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How one small business is still feeling — and celebrating — Damian Lillard’s impact on Portland

The Portland shop Back to the Basket hosted a watch party Wednesday to celebrate Lillard and community.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

At Portland Trail Blazers icon Damian Lillard’s anticipated return to the Moda Center as a Milwaukee Buck, you didn’t hear a showering of boos or see the burning of jerseys. Instead, you heard a 63-second standing ovation and saw the franchise great reciprocate the applause by forming a heart high with his hands. The event wasn’t about hate, but a mutual love shared between Lillard and the city.

That was evident at the arena, but also around town, especially at vintage basketball shop Back to the Basket (located on Hawthorne in Southeast Portland).

Co-owners Troy Douglass, 34, and Jalen Thomas, 29, kept the buy-sell shop open late Wednesday night to host a watch party, surrounded by the store’s clothes and memorabilia collected through decades of basketball history. The two lifelong Blazers fans — or as Douglass put it, fans “from the womb to the tomb” — understood the magnitude of the moment and wanted to share it with the community. It’s a party! Bring your friends, said the email to customers announcing the event.

“Dame means everything if you’re a Portland Trail Blazers fan,” Douglass said. “He gave us hope during a time of bleak Blazer history.”

Douglass and Thomas have built a basketball junkie’s paradise at Back to the Basket since its opening in late 2020. Crisp sneakers preserved in plastic wrap stock the wall on the left. Throwback hats line the wall on the right. The center of the store showcases four racks hanging up hard-to-find t-shirts, shorts and jerseys. Then every other inch of the walls and shelves is brimming with basketball knick-knacks and novelty items. Even the ceilings don’t waste space, with pairs of sneakers hanging by their laces, Like Mike-style, and a cutout of Bugs Bunny in a Toon Squad jersey smiling down at shoppers.

The longer you peruse the store, the more basketball easter eggs from yesteryear you’ll unearth — special edition NBA Barbies still in the box, a Rasheed Wallace lunchpail, a bench chair from the forgettable ‘05-06 Blazers season. While the shop leans heavy into the Blazers, the owners are quick to remind that Back to the Basket is a basketball store for all fans and teams, NBA or college.

That inclusive design is true not only for the merchandise, but the philosophy Douglass and Thomas share. The two don’t want to just build a basketball business, but a community, a neighborhood hangout open for anybody to come together. This Dame event was one of the latest steps in that endeavor, which includes the goal of more in-store events for 2024.

The party was themed as a celebration for Lillard, but for the tight-knit group of 15 to 20 people who showed up, it was more so a celebration of Back to the Basket and an effort to support the community the small independent business is trying to foster on Hawthorne.

“I was catching from the crowd that maybe it wasn’t the strongest of Blazers fans,” Douglass said. “But it was people that were rocking with Back to the Basket, and that felt really good.”

In the spring of 2014, around the time that a second-year Lillard helped establish the mythos of “Dame Time” by hitting his iconic playoff buzzer-beater in Game 6 to eliminate the Houston Rockets, Douglass was “peddling hats and tees out of the garage.”

Douglass, who grew up in Lake Oswego, had started his clothing brand, Cultural Blends, as a student at the University Hawaii at Hilo in 2011. During that magical ‘13-14 season, the brand didn’t have its own domain name yet, operating on the e-commerce platform Big Cartel. Douglass had been trying in vain to get the Moda Center merchandise store to pick up one of his Blazer-themed hats — a slick snapback with big numbers across the front simply reading, 1977, referencing Portland’s first and only World Championship.

Then on May 4, 2014, two days after Lillard hit that historic shot to end Portland’s 14-year playoff series drought, a photograph captured the star boarding the team plane to San Antonio for the second-round series. He was wearing none other than the Cultural Blends 1977 hat. One of Douglass’ friends had gifted Lillard the snapback during a signing event earlier that year. Now, as the city buzzed with the spirit of Rip City, Lillard wore it at a high-profile moment.

When Douglass saw the photo he immediately started running circles in the parking lot of Eastport Plaza. Business began to boom.

“It was a dream, but it was a nightmare to try to fulfill it in time ...” Douglass said. “I didn’t sleep for like four weeks.”

Cultural Blends only had about eight hats in inventory, but approximately every 1.5 seconds for the next 24 hours, the Big Cartel site got an order, Douglass said. The Blazers called asking if they could get a bunch to sell at the Moda Center for the upcoming Spurs series. Douglass and his mom formed an assembly line to pack boxes. His embroiderer worked overtime. It took awhile, but they fulfilled every order. When about 244 of the hats arrived at the Moda Center for Game 4 of the next series, they sold out by halftime, Douglass said.

“Without that hat, lowkey, Back to the Basket probably wouldn’t exist,” he said.

In 2018, with the help of a grant from the Native American Youth and Family Center — Douglass is an enrolled tribal member of Grand Ronde — Cultural Blends moved into its first brick-and-mortar location at the Lloyd Center. It operated there until its closing in December 2022. Not long after the Lloyd Center location opened, Douglass connected with Thomas in a sneaker deal of Yeezy 350s through Facebook Marketplace.

“I just remember it being a real genuine experience, and I got a good vibe from him,” Douglass said.

At the time, Thomas was on his own journey trying to make it as a professional basketball player. The Liberty High grad from Hillsboro played junior college ball, then relentlessly chased his NBA dream in second-division pro leagues in El Salvador and Armenia. Some Blazers fans may recognize Thomas from a profile the Rose Garden Report’s Sean Highkin wrote about him in 2023, reporting on Thomas’ tryout for Portland’s new G League affiliate the Rip City Remix.

During their sneaker meet-up, Douglass told Thomas about his vision for a basketball vintage shop. The two stayed in touch. Then after the COVID-19 pandemic put Thomas’ basketball pursuit on hold, the two opened up Back to the Basket in September 2020 (the shop was originally called Ball Was Life, but a cease-and-desist letter from sports website Ballislife prompted the change).

In the more than three years since its grand opening, Back to the Basket has established a firm place in Portland’s basketball culture. That has to do with the uniqueness of the product, but, again, also its community-oriented, personable vibe — admittedly a small-business cliche, but true for the shop. Douglass is quick to smile and call people “brotha man!” At the homecoming watch party, he kept instructing his two-and-a-half-year-old son Taj, stumbling around in a Lillard jersey, to call various friends in attendance “uncle,” even this reporter.

As the face of the store’s creative and lively social media content alongside store employee Keyshawn Vogt, 24, Thomas has helped garner the business an impressive following. The store’s TikTok account boasts over 250,000 followers while the Instagram account has over 20,400. The videos feature quick edits, graphics and lots of skits (Thomas is the “OG” and Vogt plays the salesman in the video below).

As a popular basketball store in Portland, Dame’s departure had ripple effects that even touched Back to the Basket. Thomas noted business has slowed some, particularly on Blazers game days, as fans are less excited to attend games.

“We got a really young talented group, but the bread and butter was Dame,” said Thomas, referring to the rebuilding Blazers.

Still, Thomas echoed that the store is bigger than one player or one team, whether the Blazers are on a down year or hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.

So on Wednesday, Back to the Basket gathered around the 48-inch TV behind the register for the strange but “joyous” experience of watching Lillard return to Portland in green and white.

It was a smaller turnout than some of their previous events, but those who showed up were true family, friends and fans of the store. Along with Taj, Douglass’ partner Sydney was there in a rare Blazers jacket (Douglass went with a ‘90s Blazers practice jersey). Thomas’ mom Angela and siblings Jada and Dante attended to “support the fam!” as Angela put it.

Old co-workers and friends from Douglass’ Lloyd Center days showed up. Xander Lyons, 24, said he was a friend of Douglass’, but he also looked to him as a mentor as a fellow Indigenous Peoples business owner. Lyons is of Shuswap First Nations heritage from British Columbia, and sells vintage clothing through his online clothing shop Kséles Supply. Perhaps the greatest example of the owners’ vision, Meghan McCluren, 27, stopped by to hang out after work. McCluren, a circus performer, is a Celtics fan, not a Blazers fan, but she loves sports and has been looking for more people in her community who share that interest.

“It already has a hangout vibe,” she said about Back to the Basket.

At the end of the close game, most people at the party were bummed Lillard didn’t get to attempt a “Dame Time” shot at Moda for old times’ sake. But when the buzzer sounded with the Blazers ahead 119-116, the room erupted in cheers and Douglass flexed his arms with a yell to the small crowd.

“We all love basketball here and that’s the wave,” Thomas said. “...We’ll be here for a while, man.”