It was the shot and meme that was heard around the world. Earlier this year, Portland Trailblazers' star point guard Damian Lillard hit a series-clinching jumper from beyond the arc as time expired, advancing to the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs. The shot, launched over former Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George's outstretched hands was a big deal to seemingly everyone else on the planet, but for Lillard, it was simply business as usual. “We’re a really resilient team,” Lillard told a reporter in a post-game interview. “We knew it was ups and downs throughout the series, we just had to keep our heads right, stay focused, stay together. We stayed together and it came down to one play and we executed really well and we were able to get it done.”
This wasn't the first time he had shattered a championship contender's dreams and delivered defeat as a cold dish served. In May 2014, Lillard buried a three-pointer at the buzzer to give the ‘Blazers a 99-98 win over the Houston Rockets, clinching a 4-2 win in the first round of that season's NBA Playoffs, Portland's first in fourteen years. When asked about his ability to keep his composure during these pressure-packed moments, Lillard credits his big-picture outlook with keeping him poised. "It's usually not a whole lot going through my head," he says. "I think what allows me to be confident and just keep my cool in those situations is knowing that I put the time in to give myself a chance to be successful and to end these games and staying in shape physically and just having my mind in the right place. And also understanding that I can shoulder the success and the failure of it. Whichever one happens on that night, I know I can handle both. So I go into those situations not really concerned with the outcome."
Selected by the Trailblazers in 2012 with the sixth overall draft pick, Portland, Oregon would be a culture shock for the average kid bred in the mean streets of East Oakland, California. But for Lillard, his collegiate tenure at Weber State in Utah, where he competed in Portland on several occasions, afforded him some familiarity with the city. "I always liked Portland," he shares. "Because when I was in college, at Weber, we'd play Portland State every year. So when you get a chance to come to a real city like Portland where it's like an actual downtown and stores you can go to and kind of move around, you just have a different appreciation of it when you're playing all of these different small towns. I already kind of liked the city to begin with. Now I get to explore more. My best friend was already going to college here when I got drafted so I've always liked it even before I got here. When I got here and started to meet people and learn the city, move around and just being a resident here, I've only grown to like it more. It's become more of a home to me over the years."
Many words have been used to describe Lillard's play on the court, but one of the most appropriate is "ruthless," which is a major theme of the concept behind the DAME 6, his sixth signature shoe with adidas. Released November 29, the DAME 6 is another reflection of Lillard's ties to the city. "It's a great feeling especially for me because I live in Portland," he says. "And [with] adidas being in Portland, we're able to have a strong partnership. Because of the communication and us being able to get in front of each other, it's not hard to figure things; it's always one drive. I can get to them or they can get to me and I think it makes things easier. If it's a shoe I need to see or some type of hoodie or anything, socks, whatever, they can get it in front of me right away, it's not a drawn-out process."
According to Rashad Williams, adidas Basketball Senior Director of Footwear, the brand set its sights on making Lillard one of the pillars of the three stripes not long after taking the league by storm during his Rookie of the Year campaign. "I'm from the west coast so I knew where Weber State was," Williams recalls. "And then him being a lottery pick, I think he got on everyone's radar. And Dame played in adidas growing up, all the way through college so we signed him on to the family. Then I think it was by his second or third year, we were like, 'Wow.' Not only did the Trailblazers realize they had something special, adidas realized they had something special as well."
When it comes to the shoe’s creation, Williams credits Lillard with streamlining the designing process with his own ideas and input. "I think that's the big thing with Dame, he constantly challenges us on every shoe. If something's on his mind, he'll text you or he might pull up to the office, but that's how we grow and it's real." Aside from being relentless within the confines of the game, a term that embodies who Damian is as a person is "duality." He can go from being calm and collected in the midst of family and friends to transforming into a fiery floor general. And it’s artistically reflected in the DAME 6, which has many different dimensions, layers and moving parts that speak to Lillard's multifaceted lifestyle.
"I think the best way that it mirrors me is just the duality, having both sides of the shoe looking different," the All-NBA point guard explains. "I think as a player on the court, I definitely have a mean streak. That's one side of me you won't always see, but then my demeanor and my face is completely calm. Right after the game, I'm playing with my son, during the game I'm completely different so I think that's the way that it connects. Just the duality: who I am on the court and off the court, being a rapper, being a basketball player...I just think there are so many sides to who I am.”
As a long-time rap fan and aficionado, Lillard began to share his talents on Instagram with his #4BarFriday posts. Lillard, who raps under the name Dame D.O.L.L.A. (the acronym standing for "Different on Levels Lord Allowed") upped the ante from there. In 2016, he released his debut album, The Letter O, and launched his record label, Front Page Music. Featuring appearances from Lil Wayne, Juvenile, Jamie Foxx, Marsha Ambrosius and Front Page Music's flagship signees Brookfield Duece and Danny from Sobrante, The Letter O peaked at No. 62 on Billboard’s Top Album Sales chart, a respectable debut for any new artist, let alone one tasked with carrying an NBA franchise on his back. After returning with a sophomore album, Confirmed, the following year, Lillard's reputation as a lyricist began to precede him with a number of rap artists and critics viewing him as the most talented rhymer currently in the NBA, rather than an athlete moonlighting as a gimmick.
“I think one of the things people recognize is that I'm a real student of hip-hop. I know the history of hip-hop and I respect the history of hip-hop. The reason I rap is ‘cause of some of the best people who have rapped. I'm a big, big 2Pac fan, big Nas fan. Big Andre 3000 fan, Juvenile, all of these guys. Wayne, Common...like I'm a fan of that type of music. Just creating a feeling and people being able to connect with what you're saying and because I'm a fan of that, that's the kind of rap I like to create. I like to put words together to give people a feeling and allow them to be able to connect with what I'm saying. And I think a mix of all of those things, being authentic with my music and genuine with my music, I think people can hear it and they can respect it. They can connect with it and I think they respect it more when they're like, 'This dude is a basketball player.' There are people who do this as their primary career who don't know the history of the game that they're playing. And they don't respect the history of the game that they're playing in. I think a mix of those things has allowed people to respect me doing it.”
Dame's quest to be not only the best rapping athlete but the greatest rap artist of all-time has not come without its share of challengers. The biggest contender for the crown is Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley, a former No. 2 overall pick whose debut mixtape, Don’t Blink, dropped on the night of the 2018 NBA Draft. During an appearance on ESPN’s First Take, analyst Max Kellerman asked Bagley who would be the victor in a rap battle between the two, to which he responded by picking himself as the superior rhymer. As the competitor that he is, Lillard accepted Bagley's challenge, prompting the former Duke star to throw down the gauntlet with "No Debate," a direct shot at Dame D.O.L.L.A. Not one to be outgunned, D.O.L.L.A. fired back quickly with a pair of tracks, "Bye Bye" and "MARVINNNNNN???." Bagley retorted with "Checkmate," which would be the final salvo in the pair's brief yet entertaining back-and-forth.
While a number of NBA players have released material, two had never engaged in lyrical warfare, making Lillard and Bagley's battle a historic one. "That was the reason I did it," Lillard says. "At first, I was like, 'If somebody ever says something to me with some music, I'm just gonna say nothing at all' 'cause it ain't that important for me. I rap for me, I'm just pushing my own music. I ain't in competition with no athletes. He mentioned my name once before and then it was on TV and it was like a thing. I started to prepare myself for it to happen for that reason, 'cause it hadn't been done before. So to be a part of the first, it was enticing. We did it and then after that, I was like, 'I'm not gonna do it.' Unbeknownst to Lillard, his days of sparring were far from over, as one of his own comments would land him in hot water with none other than retired NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, who didn't take too kindly to a reference Lillard made during an appearance on The Joe Budden Podcast.
Lillard's remark caught the attention of Shaq, who unleashed his vengeance against Dame on "The Originator," which saw the veteran comparing D.O.L.L.A.'s net worth and lack of championship hardware with his own. Undeterred, Lillard tossed out a pair of diss tracks, “Reign Reign Go Away" and its follow-up, “I Rest My Case.” While a large chunk of the public deemed Dame D.O.L.L.A. the victor in their dust-up, Lillard makes it clear this will likely be the last time he lyrically goes head-to-head with a fellow athlete. "Again, that was it," he reiterates. “The fact that it was Shaq, and that's like a big stage for my rap career. Having such a huge figure that I'm engaging with, I was like 'That's cool.' But that's probably it for my battle rap career."
With the release of his third studio album, Big D.O.L.L.A. — which has been billed as his most impressive project to date — Lillard plans to keep his buzz afloat this NBA season. "I mean, I've only recorded during the season maybe once or twice my whole career,” he shares. “Typically I just rap in the summer and I go away during the season, but this is the first time I did a lot of stuff in advance. I recorded a lot of extra music and I partnered with a lot of different people so that my music can continue to have legs and keep moving." He continues, “I got some stuff coming up, for sure. During the NBA season, I got some stuff coming, and something else that I can't mention right now, but y'all gonna see. But next summer, hopefully, I'll have another project ready.”
Lillard looks to make up for 2018's loss in the Conference Finals and shepherd the Trailblazers toward an NBA championship. However, with squads like the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, and Utah Jazz all retooling, the western conference is as daunting as it's ever been. "I knew it was gonna be a tough season just because of every team getting better," he says. "And us coming into the season with a completely new roster, a lot of our guys that we had for the last three to four years are on new teams now. And we brought in a new group of guys, so it's like not only did everyone get better, but we're in a process where we're trying to figure each other out. We're trying to learn each other, we're still trying to put plays in and get our chemistry together and it's just gonna be a process so we're trying to find our way in an already tough western conference. I know it's gonna be tough, I know it's gonna be a battle, but we just gotta keep our head in it for the full eighty-two [games]."
And he intends to play in every single regular-season game, an anomaly of today's NBA superstars in the age of load management. Birthed by Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs and popularized by Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors, the load management theory has been pegged as a key component in winning NBA championships, with last year's Raptors squad being the latest test case. Just don't expect Damian Lillard to be sitting any games out voluntarily anytime soon. "I mean, I think LeBron said it best: ‘If I'm healthy, I'm playing,’" he says, shrugging off any notion of him logging DNPs. "I think as somebody that just loves the game and I've worked hard my life to be able to play in an NBA game, I'ma have a whole post-game career to do load management or whatever. And I also think everyone doesn't have that luxury,” he adds. “I think that's part of the reason why so many top players are teaming up and trying to go to the team that's the strongest. Because it kind of affords you that opportunity more often than not where you can say, 'Okay, I'm not feeling great. I'ma sit this one out and worry about me because we have a team that's good enough to go out there and win without me.' But me personally, I love to play the game so I'm gonna always choose to play, but I also wouldn't wanna put my teammates in that position where I put myself above the team. We all can go out there and play, I always put myself on the same level as my teammates."
Lillard's game-winning shot may have been heard around the world, immortalized in memes and gifs, cementing him as one of the most clutch performers in the game, but the story didn't end there. Upsetting the Denver Nuggets in seven games in the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs, Lillard, CJ McCollum and company were stymied by the Kevin Durant-less, Steph Curry-led Golden State Warriors, who swept the Trailblazers in four games, ending Portland's most successful season in nearly two decades. And with starting center Jusuf Nurkic not expected to return to the lineup anytime soon, not to mention losing Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Seth Curry and other key players from last year's roster, Portland is looking to integrate various moving parts on the fly. Currently sitting at 9th in the Western Conference with a 9-13 record as of press time and depleted by injuries, the Trailblazers haven't gotten off to as hot of a start as expected, but with an eighty-two game season and one of the NBA's top floor generals at the wheel, counting Portland out of contention wouldn't be the safest bet.
And if Portland's recent acquisition of free agent Carmelo Anthony—who was recently named Western Conference Player of the Week (from Nov. 25 to Dec. 1)—out of basketball exile can give a jolt to the Trailblazers’ offense, a return to form is certainly not out of the question. "I'm always optimistic about every team that I'm on so I think we always have a chance,” says Lillard, whose streak of double-digit scoring games was broken the night before this sit-down in a home loss to the Raptors. "Last season, we got to the Western Conference Finals and I think that experience of playing that deep into the season was our first time and you felt it. We were up against a championship-caliber team, an experienced team and that's where we lost it; We had double-digit leads in every game, it's just that championship mentality and that championship experience kind of outdid us. But I think it's all about that process for us to just continue to move forward and try to get better so that we can get back to that position and hopefully the outcome is different."
Back to that loss at the hands of the Raptors. Afterward, as Moda Center employees, team personnel, and security hold court by the loading dock, family and friends of Blazers players await to console them after a tough defeat. Portland shooting guard CJ McCollum emerges from the press conference first, with Lillard trailing. McCollum greets Lillard’s two-year-old son, Damian Lillard, Jr., who is being held by a member of Lillard’s entourage while the man of the hour holds court with a few close pals. Clad in street clothes and looking unlike a world-class athlete that just finished fielding questions from a room of reporters about what went wrong and what they could've done differently, Lillard shadow-boxes with his son, a moment that brings to mind a remark he shared about how he keeps up with all of the moving parts of his life while living under the constant flicker of the lights.
"It's one thing to be a professional athlete and have to deal with the era that we play in, where people have so much more access to you on social media," Lillard candidly shares. "Instagram, Twitter, all these ways to kind of just poke at you, positive and negative. Like you saw, we come back there through the tunnel, the loading dock and it's a bunch of people and you're faced with what your job is all the time. People on TV are commenting on everything you do so it adds stress and it adds pressure. It just makes it harder to play in this era. But when you’ve got that family support and your own kid and that real love, that unconditional love around you, it just keeps everything in perspective and it makes it easier to deal with what your job is. It makes it easier to step out of that, even in the arena that I just lost the game in. I'm still able to step out of what my reality is."
As pleasantries turn into farewells, Lillard picks up Damian Jr. and the pair fade into the Portland night. With the Trailblazer’s set to embark on a six-game road-trip, Dame’s stay in the city will be short, but at that very moment, his face says it all: there’s no place like home.