Back in January, The Gothamist published an article entitled “Are Portland and Brooklyn Actually the Same Place?” This piece came with a handy Venn diagram showing, with just a touch of levity, what the city of Portland and New York City’s largest borough do and do not share.
On the Portland-only side of the diagram is affordable rent. On the Brooklyn side is Maggie Gyllenhaal. The shared space is taken up with a variety of things, including DJs, vegans, Stumptown, ambiguously employed people and artisanal cheese-mongers. In short, Portland and Brooklyn aren’t the same, but they have a lot in common.
It stands to reason, then, that when the New Jersey Nets became the Brooklyn Nets last year, one of their very first things official actions would be to give a first round draft pick to the Portland Trail Blazers. That pick turned into Damian Lillard.
The Nets steamrolled the Blazers at the Rose Garden Wednesday night, but one big-time loss doesn’t negate what Portland has already received from Brooklyn this season.
Earlier this month, Lillard received his fourth NBA Rookie of the Month trophy. That same night, his first national television spot debuted, a 30-second ad for Adidas and Champ Sports.
Lillard was on national television without his team again this last Tuesday night, appearing on the NBC Sports Network to talk about, among other things, his “Respect” program, an anti-bullying campaign the Blazers launched on March 4 and is spearheaded by the presumptive Rookie of the Year.
Such is the state of this iteration of the Portland Trail Blazers. Arguably the team’s most notable player is also its most marketable and most charitable. It seems like quite a burden for a 22-year-old who played his college ball far from the spotlight, at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.
The Blazers’ first-year head coach believes his first-year point guard is up to the task.
“Very seldom has there been a point in his career that there was doubt, whether it was summer league or in September or in preseason. I don’t think there was ever a moment that there was doubt about him being a good player,” Stotts says. “The fact that he’s put himself in a position where people are aware of who he his. He’s played at a high level consistently all year, I think that’s great for him and I think that’s great for the franchise.”
Lillard, too, believes he has the stuff to be a leader for the Blazers, if not the new face of the franchise.
“I think I’m a personable guy. I think my story a lot of people can relate to. I think that suits what [the Blazers] need,” Lillard says. “I wouldn’t say [I’m] the face of the franchise but somebody that will be a part of an anti-bully campaign and show that I’m a personable marketable person even in a commercial.”
It’s the juxtaposition of Damian Lillard representing the Blazers in a nationally televised commercial and his representing the Blazers in a highly visible community service campaign that speaks to the uniqueness of Portland’s current situation.
Community service is a major part of life in the NBA, but very rarely do you see a franchise trot out its most promising young player to front a campaign that directly addresses a hot-button, headline-grabbing topic.
Skeptics can be forgiven their belief that Lillard’s ability to sell shoes might have a direct correlation with his being selected as the face of the Blazers’ active and multi-faceted community service department.
The NBA is a business after all; ticket sales are what drive the bus. It makes sense, then, that a community service campaign—even for something as notable as bullying—would be nothing more than an extension of the brand-building machine.
Lillard disagrees. Although he didn’t create the “Respect” campaign out of whole cloth, he personally selected it as something he wanted to attach himself to.
“I wanted to do this one because I think it’s an important situation,” Lillard says. As for using community service to build his brand: “I’m not a ‘for-show’ dude, so if I was doing it to help my brand or my image about something than I just wouldn’t do it, I would have chose something else.”
As a native of Oakland, a town known for raising individuals with an interest in social justice, Lillard is not shy about stating his continued interest in community service.
“I think there are a lot of different situations that I can step up as an NBA player and not be afraid to speak out on,” Lillard says. “If it’s something I can relate to and I feel for it, I have no problem stepping up to the plate and being part of it.”
Lillard has cemented his place atop the rookie rankings, and teased what is likely to be a long and fruitful tenure in Portland, leading the team both on and off the court.
“The success that he’s had—and, consequently, we’ve had—this year is something to be proud of,” Stotts says. “The best part about it is the best is yet to come.”
And for that, Blazer fans have Brooklyn to thank.