PORTLAND — On Wednesday afternoon, Damian Lillard looked resplendent in a gray three-piece suit, sitting atop a stage inside the Rose Garden. His Portland Trail Blazers head coach on his left and to his right, the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy.
“I can’t stop smiling,” Lillard mumbled to himself.
It took 82 starts and 121 first-place votes for Lillard to become the unanimous choice as the 2012-2013 NBA Rookie of the Year — only the fourth player in league history — but the seeds of this moment were sown a year ago inside a poorly lit room somewhere in Ogden, Utah.
Last April on a Tuesday afternoon, Lillard wore a gray polo shirt and sat at a table inside the Dee Events Center. His Weber State head coach next to him, a purple teddy bear seated on the floor. Lillard was declaring his eligibility for the upcoming NBA draft and a reporter asked about his goals.
“Uh, well, I want to be Rookie of the Year,” Lillard responded without hesitation. “Some people might say I’m crazy, but that’s just something that I set out for myself.”
“I don’t just want to get there because a lot of people do that and they just fade away after two to three years, maybe. But I want to be Rookie of the Year and I want to be there at All-Star weekend one day. And that’s just what I set out for myself. I want to do it.”
This point guard who fell from the Big Sky and landed in Portland dared to view himself as the best rookie of his class, and showed right away that he wasn’t as “crazy” as some might think. Even after those summertime runs with his new mentor, Lillard’s fanciful goal was never far from his mind.
” ‘Do you think I can win Rookie of the Year?’ ” Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool said, recalling one of the first questions Lillard asked him at the beginning of their coach-player relationship. “I kind of looked at him and said, ‘Well, that’s what we’ve got to work towards.'”
By the end of November, Lillard was on his way. He collected the first of six Western Conference Rookie of the Month trophies. Then, the highlights of a 19-point, 6.5-assist season began to take shape.
He dropped at least 20 points and seven assists through his first three regular-season games.
He drilled the game-winning shot against the New Orleans Hornets.
He dazzled the Madison Square Garden with his step-back jumper on New Year’s Day.
“When we won in New York,” Vanterpool said. “Me personally — of course, I didn’t say this to him — but I was like ‘there’s nobody getting that award but him. There’s nobody better than him.’ “
“When you get on a stage that everybody perceives to be The Stage, and you step up to being on the stage and you perform. It’s like when Whitney Houston sung the National Anthem at the Super Bowl (in 1991). It’s like singing at the Super Bowl and you kill it — that should cement some things. And in my mind, it cemented a lot.”
As the only Blazer to step up and take the stage through all 82 games this season, Lillard had plenty opportunities to show fatigue and fragility. Instead, Lillard sprinted through the feared rookie wall as records fell in his wake.
Lillard became the NBA leader for most 3-pointers made by a rookie, and only three players in league history amassed at least 1,500 points and 500 assists during their first seasons: Oscar Robertson, Allen Iverson and the 6-foot-3 point guard from Weber State.
“Everybody kept waiting for him to hit a wall, and he was remarkably consistent from beginning to the end,” coach Terry Stotts said. “When everybody was waiting for him to show a drop off, and he never did.”
From the press conference in Ogden and to those quiet one-on-one preseason moments with Vanterpool, Lillard steadied himself with the persistent belief that he could win the top rookie honor.
On Wednesday, Lillard could not suppress his smile throughout the special ceremony held in his honor. He thanked those seated in the front row — parents, siblings, and grandparents — who pushed and believed in him. Lillard also remembered the bold statement he made during his Weber State moment.
“My coach Phil (Beckner), right after the press conference he came up to me and said, ‘When you said you wanted to be Rookie of the Year, I almost yelled out, ‘Oh, you’re crazy!’ ” Lillard recalled. “It’s funny now that I’m actually getting it.”