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Trail Blazers face the Dallas Mavericks on December 27, 2021. Bruce Ely / Trail Blazers

Lillard Continues Down Path Toward Being A Trail Blazer For Life

Damian Lillard doesn’t see anything wrong with his fellow professional athletes moving from franchise to franchise in an effort to find whatever makes them happy, regardless of their motivations. Changing teams in an effort to improve chances of winning a championship? Have at it. Prefer sun, larger cities and/or a more lively social life? Great, do you. A straight-up move for more money? That works, too. Whatever it is his contemporaries want out of this life, Dame has no issue with those who try changing addresses in order to realize those goals.

But that approach simply isn’t for Lillard. Despite growing up in Oakland, a city that doesn’t share all that many similarities with Portland, he was ecstatic to be selected by the Trail Blazers with the sixth overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft. When he was the only starter to return to Portland after the 2014-15 season, he took it as an opportunity to build his own legacy in Portland rather than following his former teammates out the door.

And now, rather than joining the ever-increasing number of All-Star caliber players asking to be traded to pastures presumed greener, Lillard has signed a two-year extension that will keep him under contract with the Trail Blazers through the 2026-27 season. The deal could very well be his last before retirement, which would fulfill the plan he laid out early in his career of being a Trail Blazer for life.

“My intention has always been to be a Trail Blazer for life,” said Lillard while holding his youngest son, Kalii, and in between admonishing his eldest son, Damian Jr., both born in Portland, for interrupting. “Nothing would make my career more than just winning one championship in Portland.”

That’s not to say he’s always been satisfied. He has often discussed his desire for what he calls a “real chance to win” and when he wasn’t sure the organization was as committed to that goal as he was, he made his concerns known, both privately and publicly. But the intention was always to use his considerable influence to improve the Trail Blazers, not fulfilling an exit plan. And considering how many times he has proven his loyalty throughout his career, often in the face of significant criticism, he feels he should be afforded that right.

“Any time that I mention something that I want, I think because I never say nothing, people look at it like a threat,” said Lillard. “But it’s never been a threat, it’s always been like, look, I’ve proven my commitment, I’ve never changed where I stand. But I’m not going to just not say nothing if I feel like we could be doing this or that better. I feel like I’ve shown who I am for a long enough period of time to where I should be able to say ‘I want a better team. I want us to improve.’”

However, Lillard also understands the world he lives in. While supporting the rights of a player to do whatever they can as an individual to find a situation that suits them, he knows that the way those issues play out publicly -- and how they are described by the media, accurately or otherwise -- can leave some fans concerned.

“When I say stuff it’s never to make a threat or try to say ‘Do this or else!’” said Lillard. “That’s never my stance, but that’s typically what it is in our league now. So when I do, that’s the way it comes off.”

But between assurances from ownership and the recent actions of the front office, Lillard was comfortable continuing on the path toward spending the totality of his professional career with just one team by signing the two-year extension.

“I don’t think this type of contract is strictly about going out there and playing, it’s who you are,” said Lillard. “It’s like, your impact on the organization and what you bring to the table and what I’ve become nationally or globally by just being myself. That’s not anybody giving me an image or putting me into something, that’s who I am. And that’s why all these things come because there’s power in who I am. I bring that level of me to the organization.”

The “level of me” that Lillard brings has become synonymous with the Trail Blazers. His desire to stay in Portland rather than “run from the grind” has been built on a notion that hard work, dedication and loyalty will ultimately be rewarded. That worldview isn’t for everybody, but luckily for the fans in Rip City, it’s one of the foundations of who Damian Lillard is.

“It’s got to be part of who you are. Some guys like change and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Lillard. “But people that just embrace where they are and find a home and find a life where they are, it’s not an easy thing to do. Some guys want to live in California or New York or Florida, whatever the case may be. People be feeling like that sometimes, and there’s something to be said about that. You think about it as a player, but if it doesn’t outweigh how you feel about where you are, it’s just a thought. And that’s what it is.”