. Some end up good at it, some not. We'll see which way Damian goes.

While I do find this newsworthy in terms of reporting the incident--and would continue to do so should something similar happen again--debating and dissecting his personal assessment/choices like they were basketball moves seems repugnant to me. I don't believe we have the obligation, knowledge, or authority to pick apart his personal decisions the way we pick apart his pick and roll defense. He's getting paid millions to make the latter mistake-free. Not so for the former. We can't help but observe because he's a public figure. He derives some social capital from that observation so there's some benefit with the price. But having thousands of strangers pass judgment on incomplete information without knowing your mindset is too high of a price unless your actions cause repeated and substantial public harm. We're not even close to that with Lillard.


Doesn't Damian Lillard have to be more conscious of his public image? He's a public figure making millions. Responsibility comes with the territory.


Maybe he needs to be less conscious of his public image. Concern over getting posted on the internet in less than pristine condition was supposedly a motivating factor in the incident.

Why are we so concerned with "public image" anyway? Lillard is brilliant in front of a microphone. His public addresses charm everyone. He seems so nice, stable, perfect, funny. You have to know he's not like that every second of every day, right? Nobody could be.

My guess is that Lillard is worried because he's gone to great pains to show the best part of himself when being interviewed and representing the team...exactly as he should. He's good at it and is being rewarded for it...exactly as he should. But he also lives in a society where one picture on the internet can cause hundreds of thousands of people to say, "He's a totally phony jerk! This is the real Damian Lillard!" That's not the real Damian Lillard any more than the guy on the mic in uniform is. He's a mix of everything, just like we all are. But he won't be judged that way. Instead he'll be judged by how his "image" meets up with people's expectations.

What if we all saw that picture of him looking less-than-perfect and said, "Well, fine. I assumed he wasn't that guy on the mic 24/7"? What if he didn't have to worry that much about photos leaking out because we took the best parts of him at face value and used those for our definition unless confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary which indicated public harm?

Ask people around here if I'm reasonable and most will say yes. Ask people at my church the same thing and you'll get the same answer. Ask my wife and you're going to get a more nuanced tale. Does that single snapshot of me in my worst moments make all the rest a lie? Does it ruin my whole "image"? I hope not. It doesn't for her.

If we want to make the world a better place maybe we should stop fussing about what Damian Lillard is or isn't doing at 2:00 a.m. and start worrying about the system we've created where everybody is either an idol or lower than dirt with no real humanity allowed...the system where image is everything and a 22-year-old guy has to worry about who's taking his picture because it could ruin him.


The Portland fishbowl sucks! What players will ever want to come here under this kind of scrutiny!


Please, stop.

You want scrutiny? In New York or Los Angeles there would have been photographers taking pictures of the paparazzi who were taking pictures of the two guys taking a picture of Lillard and getting roughed up for it. The biggest difference is that in those bigger, nightlife-oriented cities Lillard probably would have already been steered to a joint like the one mentioned above where the owner would V.I.P. him and take care of everything so Lillard didn't have to. They cater to that kind of thing. But there's no guarantee Damian would even like that treatment.

For the vast majority of players Portland's disadvantages have more to do with ancillary advertising revenue and national media attention than with who's taking whose picture and how quickly it gets spread in the media.


It's hard to read about the Lillard bar thing without picking up on racial overtones. Let alone discuss it! I've already heard people throw the word around. I'll just ask. Is Portland racist and is this further proof?


My earliest education about racism came from the Love Boat. I was a little kid when it ran. I didn't even know what racism was until this one episode when some African-American people came on the ship and Isaac the Bartender (played by the also-African-American Ted Lange) got mad at them. One of the guys was named "Hambone" or something. He was an entertainer. He did this hand-jive thing which Isaac did not want him to do in front of white people. Isaac argued that he was going to set back all the progress his people had made, perhaps impugning Isaac's own credibility with his Caucasian Crewmates.

Looking back now, this is kind of funny. Progress? Hambone probably should have replied, "Dude, you're the bartender." And then Isaac's all, "Yeah, but if the Captain and the Doctor and Gopher all die then it's a fight between me and the coked-out blonde chick to see who will run the whole ship!"

In any case, when Isaac's white friends heard about his angst they scolded him and assured him it was OK. They liked Hambone's act. They weren't going to think anything less of him or of Isaac because of the hand-jive. It was entertaining. I think maybe Isaac joined him in a little jiving to close the show.

Summation of message: Don't worry, Isaac. You can tap dance AND serve us drinks and we'll still like you just fine!

Now keep in mind this was the Love Boat...cotton-candy sweet network TV. They were trying to be as understanding and inclusive and reassuring as they could manage. This was supposed to be a good message.

When you've got a few evil-minded folks among you hurling epithets, trying to hurt and exclude another ethnic group, your society might be kind of racist. When the best possible thing you can think of to say about another ethnic group is still racist...yeah folks, you're racist.

But who knew? That's the point here. Those writers and all us nice white folks who watched thought we were being kind and sweet and totally fair. Looking back, probably not so much. We had no clue. Then again I don't think it's possible to know, at least not completely. It's not possible to parse out all the influences that inform your outlook and actions. Except in its most obvious forms racism can't be discerned internally. Racism happens in the space between us, between people of different ethnic origins. The only way to detect it is through the feedback echoing through that space, by listening and taking each other seriously as we consider these matters.

Is Portland racist? Yes? Maybe? No? I don't know. I know I'm not qualified to answer that question. I'm not sure how much good comes from arriving at such a static label anyway. People prefer a set answer because it absolves them of the need for further discussion on the matter. "Yes! No! Done! Next topic!" Ironically listening to and interacting with people who bring different things to the table than you--particularly those who might be disadvantaged--is the only means of identifying racism and probably the best corrective to it as well.

Circling back to the Lillard reaction and whether it's racist, I'd have to listen a lot longer before I was prepared to offer an opinion. Even then I'm not sure my opinion would matter much. It wouldn't surprise me if racism was a factor. It would kind of surprise me if that's THE factor. Either way, I'm not even an expert on my own racism so I feel at a loss to speak. I've nodded at racist stuff before without even realizing it was racist. How can I answer this about an entire city?

Since this is a basketball blog I'm sensing a basketball subtext to your question as well, as in: "Is Portland more racist than other NBA cities and might incidents like this affect an NBA player's perception of the city's desirability?" Again, I'm no expert. My guess is that every city has its own form of inequality. I'm not sure you escape it as much as find a flavor you can live with. That doesn't absolve us from working on our own, local forms of inequality. But I doubt there's some Utopia City out there where these issues don't exist if that's what you're worried about.

Then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder which means ugly is too. And, by the way, should we even be worried about basketball context when these issues come up? Could that be racism too, since we probably care about these things less because he's an African-American possibly experiencing injustice and more because he's Damian Lillard, Rookie of the Year?

Ugh. I have a headache now and I'm no closer to answering this question than when I started. So I'm going to leave this to wiser souls and go back to figuring whether the Blazers would have the chutzpah to draft Victor Olapido with the #1 overall pick if they got it and couldn't trade down to a more sensible spot to take him. If you're going to take up the racism topic in the comments, please keep it respectful and avoid stomping over or shouting past each other on your way to defend your point.

--Dave (