The zero on the front and back of Damian Lillard’s Portland Trail Blazers jersey is actually the letter “O.” It stands for Oakland, where he grew up in the city’s working-class Brookfield Village neighborhood. It stands for Ogden, where he played college ball at Weber State, and for Oregon, where he lives and works and co-parents his son, Damian Jr. You can say he’s representing, flying his flag. But he’ll tell you it’s something simpler than that. He’s being who he is. He’s knowing what he’s about. “I operate as me,” he’ll tell you. “How I feel and what I was raised on, all the time, regardless of where I’m at or who’s around. It’s the same thing, same energy all the time.”
THIS PAST SUMMER, Lillard, 29, signed a four-year, $196 million extension with the Blazers. At roughly the same time, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George engineered a radical Clippers makeover, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving cooked up a fantasy Brooklyn reboot, and LeBron James wooed Anthony Davis for a Lakers glory reclamation project.
But Dame Lillard operated as Dame Lillard. Be who you are where you are. Stay rooted. Make this work. Make it the best of itself. Bring the same thing, the same energy all the time. Ask him whom he was looking at this summer and Lillard won’t talk to you about Leonard or Davis. He’ll talk about Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks legend who led his team to a title in 2011 and retired after 21 years in Dallas.
“He just stayed with it,” he’ll say. “I respect what Dirk did. Like, I see that and I’m like, ‘It’ll be worth it. I know it was worth it for him,’ you know what I’m saying? Like, he’ll be forever, ever, ever respected in Dallas and in the league. So that’s like what I see from myself.”
BROOKFIELD VILLAGE IS a mixed African American and Hispanic neighborhood in East Oakland, about a 25-minute walk from Oracle Arena, where a young Lillard used to wait near the players’ parking lot, hoping for autographs and to sneak into the arena for games. Homes in the neighborhood were built in two booms, one in the early 1900s and another during World War II to provide housing for workers manufacturing munitions and supplies. You don’t put on airs in Brookfield; you go to work, you take pride and you step to the challenge, whatever it might be.
You can see Brookfield in Lillard’s notorious post-late-game-dagger stare. And you can see it in the eyes of his father, Houston. “My dad would always tell me, ‘You don’t gotta be scared of nobody,'” Lillard says. “‘When you go in a room, believe in yourself.’ Like, I was always taught that.”
Lillard got into his first fight at Brookfield Park. He played flag football there and suited up for his first basketball game at age 6. He rode his bike all over Brookfield, and he and his brother, Houston Jr., hit the gym at the park early and often, playing against grown men, sometimes deep into the night.
“I remember when they got locked in there,” says his mother, Gina Johnson. “I remember them always being over there and playing, and then staying and hiding so that they could play longer.”
There is pain in Brookfield too. The crime rate (according to AreaVibes.com) is 191% higher than the national average. Drugs, prostitution and violence were a regular part of life when Lillard was coming up. In those days, as an antidote, the neighborhood held an annual summer get-together called the Never Worry Picnic. “The whole neighborhood would be there, and the rest of the city of Oakland,” Lillard says.
He remembers the music and his family grilling food, remembers what it felt like to be with his grandparents and parents and friends. Most of all, he remembers them all doing the Brookfield Village signature dance. It’s part shuffle, part swagger in the feet and all laid-back, never-hurried cool, with the hands conducting at the same time. “You can’t teach it,” Lillard says, dipping into it. “You gotta be around it. This is something you just can’t teach. Like, this is years and years in the making.”
The picnic went away when he was about 12 because too often the fun gave way to strife — “It always ended in like a fight or a shootout or something like that,” he says — but it’s the way he felt about it when it was at its best that he remembers even now.
NEW YORK CITY, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles are well-known basketball factories. But pound for pound, the Oakland area might have the world’s best collection of hoopers.
Bill Russell, the star of the Boston Celtics and an 11-time NBA champion, went to McClymonds High School in Oakland before dominating at the University of San Francisco. Gary Payton went to Skyline High, and Jason Kidd went to St. Joseph Notre Dame on his way to UC Berkeley. Paul Silas, Brian Shaw, the Barry brothers, Lester Conner, Antonio Davis, Eddie House, Greg Foster, Drew Gooden, Leon Powe, Ivan Rabb and J.R. Rider all have roots in and around “The Town.” If Lillard is now the world’s most famous standard-bearer for the Brookfield Village Dance, he’s also the latest in a long line of players upholding the Bay Area basketball tradition and representing its tight-knit basketball community. “Gary Payton, B-Shaw, Jason Kidd, everybody like that, we held on so tight,” he says, thinking about his time as a young, developing player.
Lillard’s brother went the juco route and played football at Laney College after earning poor grades in high school. Houston buckled down and eventually earned a scholarship to Southeast Missouri State and constantly told his younger brother to learn from his mistakes by focusing and getting better grades. “I applied a lot of pressure on him,” Houston says. Damian responded. He was academically eligible at graduation, though not widely recruited, and eventually signed with Weber State. Saint Mary’s and Washington State made late runs at Lillard, but he stuck with the school that wanted him first.
Ogden, Utah, is a college town of about 90,000 — 80% white and 2% black — roughly 40 miles north of Salt Lake City, and NBA dreams seemed laughable at the time in the Big Sky Conference, which rarely produced pro prospects. But Lillard drew attention, averaging 24.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists as a redshirt junior in 2011-12, and his father started to get a feeling. “I kept it to myself. And then I started sharing it like with his mom and a few other family members and friends that I thought we had one,” he says. “That’s what I said, ‘I think we got one, y’all.'”
He was right. Portland took Lillard sixth overall in the 2012 draft, and his 19, 3.1 and 6.5 that season earned him Rookie of the Year honors. He’s been an All-Star four times since.
It’s a big thing to get up and out, to play on the level of your hometown heroes, to escape the dangers you see in the streets, to feel like you have choices in this life. I think we got one, y’all. Lillard’s father knew what he was looking at and knew what he was saying. Dame had a chance. But Houston Lillard Sr.’s son wasn’t looking to go anywhere. He was looking to bring something back.
AT THE END of his standout rookie season, Damian Lillard wanted most of all to rekindle the Never Worry Picnic in Brookfield Park, and this time without the worry. With the support of his agent, Aaron Goodwin, and Goodwin Sports PR director Mary Ford, he jump-started the tradition, footing most of the bill himself. “He said if he ever became a basketball player, he would do something for the neighborhood,” his grandfather Albert recalls. Entertainment at the first picnic included horse rides and video games, and there were hamburgers and hot dogs courtesy of Oakland firefighters. They handed out school backpacks with the needed goodies, plus T-shirts and Adidas basketball shoes.
There has been a Dame-sponsored Never Worry-like event in each of the past six years. This year there were zip lines, rock climbing walls and bounce houses. Local barbers and beauticians cut and curled hair, and Lillard’s uncle Oscar cooked his famous ribs and chicken on a huge grill in the back of the parking lot.
All the while, Lillard shook hands with folks from the neighborhood and took pictures with kids, signed autographs and reunited with old friends. He wanted people from home to still touch him. And he wanted to touch them too. He thinks about “people’s everyday lives, like the struggle that they might have every single day,” he says. And about how “something like this brings a light.”
Brookfield has gone through changes since Lillard was on his bike in the park and in the gym at all hours as a boy. Oakland has long been known as one of the most welcoming cities in the country for African Americans. It’s the birthplace of the Black Panthers and is currently about 25% African American. But the diverse town is changing daily; new high-rise, high-priced condominiums, hipster restaurants, a dropping black population and a growing homeless issue are all evidence of the impact of a burgeoning tech industry. Dame’s East Oakland is still predominantly African American, but for how long he doesn’t know.
He notices the gentrification, which has raised the cost of housing and over time changed the racial composition of the city. In 2000, Oakland was 35.7% black and 31.3% white. In the 2010 census, the numbers were reversed: 28% black and 34.5% white. “Every time I go home it looks a little different,” Lillard told The Undefeated two summers ago. “I told someone the other day, ‘Home is not what it was anymore.’ … It takes away from the feeling of our neighborhood.”
So the picnic isn’t just a party. It isn’t just a gift from a superstar to the folks he knew back in the day. It’s a commitment, an investment, a way of keeping something essential to the place alive and a way of being real in the place.
When a young black boy at the picnic asks him if he’s really from Brookfield — “Lightweight tried to pull my card,” Lillard says with a laugh — the authenticity note rings out for him and gives him added passion for the importance of the event. “I needed to be more present,” he says. “He’s seeing everybody that hang out at the gas station and people that’s on the strip coming down east and people that live on his street. So if he sees my interaction with them, and he’ll see how regular it is, it’ll register.”
It also registers when Lillard steps onstage at the picnic as Dame D.O.L.L.A., perhaps the greatest rapper who lists professional athlete as a full-time job. “If you from Brookfield, I need you to circle around,” he says to the crowd, mic in hand, calling his community meeting to order. There are athletes who dabble in hip-hop, but this isn’t that. This is Brookfield. This is I operate as me. This is, as the name says, Different On Levels the Lord Allows.
Know that I’m from Oakland, so I’m too legit to quit. If you all in my section, you part of my collection.
– Dame D.O.L.L.A., in “Boss Life”