It is now, officially, Lillard Time.
Every other day for the past two weeks, much of a bone-weary city has paused to watch the Trail Blazers basketball team fight for a playoff spot in the NBA bubble in Orlando. The games have been agonizingly close: In four consecutive contests last week, the Blazers fell behind in the third quarter. At times, watching felt like collective scream therapy.
Each day, Damian Lillard has delivered.
The Oakland-born point guard from Weber State University secured a playoff spot with a virtuoso display of desire, composure and grace under an expiring shot clock.
He hasn't done it alone: He was joined by a roster now beloved by Portlanders, including slithering guard CJ McCollum (playing with a fractured vertebra) and lumbering center Jusuf Nurkic (mourning the death of his grandmother from COVID-19 as he returned from his own broken leg).
But Dame's play was otherworldly. He manipulated his way past swarming defenders to the basket, threaded passes to open teammates, and slammed his body onto hardwood to pluck loose balls. He hit a shot from the half-court logo, and another that bounced off the back rim and flew straight in the air so high it disappeared from the view of television cameras, before swooshing through the net for 3 points. Lillard scored 154 of those points in three nights—the most anyone has ever scored in the final three games of a season.
"I think it makes him what everyone in Portland knows he is: a superstar," says Channing Frye, who played for the Blazers from 2007 to 2009 before winning a title with LeBron James in Cleveland. "His play has been nothing short of amazing."
Lillard ended all debate about who is the greatest player in franchise history and, as the buzzer sounded after the Blazers' 134-133 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Aug. 13, he snarled: "Put some respect on my fucking name!"
Portland roared back in joy. In 2020, that was an unfamiliar feeling.
Lillard's performance was a gift to a city that has rarely felt so pummeled and divided. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed loved ones, eliminated jobs and paralyzed our daily interactions. An outpouring of anguish over police brutality toward Black people exploded into protests and riots of an intensity and duration surpassing that of most U.S. cities—and President Trump responded to the civil unrest by deploying a brutal federal police force to crush the uprising.
That pain is the backdrop to Lillard's triumph. It's hard to quantify how refreshing it felt. You had to watch it.
Sportscasters utter a lot of clichés about the healing power of sports, which change nothing. Lillard's athletic feats didn't make Portland more peaceful or just, and anointing celebrities as saints is a dangerous gamble. Oregon's doctors, nurses and EMTs have saved lives this year. Citizens have risked their safety to confront governmental abuse in the streets. It's silly to compare basketball to that.
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.
And it matters that he is experiencing these events, just as we are.
Lillard also watched the injustices American police forces enact against Black people, and on June 4, the most popular man in Oregon linked arms with protesters and marched across the Morrison Bridge, kneeling in memory of George Floyd. Later, he laid down a hip-hop track called "Blacklist."
"Ali wasn't the greatest just 'cause his hands work," Lillard rapped. "Front line for his people, this was a man's work… Our culture beautiful, battle-tested and tough, we had enough. So you either come with some change or it's gon' be rough. Period."
On May 1, Lillard's cousin, Brandon Johnson, who was part of Lillard's team and cooked for him, died suddenly in May at age 35 of an undisclosed cause.
Johnson, known as "Chef B," cooked breakfast for Lillard and McCollum—pound cake pancakes with 7-Up syrup, McCollum later told reporter Jason Quick of The Athletic. The day of B's passing, the two players who loved him went to his house. Two of the most famous men in the state stood together and cried.
Lillard recalled his sorrow Aug. 11, after scoring 61 points to defeat the Dallas Mavericks. He credited the last 3 of those points—the shot that bounced so high the camera couldn't follow, then fell in the basket—to heavenly intervention.
"It dropped in and, you know, I think that was my cousin," Lillard said. "Rest in peace, Chef B. I think that was him dropping that in for me."
Forget for a moment whether you think that's true. Instead, consider Lillard's example. Through the death of his friend and the disruption of a career that in the best-case scenario will end when he's still young, Lillard has soldiered on without excuses, as teammates fell to injury or failed to keep up with the torrid pace he set.
"You see how he holds himself on the court," Frye says. "Regardless of what sport my kids end up playing, I want them to hold themselves like that."
None of us can hit a contested 30-foot jump shot, but we all face challenges and frustrations each day. What Lillard's example shows us: If you get out of bed, no matter how hard it is, keep trying and refuse to quit, good things can happen.
Damian Lillard needed someone to believe in. So did Portland—and he gave us that.
Lillard leads the Blazers into a first round playoff series this week against the Los Angeles Lakers. The games air on NBC Sports Northwest.