Many die-hard basketball fans can look back on one moment and recognize that as the point when they really fell in love with the game. In the case of Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, this moment occured at the 2000 NBA All-Star break in Oakland. It’s cemented in Lillard’s mind and had a huge impact on his life.
Back in the 1999-00 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers were dominating the league with the duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Jason Kidd was playing for the Phoenix Suns and ended up leading the league in assists per game with 10.1. Steve “The Franchise” Francis and Elton Brand were co-winners of the Rookie of the Year award.
Shaq went on to win the MVP award that year, averaging 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.0 blocks per game. The Lakers center was one of the most dominant players of his time and yet it was the flashy Kobe Bryant in his third year who garnered plenty of buzz across the country.
“I was a huge Kobe fan,” Lillard said. “I was a Golden State Warriors fan being from Oakland, but we never made the playoffs so when it was playoff time, I was a Lakers fan. So I was definitely a huge Kobe fan.”
The All-Star game that year was held in Oakland, in what was formerly known as The Arena. It was there that a 9-year-old from Oakland discovered what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to be more than just a fan – he wanted to be an NBA player and an All-Star.
“I remember in 2000, it was in Oakland, and I went to the All-Star Saturday,” Lillard recalled. “Vince Carter was in the dunk contest, and that was my first time being a part of it, and it was crazy. There was Steve Francis, Vince Carter and all those guys, so that’s my best memory.
“At that age, it made me realize what I wanted. Just seeing all those guys down there, doing the Jam Session and stuff like that and being able to meet some of them and get autographs, it was something that I’ll never forget, just being a part of that and seeing those guys up close and seeing how much fun they were having. Seeing Shaq down there and Kevin Garnett down there, I was like, ‘I think this is something I really want to do.’ If anything, I think it helped me mentally as far as [figuring out] what I really wanted to do.”
For a kid experiencing the All-Star Jam Session for the first time, he was awfully lucky that he got to witness firsthand one of most memorable dunk contest performances of all-time – when Carter was still half man, half amazing. Clearly, it was a special experience for Lillard and one that may have changed his life.
That’s the beauty of All-Star Weekend. You tune in for the chance to potentially see something that you’ve never seen before – the kind of things that elite athletes may not get to show during the course of a regular NBA game. Zach LaVine showed us once again in this year’s dunk contest that there’s always going to be another generation of creative young players with new tricks up their sleeves to further inspire the next generation.
If there’s one thing that has always stood out about Lillard since day one, it is that his mentality and toughness are second to none. The Bay Area has been known to be a tough breeding ground for NBA talent (see Paul Pierce, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, etc.). Lillard has always had to prove that he belonged and he’s never shied away from it.
Coming from a small school at Weber State University in a weak Big Sky Conference, he’s always had his detractors. During the 2012 NBA Draft, many players in his class decided not to participate in the combine drills and would pick and choose who to work out against to avoid hurting their draft stock at the advice of their agents. However, Lillard did the drills and worked out against just about anyone, crushing every workout.
Even as a rookie coming into the league, he always appeared to have ice running through his veins. He was never afraid to take on the opposition or hesitant to take the big shot. His tough demeanor remained unchanged late in games as if to state, “I’m from Oakland.”
When asked about his initial All-Star snub, Lillard simply said that he knew he belonged.
That mindset and killer instinct were things he admired in a young Kobe Bryant, and it seems he has adopted some similar characteristics.
“Anytime it was a close game, he just had that killer instinct,” Lillard said. “You could see it out there when he would miss five shots in a row, and then the sixth one is the biggest shot of the game and he’ll take it and make it.
“When I was a kid, before I walked away from a court I would count down and always make the game-winning shot. I had to make it before I left the court; that’s just something that I’ve always enjoyed.”
Little did he know as a young boy growing up in Oakland, his dreams would one day become a reality.
Now, he’s the NBA superstar who kids across the country are looking up to and impersonating as they shoot their own imaginary buzzer beaters before going home.
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