Trail Blazers face the Oklahoma City Thunder on February 10, 2023. Justin Tucker / Trail Blazers

As He Departs Portland, Lillard's Most Lasting Legacy Is Belief

While the notions of suffering and struggling can be a bit gauche when it comes to sports, the years immediately preceding Damian Lillard’s arrival in Portland were rather rough on those in Rip City.

There was Greg Oden, the first overall pick of the 2007 Draft, whose career in Portland was seemingly over before it began due to injury. Then it was Brandon Roy, a Pacific Northwest folk hero, having to retire after just five seasons, seasons which rekindled the love that was hibernating in many fans who had turned away from the franchise for various reasons.

Then the 2011-12 season would see the NBA get off to a late start because of a labor dispute, and even when the Trail Blazers’ campaign that season did begin the day after Christmas, it was marred by locker room strife and poor play, resulting in head coach Nate McMillan’s time in Portland coming to an end after seven seasons.

So a few months later when Damian Lillard’s career in Portland started in earnest on June 15, 2012 with a solo predraft workout -- perhaps the only bright spot of the 2011-12 season was a trade that sent Gerald Wallace to the New Jersey Nets in exchange for a Top-3 protected pick -- at the team’s practice facility in Tualatin, the fanbase, always one of the best in sports, was a bit worn out. It was to the point where it felt like being a fan of the Trail Blazers was defined far more by failure and bad luck than success and good fortune, and after a while, that prompts one to consider whether the investment is ultimately worth the return.

But Lillard’s arrival changed that calculation.

In Lillard, the Trail Blazers finally had their “point guard of the future.” Coming from little-known Weber State, Lillard entered the league with a chip on his shoulder and a desire to prove wrong those who doubted his ability, an ethos that permeates the Pacific Northwest. “More wood on the fire” means a bit more out here in timber country.

He started his professional career on Halloween Night in 2012, dueling Kobe Bryant and coming out on top, and finished his first year by being named Rookie of the Year by unanimous vote.

He’d then help lead Portland to 54 wins, the sixth-best season in franchise history and a 21-game improvement from the prior season, and their first playoff series victory in 14 years by hitting his first buzzer-beating, game-winning and series-ending three-pointer versus the Rockets, a moment so iconic that it’s known simply as “0.9.” the amount of time left on the clock when Nicolas Batum inbounded the ball to a streaking Lillard. The legend was born.

And over the next 11 seasons, Lillard would go on to do things both on and off the court that had rarely been seen in Rip City. When Lillard was the only player left from a starting lineup that won 51 games the season before, he re-signed with the team, taking his rightful place as the unquestioned leader of the locker room. One would assume a team in that situation would spend a season in the lottery, but instead, Lillard, tapping his wrist along the way, lifted Portland to a fifth-place finish in the West and another first-round playoff series victory.

A few seasons later, Lillard and the Trail Blazers would bounce back after being hardened by an embarrassing first-round sweep at the hands of the Pelicans to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 19 years. He hit another buzzer-beating, game-winning, series-ending three-pointer, this time versus the Oklahoma City Thunder, in a shot punctuated by a stone-faced Lillard waving goodbye to the opposing bench and then looking up at a camera while engulfed in a dogpile, a moment that launched a thousand memes. He made All-Star appearances and All-NBA teams. He was named one of the Top 75 players of all-time while still in the prime of his career.

But while Lillard’s exploits on the court laid the foundation for a rebirth in Rip City, what he was able to do off the court set him apart from the other greats in franchise history. He had a signature sneaker and was featured regularly in national ad campaigns. He made spending time encouraging students with his “RESPECT” campaign an integral part of his life rather than a perfunctory obligation. He marched arm-in-arm during racial justice protests. He launched a music career that transcended the typical athlete attempts. He defended Portland from the usual slings and arrows launched at small market cities. He brought his family to Portland and made the city his home rather than an outpost. He proved you didn’t have to be in a big market to be a big deal.

And by doing all those things, by always believing in himself and his vision, he made fans in Rip City believe in both the team and themselves again. Good things actually were possible, and those good things could actually be enjoyed in the moment without always worrying about what ill fate was waiting around the corner. After enduring their fair share of heartbreaks, Dame made things feel a bit less cursed, if not entirely exorcized.

So it’s somewhat poetic to see the confidence that Lillard gave to Trail Blazers’ fans over the last 11 seasons reflected in the reaction to the news that he had been traded to Milwaukee. Rather than feeling betrayed or slighted, fans seemed to express almost unilateral gratitude for his efforts, something not often afforded to athletes who choose to move on (one need to look no farther than the reaction to LaMarcus Aldridge landing in San Antonio as proof).

Before Lillard, it’s easy to imagine Rip Citizens cursing the fates and lamenting every instance in which the world didn’t tilt in their direction at the news of the greatest player in franchise history making his departure. But now, one gets the sense fans feel like things are going to be alright. A good part of that can be attributed to the moves Joe Cronin and his staff have made -- Jerami Grant, Anfernee Simons, Shaedon Sharpe, Scoot Henderson and DeAndre Ayton comprise a solid foundation on which to move forward -- but what Dame did to reawaken that belief cannot be understated.

Damian Lillard being who he is, on and off the court, allowed Trail Blazers’ fans to consider their lot through a more positive lens than the regular pessimism that preceded his arrival. That is the part of Lillard’s legacy that those outside of Portland have never understood, and likely never will.