Playing the Warriors on the road isn’t just another game for Damian Lillard. Oakland is where everything started for the Blazers star point guard, who’s averaging a career-high 27 points per game on 45.4 percent shooting.
Last week, Lillard returned to his alma mater, Oakland High School, to not only launch his latest adidas sneaker, the Dame 3, with musical performances from Fetty Wap, DJ Esco and Lil Uzi Vert. He also unveiled upgrades he made for the students, including a renovated basketball gym and weight room, and new recording studio for the school’s music program. To pay him respect, the school retired his No. 1 jersey.
Through the years, Lillard has made major contributions to his Oakland and Portland communities, notably building his basketball camp and AAU program; working with kids who have been bullied and those with intellectual disabilities; and promoting and recently signing aspiring musical artists to his own record label. His biggest personal goal this season? Winning a community award. In a wide-ranging interview with the NBPA, the 26-year-old discussed all of his different off-court endeavors, starting with the high school project.
NBPA: How did you put things into motion with your high school project?
Damian Lillard: With every shoe that I do, adidas knows that I like to have an impact on stuff that’s close to me. I like for a lot of it to represent me. I do my [annual] barbecue in the neighborhood [in Oakland] that I grew up in, I sponsor my own AAU team there. But I hadn’t done something like that at my high school.
I wanted to do something for my people and talk about my roots. And the gym was kind of in a tough position when I was in high school, and even after that. So it was just constantly trying to find ways that I can do more and more, and that was just kind of the next thing. And with it being the shoe launch, we brought in artists to have a party. We figured this was Friday and this was right before Christmas break. Why not do something at the high school and give the kids a show?
NBPA: What kind of impact did being back at your high school have on you?
DL: It had a huge impact on me. Those are the same hallways that I walked, and being a high school kid not being certain what my future held. And now, it’s getting to this point and being able to go back and give them a look at me where I am now, and help them understand that anything can happen for you, “Take your education serious and believe in your dreams.” It meant a lot for me to be there. It was cool to be able to launch something so huge for me in their presence.
NBPA: How do you envision continuing to build your brand and legacy at Oakland High?
DL: It’s not even about my brand. The stuff that I did was for the school. It’s just to have better resources, better quality things and to hopefully make it more of an attractive destination for them. I think the Oakland public school district made a great effort to make the environment of all the schools better, and cleaning up the facilities and making the stuff better, so kids would want to come to school. So that was my thought process: helping to upgrade all those things in the first place beyond my brand.
NBPA: With the recording studio you added, will you be involved with the school’s music program?
DL: I would like to figure out some way to be involved with it, even if it’s a little summer program or something and have people that are in the music business come in and teach music. I’ve already had people reach out that have been successful, and have told me that they would want to be involved and help because they love teaching. When I was in high school, we just did music, we’d mess around. And I really just wanted to give them that option to do it—have the resources.
NBPA: With the launch of your third sneaker, what have you learned about the business with designing and launching a footwear product?
DL: The most fun part for me has been I feel like I can relate to people because of the way I grew up, the way I was raised, the place I grew up, the way I feel about things, the way I think about things. A lot of my stuff with adidas is storytelling. Every colorway of my shoe, I relate it to a story and I feel like people can relate to me. And I love the fact that they can feel connected to me through a shoe, because they know what a shoe represents. The situation I might have been in, we might share that same story or that same situation, and I’m connected to them through that. That’s my favorite part about it—knowing that my stuff is real and people can relate to it.
NBPA: What is the meaning behind your new “All Rise” campaign with adidas?
DL: That’s just bigger than me. It’s not just about what I’ve been able to do in my basketball career. It’s just for the greater good of everybody, inspiring everybody that they can be who they want to be—just put that in their minds and their hearts. I’m with the team type of thing, I’m with the group, I’m with the people. And I want to see us all rise up to be the best version of ourselves.
NBPA: What was your “All Rise” moment growing up, in the sense of when you first felt inspired that the NBA could become a reality one day?
DL: I’ve always had that confidence that it was going to happen for me. I just always thought it would work out and I would find a way to make it to the NBA. When I came to Oakland High, there were a couple times where I had huge games and I would take huge shots. And I felt like that was what was in my future to be an NBA point guard.
NBPA: What’s your “All Rise” goal for yourself this season?
DL: I want to see everybody rise. It’s not just about me making the All-Star Game or me averaging this or averaging that. Our team’s success and everybody else doing well is also important. It’s that type of thing.
NBPA: What accomplishments would mean the most to you—even ones that fans and the media overlook?
DL: We haven’t been able to get to that Western Conference finals, so I want to get there and give ourselves a chance to move past that. And the Community Assist Award. I feel like I’m real consistent and present in every community that I’ve been a part of—from my hometown to where I went to school, [Weber State], to living in Portland. I feel like I’m 100 percent present all the time. I do a lot of things for the people that’s genuine that I really am proud of, and I feel like some of those [major] awards can be real commercial sometimes. A lot of stuff gets done on camera, and I don’t do stuff on camera.
NBPA: You’ve influenced the Oakland community in other ways through the years. Describe your other outreach.
DL: For the last three summers, I do a big barbecue [in Brookfield Park]. We have food for thousands of people. We bring a stage out there and let people perform their music. We’ve got free haircuts, face painting, horse riding, zip lines, a jump house, video game trucks, fire truck tours. We give away T-shirts, we give away backpacks and school supplies. Also, five years ago I took over my AAU team, which I played for. With Team Lillard, it’s just trying to put all the kids out there by going to these tournaments outside of California and playing in front of scouts. I’m sponsoring that team, so their parents don’t have to worry about paying for their flights, paying for shoes, uniforms to play on the team.
NBPA: A lot more NBA players are involved with AAU basketball. What are you trying to stress through your program?
DL: The thing that I took from my coaches that I played for is they coached my team. They challenged me to grow up and be a man, to be a good person. When we went on our AAU trips, they took our cell phones and we all ate dinner together, and we couldn’t drink soda. We had rules and they were molding us into the kind of people that can be successful, and be able to grow up and take care of our business at hand.
And I know that they’re going to run my program that way. That’s why I take so much pride in getting the kids that come through that program every opportunity without their parents having to worry. I want them to have the right resources to be in position to be successful, while also being trained and taught by the people that trained and taught me.
NBPA: You’ve extended your community efforts to Portland in different ways. What’s your involvement been like?
DL: For the last four summers, I hold camps in Portland for two straight weeks, and I’m there from start to finish every morning from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock every day. I’m also a spokesperson for the anti-bullying campaign in Portland [called Respect, since my rookie season]. And I’ve done [free] camps for kids with intellectual disabilities. I’m a global ambassador for the Special Olympics. I go to schools—and the Boys & Girls Clubs—and speak. You name it, I’m doing it. [He also works with different community groups to give out 20 tickets for every home game, where kids sit in his “Lillard Timers” section at the Moda Center.]
NBPA: Did you have a bullying encounter as a kid, or a friend that went through that experience?
DL: I’ve never got bullied, but when I was in high school, another kid had a little bit of a slight intellectual disability and he got picked on a little bit. And I got involved in it because I didn’t like how it was going. That’s what made me feel so strongly about it when I realized how much it had affected him. It bothered me, and from that point on I wasn’t with the bullying. [Lillard and the kid at the time, Garrett, are friends to this day.]
NBPA: Anti-bullying is a major national movement right now.
DL: It’s an issue. I hear about more kids being overwhelmed, committing suicide, not wanting to go to school, being affected for life behind stuff like bullying.
NBPA: With that in mind—that feeling of intimidation and being down on yourself—it’s nice what you do with @4BarFriday on Instagram. You encourage people to express themselves freely through hip-hop and then give them recognition.
DL: You’ve got to interact with people because we talk about allowing fans to speak to us and be close to us and communicate with us. We do a lot of things as professionals and famous people that take you away from normalcy, and I like my stuff to be normal. My family treats me the same and they help life stay normal, and when you interact with fans and fans interact back with you, like @4BarFriday, you feel apart of that community. It keeps things normal for you, where you’re not so far away from everybody else, out of touch with everybody else. So I really enjoy that part of @4BarFriday.
NBPA: What’s your personal connection to working with athletes in the Special Olympics?
DL: I’ve been doing it since I was 17. When I first got to Weber State, we had a mandatory Special Olympics one-day camp. I had never done a Special Olympics camp before, but then I realized the impact that we as college basketball players had on them. They were so excited to be there and it meant so much to them. And I gained a whole new appreciation for how healthy I am, and how I’ve been able to get a scholarship being in a Division I program. So if they can be happy about a one-day camp and an opportunity to be around us, I’ve got a lot of things that I can be thankful and happy for.
NBPA: It’s great to see how committed you are to different touch points—the next generation, youth in your hometown and Portland, and kids with disabilities and ones going through emotional difficulties.
DL: Yeah, we’re so fortunate to be healthy people. Sometimes we wake up and just take for granted that we can wake up and walk around and breathe normally, and run if we want to and jump if we want to. Everybody doesn’t have that luxury and it’s easy to get up and take it for granted sometimes. To be in this position to [help out]—let alone make it to the NBA and travel and see the world, and be financially stable and take care of our people—that’s a huge blessing for all of us. So the best thing we can do to show our appreciation is impact as many people as we can through our situation.
NBPA: So what’s next for you? You’re a big idea guy, so I know there’s something already churning in your mind.
DL: I just started my own record label, and I put an album out. The money from the album is going to go back into the label, and I’m going to start looking into the artists on #4BarFriday and a lot of aspiring artists that are out here—just try to use that label as a platform and opportunity for them to get their stuff out there. I’ve already signed my first two artists [@brookfielddeuce and @dannysobrante, who he grew up with], and we’re going to try to keep it going from here.
NBPA: What are the challenges to becoming successful in the music industry that you’re trying to address?
DL: It’s so much harder because everything is digital, and most record labels are the ones making the money and the artists are not. So for mine, I don’t need that money. I don’t need to try to take advantage of any artists or try to dominate what they’re doing for my own sake. I just want to create something to put them in position to have some income and do what they love to do—make music and let them have that.
NBPA: To end with basketball, what’s behind your increase in scoring this season?
DL: It’s just becoming a better player. I think the more seasons you play in the league, the game slows down, you understand how to get things done more efficient and at a higher level more consistent. I put my time in, and I do wish that it led to more wins. Our team has let some games slip that we feel like we should’ve won. But it’s a long season and it’s a lot of ups and downs, so hopefully we can get this thing going back in the right direction.
NBPA: One skill that’s stood out is you’ve extended your pull-up game. It’s now not unusual to see you shoot off a pick-and-roll from 25 to 28 feet.
DL: You work at that stuff. I also worked on my floaters more than I ever have this summer. I probably made more floaters at this point this year than I have in any other complete season in my career. And, like you said, with those pull-up jumpers deep, I shot a lot of those shots this summer. You work on it, you might as well try it out there.