It wasn’t until the last day of 2021 that Damian Lillard finally accepted what his body had been telling him for years.
While he had managed to play at a remarkably high level for the last four seasons despite an injury to his core that would often result in his abdomen locking up, making it hard at times to walk, let alone play NBA basketball, the years of compensating were starting to catch up. A cortisone injection helped alleviate the pain, allowing Lillard to play closer to the standard he’s set as one of the greatest players in franchise history, but as expected, the benefits from such a treatment were short-lived.
“I got the shot, after we came back from New Orleans it kind of wore off a little bit before the Dallas game,” said Lillard. “And I just remember on the court it wasn’t as bad as it was but I felt the irritation just kind of coming back. Before the shot it was like, to start the game I would be uncomfortable, couldn’t move well, but by the third quarter, after that halftime break, it would just be like coming out the tunnel like, I don’t know how I’m going to get through this half, you know what I mean? I can’t move.”
Despite that, he kept playing, at least as much as his body and the training staff would let him. And though he had missed games here and there through the last few seasons due to the injury, which the team medical staff describes as “abdominal tendinopathy,” it wasn’t until the 2021-22 season that he was forced to sit out long stretches, an untenable situation for a player who only missed 25 games through his first seven seasons.
“Last year it was pretty bad,” said Lillard of the injury. “Going from that long season, playing a few months without Nurk and without CJ and having to play more minutes, then coming off a short summer after the bubble season where I was hurt in the bubble and going into last year and then not having a break after last year just training for the Olympics, going to the Olympics. At the Olympics it was as bad as it’s been and I was just like ‘Man, this is a real issue.’ There was really no time for me to do it. I just decided to rest.
“I took like 30 days where I didn’t do nothing and I felt a lot better coming into camp. I felt fresh, I had been working out and stuff, it hadn’t been giving me any trouble because I was coming off such a long break. And then the second that we started camp I felt good the first day, day and a half. Then I started to feel it again and I was like ‘Man, I thought the rest would help for a longer period of time.’ But it didn’t.”
So as he struggled through 32 minutes in an embarrassing 139-106 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers at Crypto.com Arena on New Year’s Eve, he came to the realization that something had to change. Of course seeking a surgical option for his ailing abdomen had been discussed previously, but it wasn’t until that night in Los Angeles that he accepted the reality of situation that he and the Trail Blazers were in.
“Our team had been struggling, had been struggling the whole season,” said Lillard. “As far as wins and losses, we just weren’t winning a lot of games. All the change, it was just like that process that you know is a possibility of hitting that adversity. New coaching staff, a lot of new players, we weren’t completely healthy so we had some struggles.
“And then the COVID situation kicked in and we was missing eight, nine players or whatever it was. We just out there battling but we was just a beat up team. I was in pain, unhealthy, we’re not winning, most of our team is in COVID protocols, just a tough situation and I was like ‘This just seems like a sign. This seems like the time this is supposed to happen.’”
Two weeks later, after consulting with experts in St. Louis and Philadelphia, what needed to happen, happened.
Thursday morning, the team announced that Lillard underwent a procedure, conducted by Dr. William C. Meyers at The Vincera Institute in Philadelphia, to “repair a core injury causing chronic abdominal pain.” More specifically, the surgery addresses the core injury by decreasing the imbalance between the abs and groin muscles while stabilizing both sides of the pubic joint. He will be re-evaluated in six weeks.
“It’s a pretty short procedure,” said Lillard, who also noted players such as Jrue Holiday and Kyle Lowry have had similar procedures, also conducted by doctors at Vincera. “Repair the left side and the right side just because the images show that I’ve had issues on both sides. The doctor that I’m actually going to was like ‘Man, you’re having a great season based on what I’m looking at.’ He literally said that to me.
“They’ll repair both sides, take an hour to do both sides, won’t be a long surgery at all, said it’s not a tough surgery to come back from. He said I’ll be walking around right after surgery. He said it will be uncomfortable but four or five days I should be back moving around, kind of walking around the court, shooting and stuff like that. Not no major activities but he said it’s one of those things where it’s better to get back to activity quick, not full throttle, but just start some activity.”
Despite the pain and the struggles the Trail Blazers were enduring with their best player being a shell of his former self, the decision to have the procedure, and thus, miss at least the next two months, if not the rest of the season, was a difficult one for Lillard to make. But in the end, he realized it was time to be smarter, not push himself harder.
“It wasn’t easy at all because I just love being out there. Like, I love being out there playing,” said Lillard. “I’ve always been available to play but I think the older you get, the more experience that you have, not just in sports but in life, it becomes more important to play chess. My pride might say ‘Keep fighting it out, get the job done again. Try to get in the playoffs.’ And then the older me is saying ‘You can’t do none of that stuff if you’re not at your best. You’re not healthy, your mind and body is not on the same page.’”
Coming to the realization that having surgery would severely limit Portland’s chances of extending their playoff streak, a badge of honor for Lillard, didn’t hurt as much as the injury nor the injection he took in an attempt to keep playing, but it was perhaps the last mental hurdle he had to clear in order to accept the surgical option. And de didn’t want to leave his teammates or coaches in the lurch, though he eventually came to realize continuing to play was doing them few favors as well, in both the short and long term.
“I know (surgery) is ultimately going to be what’s best for the team, too,” said Lillard. “I’d rather be selfish for the team, what I see for our organization and where I want it to go. It makes no sense to keep doing it the way we was doing it. It’s like, alright, take a step back to take how many steps forward. It’s just what had to happen.”
Along with knowing that having surgery now will put him in position to be completely healthy in time for the 2022-23 season, seeing the opportunities his younger teammates are getting in his absence has helped Lillard endure the disappointment of not being able to play. He’d rather perform at the level that he and the rest of Rip City have become accustomed to, but seeing his young wards find success is the next best thing.
“Ant is like my protege, he’s been under my wing,” said Lillard of Simons, who has been one of the best players in the NBA since moving into the starting lineup in Lillard’s stead. “We train together in the summer, I’m always talking to him, I’m always in his ear, we always texting and stuff like that because I’ve always believed in him to the highest power. It’s been four years now of that so to see him playing well and to start to put it together, for one, I love to see that for him and two, I love that for our team, just the development and growth of him and Nas is like, I’m looking at it like a chess game now. These are two young, super talented, super athletic guys that will now get the opportunity to grow and to get more confidence, get more comfortable doing things where they can really help the team be at that level.”
So in a way, addressing the injury now rather than in the offseason serves multiple purposes. First and foremost, the Trail Blazers are a much better team with a much higher ceiling with a healthy Lillard, so finding a more permanent solution puts Portland on a much more stable path going forward. But by stepping away now, Lillard also gives his teammates an opportunity to make their own way, giving them and the team a better chance of reaching their aspirations when Lillard is able to return to full strength.
“There’s no better teacher and no better opportunity than to be out there and have to figure it out, have to play,” said Lillard. “And especially with me being out, it’s going to be a good opportunity for that. I’m happy for them and I’m excited to see it, I’m happy that they going to get this opportunity to kind of find themselves and grow so that they can contribute to the team on a larger level.”
Though he’ll continue to support his teammates in whatever way he can, Lillard also plans to take some time away to clear his head. After a year of of personal tragedies, a disappointing postseason, the dismissal of the only head coach he had known through the first nine seasons of his professional career, a summer of rumors and outright fabrications, playing in the Olympics in the middle of a pandemic and despite injury and changes to Portland’s front office, Lillard is going to take the opportunity afforded by undergoing surgery to get both his mind and body right.
“I’m just going to take some time away from it,” said Lillard. “Already deleted Instagram off my phone, got rid of my Twitter, just steer clear of it. It’s hard to turn off when you was always concerned with something, so I’m just gonna stay out the way a little bit, do my rehab, just let people miss me. I think it’s important for me to do it for myself, kind of free myself of the burden and also just go and do the things that I need to do and come back fresh with my mind right. Take that mental and physical break so when I come back, they’ll be reminded and they can remember. They’ll see a more special me than they’ve seen.”
Whether we’ve seen the last of Lillard on the court this season is still yet to be decided -- how his rehabilitation progresses and where the Trail Blazers sit in the standings once he’s healthy enough to play will likely determine that -- but there’s little doubt regardless that dealing with the injury now is the right course of action. It took years of pain and significant hinderance in order for Lillard to accept it, but with the benefit of age and perspective, he’s finally at peace with the decision.
"It was something that I’ve been fighting through for the last four years, four and a half years," said Lillard. "The reason I was doing that is so I could be a part of our team’s success, get it done, but the more unhealthy I was, the further that possibility was becoming. I just felt like it was time. Where our team is and where I am health-wise I felt like it was the time to just do it, swallow my pride, not be so prideful about what was happening right now and think about the long term. My mind was wanting to do something that by body couldn’t.
“It was a situation where it’s been a tough season, I’m not healthy. What is the return on me beating myself up for another year? And then end of the year, what is that going to look like? And now I’ve got to the end of the season and we’re trying to do this at the end of the season and now I’ve got to go through the rehab, the recovery, get in shape, train and all that stuff and then the season is here again and there’s not really been a physical or mental break. So why not take that opportunity now, just swallow my pride and play the long game? Maybe add two years to my career instead of taking two off.”