In honor of the NBA’s 75th anniversary, players were named to a team that featured the 75 best players of all time. Current Portland Trail Blazers’ star point guard Damian Lillard made the official NBA list, along with a few other notable Blazers. The Athletic is also curating its own list of the 75 best, and Lillard is named there, coming in at 68th. Jason Quick outlines what Lillard has accomplished from his youth to the present, starting with that milk crate on the telephone pole in Oakland.
“Even if you go there right now, you will see a bunch of nails in the pole,” Lillard said. “They are still in it. And they are all around it. Because once a crate broke, he would position another one somewhere else.”
But the pole isn’t where Lillard started: no, he used to take shots through a branch on a tree.
“Literally, the branch of the tree was shaped just like a hoop,” Lillard said. “I used to shoot on a tree.”
The range of his shot is a result of his size and wanting to outwit defenders.
“I was small,” Lillard said. “So I would shoot from far so people couldn’t block my shot. So even as a kid, I shot from deep.”
Quick notes that Lillard has a natural athleticism, but basketball held more allure than other sports due to his instinct and love for the game.
“I just had this feel for it,” Lillard said. “Like, I understand boxing well. I understand football well. I understand baseball well. But basketball, my feel for how to play the game and what’s about to happen, what should happen … those instincts, I just always had it.”
“My feel for the game was always there, and that’s why I enjoyed playing the game so much,” Lillard said.
Lillard says he could play all day.
“Like, I never wanted to stop playing,” he said. “When I went to the (Ira Jinkins) rec center, I would play game after game, after game, after game, after game. I just LOVed playing. LOVed playing. I could play all day, literally. Me and my brother (Houston) would get up in the morning in the summer, go to the rec, be there all day, then go to the school (Brookfield Elementary), be there all day until someone was at the fence of the school yelling, ‘Damian! Houston! Y’all have to come home!”’
Lillard cultivated his game to mimic Allen Iverson.
“I was imitating Iverson because he was small, and he had that neighborhood energy,” Lillard said. “Everybody in my neighborhood loved A.I. So, it was like — a thing. Everybody wore Iversons.”
His work ethic started young.
“There was so much that I felt I could get better at,” Lillard said. “My shooting. My left hand. Right hand. Stepbacks, 360 moves. So I would be outside, by myself, working to get better.”
It has continued, allowing him to take that deep shot and turn it into a weapon.
“We had been working on the shot so much, it was like, ‘You need to be able to use this as a weapon,”’ Lillard said. “After getting swept, that’s when I was like, I have to get so good at this that this can be a normal shot. Then I started working on it with even more purpose.”
Lillard has faith in his shot.
“I believed in it,” Lillard said. “Because when I shoot those deep shots, it doesn’t feel like a hard shot for me. If I was shooting and it was like, man this is a hard shot for me to shoot, then I wouldn’t shoot it consistently. But it wasn’t hard.”
“Overall, I’m just a believer,” Lillard said. “Even when things aren’t working out for me, I think it’s a chance for me to prove that when I keep doing it, eventually it will work out. I think some people fail, and it puts them in a position to shy away from it and kind of let it go.
“And then you have people who really believe. I don’t know how to explain it: Some people are just believers. You just do, or you don’t. And I’m one of them.”
On being named to the list, Lillard acknowledges that it was unexpected.
“I was surprised,” Lillard said of being selected. “And it’s a great accomplishment. But I’m in the prime of my career, and I feel like I still have a lot to give and a lot of room to grow. It’s a great honor, and I’m not looking past it like it’s nothing. It’s a big deal, and I appreciate it, but I have a lot that I still feel like I need to accomplish.”
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