A Few Memories of What It Felt Like to Watch Damian Lillard Play Basketball for Portland

“I knew it was going in. We all knew it was going in.”

In the end, it was fitting that Damian Lillard waited until the last possible moment to demand a trade out of Portland.

He always specialized in the buzzer-beater, the heartbreaking dagger; this one was delivered to the Trail Blazers themselves, mere hours after the front office handed a $160 million contract to one of Lillard’s pals. The timing was probably not the result of malice but indecision. Lillard and Blazers general manager Joe Cronin spent much of the past year hesitating like Portland drivers at an intersection, neither wanting to be the first to hit the gas. Additionally, Lillard had built his brand on uxoriousness—somewhere on social media right now, he is insisting that he is a good person. But the man’s two primary desires proved incompatible: He wanted Portland and greatness. He would like to be traded to Miami, which in return can offer the Blazers the NBA equivalent of a Publix sub and some real estate in the Everglades. The divorce proceedings could turn acrimonious.

But as the saying goes, don’t cry because it’s over; smile because we clowned Russell Westbrook in the playoffs. Dame’s legacy in this city can be measured in numbers instantly recognized by even a cursory fan. 71 points. 37 feet. 0.9 seconds.

It’s harder to gauge the happiness he brought people. We were embraced by someone who was good at everything he tried. He was a rapper who walked with swagger on behalf of an insecure city, a global icon whose affection for Oregon seemed to absolve us of so many years of racism and provincialism. There’s no benefit to pretending we didn’t feel that love, watch those miracles, fall to the ground and run around the house screaming when the ball fell through the net.

We did. This is what it felt like.

May 3, 2014: Lillard catches an inbound pass with 0.9 seconds on the game clock and drains a 3-pointer to win a playoff series over the Houston Rockets.

Matthew Korfhage wrote: “I wasn’t watching the game; I was walking down the street. First there was a tense guttural sound from six different houses, and then six different houses erupted in wild cheers. They couldn’t hear each other in the different houses—they didn’t even know the other people existed—but from where I stood they were all cheering together. It was terrific. But if I didn’t already know what was happening, it would have scared the hell out of me.”

April 23, 2019: Lillard hits a 37-foot buzzer-beating jumper over Paul George to win a playoff series over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Casey Jarman wrote: “Basketball, like life, is meaningless. Damian Lillard’s series-winning shot didn’t teach us a valuable lesson.

“But basketball, like life, takes on whatever meaning you assign to it. That shot seemed to change the spirits of this whole city in a tangible way. Left us elated, even elevated. Changed the way we felt about ourselves and the place we live. It was a perfect moment, for those of us who wanted it—or maybe needed it.

“I was there, again, up in the rafters. In the final seconds, before Dame let it fly, I ran down the stairs of my section and held on to a railing and squatted down like a little kid peeking over a fence. I knew it was going in. We all knew it was going in. We all knew it didn’t really mean anything. We all knew it meant everything. We all knew we’d talk about it for the rest of our lives.”

Aug. 13, 2020: Lillard scores 154 points in three nights to propel the Blazers into the Orlando bubble playoffs in the first pandemic summer.

I wrote: “Damian Lillard isn’t a hero. He’s just one public figure who didn’t let Portland down.

“This year has seen a series of leaders outmatched by their circumstances. Gov. Kate Brown often proved indecisive in the face of a pandemic. Mayor Ted Wheeler can’t decide where he stands when police square off with protesters. No champion has risen to guide this city through its grief and fear.

“So it matters that Lillard is trying—and triumphing—even in his own small arena. It matters that he identifies with us—that the ‘O’ on his back stands as much for Oregon as it does for Oakland, his birthplace, or Ogden, Utah, where he went to college. We can see ourselves in him, or at least who we’d like to be if we were a little stronger.”

July 1, 2023: Lillard asks to be traded to the Miami Heat.

Corbin Smith writes: “Neil Olshey, the team’s previous GM, did a really bad job building a decent team around Dame, and the consequence of building a bad team around a star is the star asking out, eventually. The sick parasocial nature of this whole thing, Dame’s need for a loving public that resided outside of winning and losing, and his feeding off of the Portland metro’s kind of pathetic desire to have a player who gave them a percentage of the affection they gave to him probably made the partnership last two years longer than it should have. CJ McCollum getting shipped out was the sign that this thing was over, but the sort of affection that makes novelty Toyota dealerships possible kept it going for two miserable years after that. Maybe next time, try to remember that he’s just a man.”

Aug. 5, 1978: Bill Walton asks to be traded out of Portland.

John Bassett, Walton’s agent, tells WW: “Someone once said that God gave us a memory so we could have roses in December. I think we should all remember the very special sports competition we saw in Bill Walton and that we should be thankful to have seen such a great athlete perform on a regular basis, rather than sell ‘Bill Who?’ bumper stickers, thought of by a creative, but obviously insecure, individual who certainly wasn’t there on June 5, 1977. If that person doesn’t know who Bill Who? is, then he missed the greatest sports experience, by far, that Portland and the state of Oregon has ever experienced. And that’s coming from somebody who has lived in Oregon all his life.”

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