Damian Lillard, how could you?
That’s a question many Portland Trail Blazers fans started asking after the franchise superstar made two shocking decisions late Friday evening.
First, Lillard announced to several reporters his two preferred choices for the Blazers’ next head coach. That’s something no Blazers player has ever done before—it’s vanishingly rare in the history of the NBA, period—and was a forceful demonstration of how much leverage Lillard holds over the Portland front office.
Second, he used that capital to recommend two candidates with documented histories of alleged domestic and sexual abuse.
Lillard’s top choice, Jason Kidd, accepted a plea deal for hitting his wife in 2001. During divorce proceedings, she also accused him of kicking her in the stomach while she was carrying his child.
Lillard’s second choice—and the candidate apparently preferred by the president of basketball operations, Neil Olshey—is Chauncey Billups. In 1997, Billups and a teammate were accused of rape, eventually settling the case in civil court for an undisclosed amount of money.
By Sunday morning, Kidd had withdrawn his name from consideration. It’s not clear if the revulsion expressed by Blazers fans on social media played a role in his decision. He said he didn’t want to place Lillard in “an awkward position” with the team, ESPN reported.
But Dame doesn’t escape unscathed. For a generation of fans who grew up with Lillard as a civic hero, the revelation about whom he reveres was crushing.
“The hardest part about all of this is that Damian Lillard, an incredibly active and philanthropic member of our community, is the one throwing these names out there,” says Ashtyn Butuso, a longtime Blazers fan and founder of Flagrant magazine, a women-created basketball publication. “Dame is a person too; it’s possible he just doesn’t understand how gruesome the allegations are.”
For much of Lillard’s tenure in Portland, fans have feared he would leave this small-market city. But for some, this feels worse. A player who spent nearly a decade cultivating the most unimpeachable public image in the league has, in essence, placed a condition on his remaining in town: hire one of two men with horrifying histories of how they allegedly treat women.
“[Lillard] has spoken out consistently against injustice. He praises and celebrates the amazing strong women that surround him in his personal life,” said Cassidy Gemmet, a self-described Blazers fan since birth. “With everything that we’ve gotten to know about Damian Lillard as a man over the past nine years, these picks feel against what he stands for.”
What the hell, Dame?
Life as a sports fan is full of compromises. We all know that half of the purchase price for every ticket we buy will go in a billionaire’s pocket. The people who own these teams are not necessarily morally defensible. But we keep buying tickets and rationalize the choice as support for the players on the court, not the capitalist paying their salaries.
That moral calculus changes when the “bad guy” is the head coach. He will be at every press conference, roaming the sidelines at every game, and quoted in every game recap.
“The coach plays a huge part in a fan base. He calls the plays, creates our starting lineup, shares in the success,” said Alexa Cooper, a Portlander who grew up attending Blazers games with her mother. “[Portland fans] care about the players and coaches as humans and it matters to us that they’re not only good at what they do, but that they’re people we’d all want to be friends with outside of basketball. I wouldn’t want to be in the same building as Jason Kidd.”
A detailed description of the allegations against Kidd or Billups requires a content notice: These are descriptions of violent assaults.
Kidd was arrested for hitting his wife in 2001; he accepted a plea deal to avoid jail time. Joumana Kidd, Jason’s now ex-wife, would later level accusations of serial philandering, binge drinking, problem gambling, and repeated physical abuse.
She claims that Kidd assaulted her while she was pregnant with the couple’s first child and has struck her with everything from a large rock to a cookie. Once, after Kidd kicked her in the stomach causing blood to appear in her urine, Joumana alleges that he told her, “I don’t give a f--k.”
Kidd’s legal trouble did not end with a messy divorce. In 2013, he was convicted of driving while intoxicated and suspended for two games by the NBA.
The rape accusation levied at Billups dates to 1997, while he was a member of the Boston Celtics. A Jane Doe accused Billups, teammate Ron Mercer, and a third party of sexual assault at a luxury condo in a Boston suburb. Police reports detail the woman’s multiple injuries, which appear consistent with a sexual assault allegation (passage from Out of Bounds by Jeff Benedict):
A rape-kit examination revealed injuries to the throat, cervix, and rectum, along with bruising on her back consistent with with someone being dragged across a rug. Sperm had been retrieved from her vagina.
Even mentioning Kidd and Billups, only hours after coach Terry Stotts was shown the door, shows a callous disrespect for survivors of sexual assault or domestic abuse and undermines the NBA’s repeated claims to be a social justice-focused league. The Blazers ran a campaign to help domestic survivors at one point and continue to regularly brag about their work in the community. The NBA instituted a policy that, at least superficially, appears designed to keep domestic abusers and/or child abusers off their courts.
It’s hard to take those purported reforms seriously when the Blazers are considering Kidd or Billups as the face of the franchise. It’s hard not to cry at the incoming fallout when survivors share how even contemplating Kidd’s candidacy affects them:
“As a survivor, to see constant posts all over my timeline regarding these horrible acts, it’s a constant reminder of what I went through,” said Cooper. “Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate everyone standing against it. It was just a lot to take in. I think everyone was focused on the abusers and forgot the survivors reading it.”
A stunning reversal
Dame’s decision is especially baffling because he must know Portland’s history with violent and abusive players.
Contemporary reexamination of the “Jail Blazers” has clarified that some of the complaints of the era were a moral panic and implicitly—sometimes explicitly—racist. But regardless of the pearl clutching over a little weed, the city’s subsequent abandonment of the team had a massive effect.
The late Paul Allen, former Blazers governor, rebuilt the roster from scratch, emphasizing high-character players in an attempt to win back an alienated Rip City. His efforts largely worked: Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Lillard and dozens of other players have spent the past 15 years selling out Moda Center while mostly avoiding off-court unpleasantness. The team has regained its fiercely loyal following.
But Lillard’s demand opens old wounds. Dylan Mickanen of NBC Sports Northwest summed up the current mood around Rip City best:
“If the Trail Blazers, who promote their brand through fighting systemic injustice and creating social change, want to hire Jason Kidd, the organization condones his behavior against his former wife.…As a Trail Blazers fan, his hiring should be a deal-breaker for you.”
Within 12 hours, NBC Sports Northwest—the cable network that broadcasts Blazers games—removed the article from its website. That may be an indication of how badly people near the team want the subject to go away.
It won’t. The Jail Blazers era was an ugly debate about race, gender and power. By suggesting the hiring of two men of color accused of abuse, Lillard has asked the front office once again to choose between supporting a person of color and standing with victims of sexual abuse.
Further complicating the conversation is the NBA’s history with inequitable racial representation among its head coaches.
The league is majority Black, but most head coaches are white. This issue came to the fore last offseason when Steve Nash, a white former MVP, was bequeathed the head coaching job of the Brooklyn Nets despite having no prior NBA head coaching experience. Critics correctly pointed out that Black men are rarely awarded top jobs with contending teams unless they have years of prior experience. Nash’s hiring highlighted a concerning trend: worsening racial representation in the NBA coaching ranks.
Yet this is a false dilemma. There are dozens of Black assistant coaches around the league who would be strong candidates to replace Stotts. Former Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge highlighted Portland’s own Ime Udoka as an example.
The Blazers, and Lillard, have dodged one disaster with Kidd moving on. A charitable observer would give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt—perhaps there was a legitimate blind spot about the harm that headlines about someone with Kidd’s history can cause for survivors. But Billups’ continued candidacy casts doubt on that interpretation.
Look, this is a truly miserable conversation to have. The near-palpable rage that bubbled to the surface when Kidd’s name was first linked to Lillard and the Blazers has given way to sadness and fatigue. Everyone involved, from the front office to the 300-level seats, thought we had moved past this legacy. We haven’t.
The narrative of “good guys” vs. “bad guys” was always too simplistic. It made Portland fans feel good about themselves. It was branding.
Now Lillard has told fans more than we wanted to know about his values. We’re all wondering if he’s listening to survivors.
“By giving violent abusers fame and a platform you’re telling survivors that they don’t matter, that their experiences don’t matter and that you do not care about them,” said Gemmet. “I would no longer be buying tickets or gear or supporting the team. I’ve always loved this team, but some things are bigger than basketball.”