On a warm day in late June, Damian Lillard drove a U-Haul to the edge of Irving Park in Northeast Portland, threw open the back of the truck, and began handing out sneakers to a crowd of ecstatic kids.
It was an impromptu act of generosity from the Blazers' star point guard, which he announced on Twitter just a few hours before. Seeing one of the NBA's best players in your local park is always unexpected. But for anyone who's followed Lillard's career since he was drafted in 2012, it isn't a surprise.
From the moment he arrived in Portland, Lillard has striven to make an impact, and not just on the hardwood. The same year he won Rookie of the Year, he launched his anti-bullying initiative — now called the RESPECT campaign. Every year since, there are have been stories of Lillard's off-the-court altruism, from persuading his teammates to donate their playoff bonuses to Blazers staff to giving money to his former high school back home in Oakland.
But as Lillard makes clear, his sense of charity isn't motivated by the praise he receives for it. It's something much deeper.
G!G: You've had a pronounced sense of philanthropy pretty much ever since you came into the league. Where does that come from for you?
Damian Lillard: I'll never forget the night I got drafted. It was in New York. I walked the stage, went through the whole media gauntlet in the back. It took like two hours, and then, finally, after everything calmed down, I was able to actually celebrate with my family in the back. I walked back there and there's, like, 50 of my family members. My dad pulled me to the side, from the whole crowd of family. My dad is a quiet person, but he was like, "I want you to have fun and really enjoy this. But the most important thing you're going to be able to do with this type of blessing is impact other people and give back to other people, because you come from a background that a lot of people who make it to your position have never been around or experienced." I connected with him on that level, because I've always been that person where it's hard for me to enjoy my success when I feel like it's not going great for everybody else too. That was the start of it, and that's why my mentality is the way it is.
When you were growing up in Oakland, was there a person or an organization that did something for the community that had an impact on your life?
I had a guy that worked at the rec center, a friend of my dad's from a childhood. I'd go to the rec sometimes by myself. The rec would be about to close, and he would stay two extra hours and let me just shoot around, at 9 or 10 years old. He'd sit in the bleachers, watching me shoot. Sometimes he'd rebound for me, sometimes he put me through a workout in the weight room. And he taught me to be a good person. "Make sure you say thank you. Tell your mom and your grandparents thank you for signing you up to play basketball. Tell people thank you for giving you a ride." I've always had people in my corner who were on me about the kind of person I am and how I treat people and how I care about people.
Is there any particular philanthropic endeavor you're especially proud of?
The thing I'm most proud of so far here is my RESPECT campaign. I started it five years ago, and originally it was called the anti-bullying campaign. I went to private school one year, and I had a kid I was good friends with that everybody picked on. I kind of started to protect him. Somebody says something to him, I'd step in: "Say it about me, then we're going to see." I saw the impact that had on him. So when I got here, I started the anti-bullying campaign. I looked at the numbers, and you've got 8- and 9-year-olds committing suicide because kids are picking on them at school. Last year I changed it to the RESPECT campaign, because it starts with respect. Being nice and being kind are two separate things. I can be nice to you because I want something back. Being kind is caring about how you feel about something. I'm going to be the same person to you if it's just me and you, if nobody else is here. Kids need to learn that, to treat people that way.
Is there anyone you've met in Portland who you feel is an unsung hero in the community?
[Hip-hop artist] Cool Nutz. I give him a lot of credit, because he represents the black community. He does music, but every time I've ever been around him or been somewhere where he was, it's uplifting. He cares about his people and it's genuine. Being connected to people matters more to me than somebody just running around like, "Oh, I'm doing this charity event, I need this person and that person." You can tell his love is for free.
I think Brian Grant is somebody who he does a lot of things but he doesn't always want cameras and people to know about what he does. And that's how I am. Those are the kind of people I respect, because they don't do it for people to know who did what. They do it because it's what they want to do and let other people tell their story. I tell people all the time I'll probably never win the NBA Community Assist Award because a lot of the stuff that might make that happen is stuff I don't care to tell. I just cared that the impact is being made.
You've been really vocal about how you would ideally want to spend the rest of your career here in Portland. Off the court, how would you measure success in Portland at the end of your career?
I think I will be able to call it a success if, when people get up to speak about me, the first thing they say about me isn't, "I remember this game, he hit the game-winning shot." When I left college last summer, they retired my jersey, and my head coach got up there and he was speaking, and he immediately just started talking about interactions we had, why he appreciated me as a person and things that he saw that I did or knew that I did that I had no idea he even recognized. And it was things like that that tells me that was a successful time for me, because I didn't have to go out there and say, "Look at me! This is the kind of person I am! I hold the door for the lady working in the office." They just recognize it because when it's genuine, people see it. So when I'm done playing here, and when they hopefully retire my jersey, when Terry Stotts and Neil Olshey or CJ [McCollum] or even people that are in the media get up and talk about me, hopefully they talk about the kind of person they knew me as, more so than what 20,000 people see every game.
What is your advice to younger people who want to make an impact in the community but feel like they can't?
Not everybody has the financial stability to put things in place. You've got to know people. You have to be connected to people who will listen. I use myself as an example. I'm a global ambassador for the Special Olympics. When I was 17, that was the first time I ever dealt with the Special Olympics. I did it halfheartedly. I didn't know a whole lot about it. But when I did it, I see the joy in all the athletes. I had no idea I was going to have that type of day with all these Special Olympics athletes. So I attached myself to it. And now that I'm in the NBA, all these people coming to support something that I'm part of are connecting to it. For a kid that's trying to give back to their community, a kid from Portland, attach yourself to a RESPECT campaign. Attach yourself to the Brian Grant Foundation. By supporting it and sharing it with people that you know, then you've got all these people coming along. It's a process.
Connect with some of Portland's most impactful non-profits at giveguide.org.