Damian Lillard walked off the floor on Saturday afternoon, moments removed from a 126-122 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, as a man who’d just taken back his name. His 31-point, two-rebound, 10-assist performance not only earned his Portland Trail Blazers a spot in the playoffs, but it also capped one of the most memorable individual runs in recent NBA history.
In nine games over 16 days, Dame averaged 37 points, earning bubble MVP and bringing Portland from the brink of elimination to a berth in an upcoming first-round postseason matchup with the Lakers. During the barrage, Lillard rained 51 points on the Sixers, scored 61 on Dallas, and added 42 more for good measure in a season-saving win over the Nets, telling everyone within an earshot to “put some respect on [his] fucking name.”
The outburst was born from failure—two to be exact. Down a point to the Clippers with 18 seconds left, Dame missed two free throws that would’ve given Portland a one-point lead. Following the misses, he was mocked from the sideline by Marcus Morris and Patrick Beverley. Beverley tapped on his wrist, mimicking Lillard’s “Dame Time” celebration, while Morris laughed. Paul George joined the duo’s slander, commenting on Lillard’s failures on Instagram, prompting the Portland guard’s sister to get involved.
But for Lillard’s family and friends back in Oakland, the historic response from The Town’s youngest basketball star wasn’t a surprise
To understand Lillard’s drive is to understand his homeland. It’s to make a right off “E-one-Fo,” drive down 98th Avenue, make another right on Edes, and pull up to the Ira Jinkins Recreation Center, where Lillard honed his game as a youth. It’s to travel back up “Nine-Eight,” make a left on International and park at Rainbow, where Lillard played rec league games. Most importantly, it’s to know the city that breeds perseverance and Black resolution.
In the shadow of San Francisco, Oakland is the misunderstood city by the Bay. It’s where the Black Panther Party was formed. A place Tupac Shakur credited for teaching him “the game.” Oakland has also been mired by high crime and despair. All of this adds to its residents’ disposition.
“We assume that you don’t respect us,” said Aalim Moor, an Oakland resident who has close ties to Lillard’s family. “You look at us as less, man. You look at us as a place where people don’t want to go, where people don’t want to be.”
Lillard comes from Brookfield, one of Oakland’s most historic districts. Brookfield started as a housing development in the 1940s, aimed at sheltering an influx of workers during World War II. The war, coupled with the Great Migration of African Americans from the South, led to Black Americans coming to the Bay Area by the thousands. During the 1940s, the Black population ballooned from 8,462 to 21,770, as Blacks settled around The Town, buying houses in Elmhurst, Brookfield, and neighboring Sobrante Park. While racism followed to the West Coast, Oakland seemed like a place Black people could find a slice of the American Dream. But over the years, the tight-knit community was torn apart by the crack epidemic. As the drug circulated through The Town’s predominantly Black communities, dealers fought for territory and homicides skyrocketed. In 1990, the year Dame was born, 146 people were murdered in Oakland.
“Growing up in the Brookfield Village, you got to fight, man,” said Ray Young, Lillard’s AAU coach. “And I think that’s where [Dame’s fight] all stems from. I think at a young age when that’s installed in, you understand how to survive. If you’re walking through all that and you’re surviving all that, you’re tough as fuck. You see anything, you see heroin addicts, you see winos, you see pimps, you see hoes, you see hustlers. The Town is The Town.”
Young is the coach of the Oakland Rebels, the city’s storied but less heralded AAU team. The Rebels live in the shadow of the glitzier Oakland Soldiers, whose alumni include LeBron James, Leon Powe, and Kendrick Perkins. While the Soldiers basked in Nike-issued gear and played high-profile tournaments, the Rebels practiced at the decrepit gym on Berkeley’s West Campus.
“Us Rebels was really Oakland. Was really Bay. I mean, we had some guys from different areas of the Bay Area, but Rebels was real Oakland,” says Golden State Warriors guard Juan Toscano-Anderson, a Rebels alum. “And not to take away from any of the guys on the Soldiers. There were a lot of guys that were really from Oakland, you know, Jabari [Brown], Kiwi [Gardner], and so forth. It’s not a knock to them. But they had Nick Johnson, they had Kyle Wiltjer, they had Stanley Johnson. These guys are from L.A. and Portland and Arizona. That ain’t real Oakland.”
Back then, Lillard was just another player. Historic NBA scoring outbursts didn’t seem likely when he went to Alameda’s Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School, where grade issues nearly derailed his career.
“I was at St. [Joseph’s Notre Dame High School] my sophomore year, and at the end of the first marking period I was ineligible for a little bit. I was just having a hard time,” Lillard told ESPN’s The Undefeated in 2016. “I was lazy in the classroom and was half-hearted with it. I was on the team, but wasn’t getting in the games. I was in a bad spot. I stuck with it for the most part.”
Young saw potential in Duncanville, Texas, at the Great American Shootout. Lillard, then a junior, scored 25 points for the Rebels against an Adidas-backed, Tracy McGrady–affiliated opponent, keeping Oakland within striking distance before losing by five. While the output did little to help Lillard’s college recruiting, Young came away thinking his two-star pupil had a chance.
At Weber State, Lillard’s resolve was evident even before he became college basketball’s best-kept secret. After he broke his foot during his junior year, he came back to Oakland. During workouts, he told Toscano-Anderson, “I’m going to be a pro. I’m going to be in the NBA. I’m about to get drafted.” Toscano-Anderson, then 18, was skeptical, as were the rest of Lillard’s peers back home.
“I saw a lot of potential from Dame. He was a good-ass player,” Toscano-Anderson said. “But I didn’t really know if he was going to be a no. 6 pick. I didn’t see all of this.”
Two years later, the Blazers picked Lillard sixth in the 2012 NBA draft.
“You got to think, man, a player like Dame been underrated his whole life. He wasn’t highly recruited,” Town rapper and entrepreneur Mistah F.A.B. said. “He went to Weber State. Even in high school, he wasn’t talked about a lot. It was other guards that they were talking about. The Soldiers didn’t even rock with him and the Soldiers had everybody at that time.”
Even when Lillard made it to the top of the basketball mountaintop, he felt slighted. He missed the All-Star Game in 2017, despite averaging 27.0 points and 5.9 assists. All the while, the Golden State Warriors, Lillard’s hometown team, became basketball’s Goliath, and the biggest obstacle between Lillard and a title. When Lillard carried the Blazers to the playoffs the first season after LaMarcus Aldridge left, the Warriors knocked him out. Golden State eliminated Portland the following season too, and in 2019, when the Blazers made it to the West Conference finals, the Warriors once again sent them packing.
All of which might have been weighing on Lillard’s mind at the free throw line in Orlando, in front of Beverley, Morris, and George. And again when he nearly single-handedly propelled the Blazers to the playoffs with four straight wins and 185 combined points.
“It just shows you that once people from here get to that level, can’t nobody stop them,” said Oakland rapper Jim “Offset Jim” Pullum, whose East Oakland neighborhood is a stone’s throw from Lillard’s high school alma mater. “And being from out here, it just push you to do better. We always been under the underdogs, so we used to gettin’ doubted and shit like that. So when people doubt us, it just makes us go harder just to show them, show them who we are, show where we come from.”
Prior to Saturday’s win over Memphis, F.A.B. sent his fellow area legend a message: “Keep your foot on their neck. Keep going.”
Lillard texted back: “Cuz, I can’t stop. I got something to prove.”
Lillard’s performance against the Grizzlies showed another side to his game. He controlled the floor, dishing out 10 assists. And in the fourth quarter, with double-teams chasing him, he ceded offensive control to longtime backcourt mate CJ McCollum, whose 29 points sealed Portland’s postseason-clinching win. But it was Lillard’s weeklong contributions that put the league on notice.
“He’s unique because not too many people could do what he doin,’” said former NBA player and ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins. “And when I say that, I mean not too many people could go back and forth on Twitter, talk noise, go at a reporter, go at an analyst of this like Skip Bayless, come out the next night or back it up.”
“He’s tapped into that ‘I don’t want to lose’ spirit,” F.A.B. added. “When you come from a certain part of the town or the area of the city, a certain mind state that you come from that many succumb to, your option in your mind is ‘I don’t want to go back there,’ and losing is like ‘I got to go back there. I got to go home. I got to go the damn offseason. I got to go back to the slums. I got to go back to this area I don’t want to go back to.’”
Now, the mighty Lakers, the first seed in the Western Conference led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, are in Lillard’s way. Still, Dame’s folks back home see it as another obstacle Lillard has the tools to overcome. Some even have the audacity to say the overmatched Blazers have a chance to make history.
“If the Lakers for one minute think that this is going to be easy, they trippin,’” F.A.B. proclaims. “They might mess around and get bumped. This might go seven games.”
The mindset may be eye-popping to some, but for the folks in Brookfield and beyond, it’s the same mindset that makes Oakland different from any town on the planet.
“We from a city that has influenced millions, but every time they talk, they never mention their influence,” F.A.B. said. “We’ve influenced the world. We created a lot of stuff that people never give or credit us. And it’s like, damn, how long are you all going to keep sleeping on us?”