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Lillard’s Role in Portland Extends Beyond Basketball

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Jason Quick of the Athletic talks with Damian about his role on the team, his local community, and the city as a whole.

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Damian Lillard continues to star for the Portland Trail Blazers, but he’s quietly making a difference in Portland off the court as well. The Athletic’s Jason Quick spoke to Lillard about his involvement in the community, the Blazers’ off-court activities, and more. Lillard’s RESPECT campaign has received attention and praise, but Quick writes that Lillard is working for change in quieter ways as well:

About every two weeks, Lillard drives into North Portland to get his hair cut at the home of barber Dionte Allen.

Thirty years ago, the neighborhood — referred to as “The Ville” — was the scene of Portland’s first fatal, gang-related drive-by shooting, when 17-year-old Joseph “Ray-Ray” Winston of the Columbia Villa Crips was gunned down shortly after midnight.

Today, the neighborhood has new buildings, and even a new name (Columbia Villa is now New Columbia), but some of the same problems remain.

“It’s a vibrant community,” Portland Police Sergeant Pete Simpson said, “but it’s had some struggles over the last few years of shootings and homicides.”

As he is getting a haircut, Lillard interacts with the bustling traffic throughout the home. Men who have been in and out of jail. Kids with undisciplined home lives. Boys with tattered clothes.

“It makes me uncomfortable,” Lillard says.

Uncomfortable, he says, because he knows what it’s like. What he sees at The Ville is not unlike growing up in the Brookfield neighborhood of East Oakland.

“It’s almost like I reminisce,” Lillard says, “and go back in time.”

He was raised in a loving, and large family, overflowing with aunties and cousins. In the Lillard family, caring about the next person became a family tenet. Friends were always invited to meals, and over the holidays Lillard’s mom would make sure those friends had gifts. Today, when those friends are introduced by Lillard, they are referred to as cousins.

So Lillard doesn’t just see the struggle in North Portland, he feels it. He says he can tell whose parents don’t know, or care, where their sons are after school. He can sense who is self-conscious about their raggedy appearance. He can detect who is smart but isn’t applying themselves in school.

“Since I come from those situations, I can sense what is missing,” Lillard said. “They need something. They need somebody to care about them. They need inspiration. They need stuff I can give.”

So, for the past six years, he has been giving them his phone number. He follows them on Instagram. And he engages in no-nonsense talk. It’s what he calls “reeling them in.”

“I don’t say ‘I’m trying to help you,’” Lillard says. “I engage with them and rub off a vibe of ‘I want to see you do better.’”

Lillard’s impact has also impacted non-basketball areas within the franchise:

The Blazers had just traded Tim Quarterman to Houston for cash considerations. The Blazers’ social media team constructed a tweet, depicting a press conference, with cash considerations — bag of cash — on a podium in front of a microphone.

“In my mind, it was somewhat harmless,” McGowan recalls.

Lillard, however, took offense and immediately called McGowan.

“I saw it, and I was like, ‘You don’t do stuff like that.’ I mean, come on, man,” Lillard said. “That’s like looking down on people type stuff. We are all going to have our day where something happens, and you don’t know how the tables can turn.”

McGowan learned two lessons: Professional sports involve real people, and with Lillard, no detail within the organization goes unnoticed.

“The first person I heard from was Damian,” McGowan said. “He came at it from the human side of things. And in hindsight, it was a mistake. This kid, his whole life just got turned upside down. Going forward, I had a new perspective.”

The article is a unique look at Lillard the person. Click through to read the entire piece.