Superstar guard Damian Lillard has followed one of the most unique career arcs in recent league history.
In creating a reputation built on loyalty to the Portland Trail Blazers — and leaving essentially every one of his 94 teammates with something positive to reflect on — the All-Star guard traveled a distinctive path, particularly during the “ring culture” era. In an interview with Bleacher Report’s Taylor Rooks, former teammate Josh Hart shared some appreciation for that path.
Well aware of the many teammates that Hart has played with over his four-teams-in-six-years career, Rooks asked Hart who his “best veteran” has been, to which Hart, coincidentally, named one current Blazer and a few former ones to boot:
“I would say Larry Nance (Jr.) helped, and obviously he’s only a couple years older, but Larry was definitely big, being there. Kyle Lowry. Who else? I only had Dame for a year, I guess, but he’d been great. And then there’s guys that I never even played with like C.J. McCollum who’s helped me with certain things. So I probably would say those guys.”
Rooks took it a step further, recognizing how many polarizing All-Stars that Hart has played with early into his career — naming LeBron James, Zion Williamson and Lillard as examples — before asking which of his teammates is the most misunderstood. Within a second, Hart made his answer clear:
“Dame. And he’s misunderstood because everyone, we’re in a culture where it’s like, you’ve got to win a championship, you’ve got to win a ring, you have to do all that. So, it’s like, with the season, the very success of, you’re going to tell me that his season, or his career wasn’t a success because he didn’t win a ring? No. He’s someone who is extremely loyal. Someone who came from Oakland, underrated at Weber State and then got drafted there, and he really embraced being in Portland and Portland embraced him.
And, me being in Portland for a year, I understand why he’s so loyal because that fanbase is amazing, like they truly show you love. There were times when we were getting our a— whooped by 40, and they’re still there and I’m sitting there looking like, ‘Yo, why are y’all still here? I would’ve been left. If I didn’t have this jersey, if I didn’t have this jumpsuit and on this bench, I would be gone.”
Hart takes it a step further, giving Lillard’s career its flowers, regardless of said championship:
So people don’t understand that but he’s had such an amazing career. All-time leading scorer for the Blazers, I don’t know how many times All-Star, how many times All-NBA Team. And people will just sit there and like, ‘Oh, he’s too loyal. He has to go, he has to win a ring, he has to do all this. And that’s something that, to me it’s just stupid because I know he wants to win, but he wants to win the right way.
And he loves Portland, and I’m not saying he would never leave Portland because I don’t know that, that’s up to Dame, and I’m not sure how that is, but I think he’s misunderstood because people see that loyalty and they don’t understand it. But at the end of the day, he’s the only one that has to walk in his shoes, and as long as he understands it and he’s happy with it and he loves it, who are we to say?
The Lillard praise feels timely, given how much fan-driven discussion there’s been about the franchise moving on from its longtime superstar, ahead of the 2023 NBA Draft. Amidst the pros and cons, it’s remains worth wondering if any other superstar or draft prospect would return the same level of loyalty that Lillard has, or desires to.
Together, Lillard and Hart played 41 games as Blazers, winning 21 of them, the highlight of which coming in the early parts of the 2022-23 season. In the black-and-red threads, Hart averaged 11.7 points per game, the highest of any of his career stops, along with 7.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 50-33-74 percentage splits.
Over the rest of the interview, Hart talked about his own definition of “success” — it being somewhat similar to Lillard’s — his upcoming free agency decision, his time with the Knicks, and his infamous milk tweet, among much else.