- Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print, focusing on the NBA. He has covered the Lakers, the Celtics and previously worked for The Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times.
PORTLAND, ORE. — ON the baseline near the Portland Trail Blazers’ bench, in a forest green Adidas tracksuit, 4-year-old Damian Lillard Jr. sprints toward his father, wrapping himself around his leg as if he were hugging a tree. The elder Lillard beams, lifting his knee-high son inches from his face. Cameras swoop in to chronicle the Kodak moment about 90 minutes before tipoff against the Orlando Magic in early January. The stands are nearly empty, save for a section behind Lillard full of school-age children from a local church who watch Lillard’s every move. After completing a pregame interview, Lillard retires to a baseline chair and watches his teammates warm up with his son propped up in his lap.
Lillard Jr. can be protective of his father, warding off strangers who approach for an autograph or a quick word, but Lillard brings his firstborn to the office as often as possible. He’s in the team’s practice facility for Lillard’s late-night workouts. He’s in Lillard’s Sprinter van for trips to the arena for games. Lillard toted him along to New York when the Blazers’ played the Knicks over Thanksgiving this season, keeping him nearby from pregame almost to tipoff during his son’s first visit to Madison Square Garden. Lillard makes the effort, in part, because he knows that as much as the NBA gives — fame, generational wealth, a global stage — it also takes.
Those who live by the league’s schedule can become absentee fathers, husbands, wives, mothers. They miss birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, first steps and final breaths. That is the price; being present requires tall efforts.
In December, the Trail Blazers played the Nuggets in Denver two days before Christmas. The day before the game, the National Weather Service reported temperatures of minus-24 degrees Fahrenheit at Denver International Airport, with a wind chill of minus-40. More than 500 flights were canceled, another 700-plus delayed.
“We didn’t know if we were going to make it out,” Lillard told ESPN.
But he was determined that when his children — Damian Jr. and 2-year-old twins Kali and Kalii — woke on Christmas morning, they would see his face. Lillard arranged for a private jet on standby. Ultimately, the team plane departed, but Lillard’s determination was felt throughout the organization.
“I was going home,” he said, sternly, “one way or another.”
His twins have yet to reach that formative stage, but Damian Jr. is old enough to build memories that last, and Lillard wants those to contain all aspects of his career. Not just the games now, when the 32-year-old is in his prime, but the preparation, too — the whole of it that has helped provide his son with the life that he has.
“It’s important for him to see that,” Lillard said of what he calls his top priority, “but also important for him to know who I am to have that bond.”
Bonds are sacred to Lillard. He says he wears the letter O — not the number zero — as an homage to his native Oakland, California, but his ties to Portland and the Trail Blazers are, by this point, eternal. Trail Blazers general manager Joe Cronin calls the point guard “the best Trail Blazer to ever put on the uniform,” and Portland coach Chauncey Billups later says Lillard is “the forever face of the Trail Blazers.”
Lillard’s loyalty has been handsomely rewarded. This past summer he signed a new two-year contract extension that keeps him tied to Portland through the 2026-27 season — during which he’ll make $63.2 million. By the end of his extension, he will have made nearly a half-billion dollars from the team.
But for all that money, Lillard — Portland’s all-time leading scorer and a member of the NBA’s 75th anniversary team — is no closer to filling one notable hole on his lengthy NBA résumé: a championship. That is why Cronin describes “a sense of urgency” to help the point guard win one before the window of his prime closes. Lillard is averaging career highs in points (31.4), field-goal percentage (46.7%), 3-point makes (4.2 per game) and several other categories. He became the eighth player in NBA history to score at least 70 points in a game on Sunday night. But how many more dominant seasons can the Trail Blazers expect from him? There have been only 10 instances in league history of a player 6-foot-2 or shorter averaging at least 20 points per game at age 32 or older, according to ESPN Stats & Information; Lillard’s current season is one of those instances.
He is still playing elite level basketball, and could ring chase elsewhere, perhaps, but doing so would be very un-Lillard.
For now, in an uncertain season with the young team paddling through the middle of the Western Conference, it’s unclear how far a title might be, if it ever arrives at all. And on the baseline, as the clock ticks toward tipoff, Lillard lifts his son from his lap and disappears into the tunnel. Now in his 11th season with Portland, it’s time for Damian Lillard to do all he can at this point: Give the fans a show.
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