Damian Lillard sits on a bleacher inside the Portland Trail Blazers’ practice facility and romances about his hometown.
He loves Oakland. Most of his family still lives there, and the large clan will occupy entire rows inside Oracle Arena tonight when the Blazers play the Golden State Warriors. Still, it’s a bit strange to hear Lillard describe his hometown as “cool,” when you consider that the body bag count makes it one of the most dangerous cities in America.
But please consider that Lillard would not be relaxing inside this suburban basketball sanctuary as one of the top rookies in the NBA had it not been for his home sweet home.
His is a gritty town. The football team wears black and the Hells Angels spawned here. The police force creates more scandal than a Shonda Rhimes production and has been supervised by federal judge to wean the incessant corruption.
“Oakland streets are no joke. It’s a little different for us coming out of there,” says native and retired NBA great Gary Payton. “(Lillard’s) got so much dog in him and that’s what I love about him. That’s what he carries from Oakland in his game to the NBA now.”
It is in Oakland where Lillard learned the moves — his dagger step-back jump shot, the deadly reverse backspin layup — that have earned him consecutive NBA Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards. But within those city limits, he learned something more valuable. Oakland taught Lillard hard work.
He was the stubborn little guy who showed up before the doors of the neighborhood recreation center were unlocked, wearing yesterday’s shorts and bouncing the basketball his Pops had ordered from a magazine.
He never flinched when his summer coach heaved bullet passes at his birdcage chest, and he didn’t shrink inside the hotel room the day that same coach called him out in front of all of his friends.
Bolted doors and insults are nothing to a boy from Brookfield Village.
That’s the East Oakland neighborhood that time and urban development have forgotten. A swath of land carved in the shadows of Oracle Arena where more liquor stores line the trash-strewn streets than schools.
While the Warriors play just two miles away, NBA success stories do not walk the city blocks of Brookfield.
This is where Damian Lillard calls home. And it has made him who he is today.
“I ain’t a punk,” Lillard responds without missing a beat when asked how his hometown defines him. “I’m not scared of nobody. I think that’s the main thing, I don’t fear people.
“Because I know how stuff goes. … I’ve seen it all.”
Basketball in Brookfield
Howard Gamble swears that Lillard kid still owes him a Spalding.
Through the 1990s, Gamble worked at the Ira Jinkins Recreation Center — commonly referred to by the name of its neighborhood.
The Brookfield Rec offers two meeting rooms large enough for quinceañeras. There’s also a stage that can host school Christmas pageants. Though Houston Lillard, Sr., and Gina Johnson raised their children in an ocean blue bungalow a couple miles away, Damian spent many childhood days at his grandparents’ house in the heart of Brookfield. And just around the corner was the gym.
Every Sunday morning, Gamble showed up to unlock the doors at 9, and Lillard would be there waiting.
Gamble can hardly believe that the 22-year-old pro he watched drain a game-clinching three in Madison Square Garden is the same little boy who used to shut down the Brookfield Rec.
“It’s crazy. It’s just unbelievable,” Gamble says. “That’s the little kid that I used to put out of the gym and used to steal my basketballs.”
Lillard searched for games, and when grown men took over the main court — an invitation for most of the smaller kids to retreat to the back room for PlayStation II — he stayed and watched. When he got antsy, he practiced dribbling with his left hand, or shot alone on the side rims. So when you think Lillard might be gassed as one of the top 10 league leaders in minutes played (38.1 per game), just know that as a fifth-grader he played basketball for as long as some of us work a 9-to-5 shift.
Besides, Lillard needed the practice if he was ever going to stop his shot from getting stuffed.
Lillard was small, no match on the block against his bulky brother Houston, Jr. Many of these one-on-ones devolved into wrestling matches, and Junior wouldn’t let the runt win those either. But baby brother kept fighting.
“That’s where his heart comes from — he’s fearless,” says Houston Lillard, Jr., 26. “I mean, that boy is fearless. He’s been like that. Even as a little kid.”
Fearless, and competitive. In middle school, he got online to discover what all his teammates were talking about: an Oakland kid had made a national list of ranked players. But the name wasn’t Damian Lillard.
“I can remember back in seventh grade when I really started to care about when I won or lost and if somebody was better than me,” Lillard says. “When we started to see stuff like that, I think that’s when it started — it got serious.
“Every game I wanted to kill, then go look at the rankings. See if I move up or get on this list.”
Hard work, tough love
Lillard wanted the respect and recognition, but he had to earn them the hard way.
He worked into the Arroyo High varsity starting lineup as a 5-foot-5 freshman, but once it became clear his coach would not return, Lillard searched for a new school. So he enrolled at Saint Joseph Notre Dame. NBA point guard Jason Kidd once attended there, but Lillard could not follow his path at the private school.
To this day, Lillard, who normally speaks in measured tones and portrays a sense of indomitable cool, will break character on this topic. His voice rises and flashes hints of anger when he talks about his St. Joe days. But, coach Don Lippi — who hears “what the hell happened to you?” when people discover that he benched the frontrunner for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award — depicts the brief era as the defensively-challenged sophomore needing to wait his turn.
“To his credit, he just kept working,” Lippi says. “One of the reasons he left here, he wasn’t playing that much, but that made him want to get in the gym and get better.”
Lillard found a home at Oakland High, where he led the league in scoring his junior season. He thought he had finally made it but his longtime Oakland Rebels AAU coach Raymond Young didn’t share the same sense of satisfaction.
Young first met Lillard in eighth grade and sized him up the only way he knew how — brutally honest .
“No, he wasn’t great,” Young recalls. “He could score the ball but he would not play a lick of defense.”
Young ran child-labor camps, not practices, working his players inside the abandoned gymnasium of an adult school. The central air didn’t work; sometimes neither did the lights.
Of course, the place lacked proper instructional tools, so Young pulled out bricks from the ground, covered with insects and dirt, and made the boys hold one in each extended hand while stooped low in a defensive stance. If a single arm bent, then everyone had to run. And if another, then the boys slid down court holding sandbags.
You’re not going to find Young’s tactics in a guide on how to coach youth basketball.
“Two-hour practices, he’d yell at us, call us every name in the book, throw hard-ass passes and the ball would hit us in the chest,” Lillard says. “It was crazy that we didn’t think he was crazy.”
Lillard was heading into his junior high school year when his Rebels bombed at their last summer tournament. Young invited the entire team into his Doubletree hotel room for a final meeting. He looked calm and cool while propped against the headboard of his bed, but after he was done critiquing everyone in sight, those players wanted to hide under the covers.
Young saved his best and longest rant for Lillard.
You don’t play hard, you don’t practice hard. You have the potential to play big-time college basketball, but you can’t even play for me.
The words cut deep, but Lillard was listening.
“Once he told me I could be a Division I player, that was all I needed to hear,” Lillard says. “From then on, I was like, ‘What do I need to do?’ “
Damian Lillard doesn’t think this a special day.
When the Blazers team bus pulls into Oracle this afternoon, Lillard will have already repeated countless times that it’s no big deal.
But today in East Oakland, they’ll tell the stories. About the teenager who worked out Friday evenings instead of partying. About the leader who spent the final moments of his high school career near the bench, but instead of sulking about fouling out, he stood and applauded his OHS teammates. About the undersized point guard, overlooked by Bay Area schools, who went to Weber State with a chip the weight of one of those old dirty bricks on his shoulder and developed into the future of a franchise.
“He worked harder than everybody else,” Gamble says. “It’s inspiring. He gives other kids motivation.”
These memories reveal the legend of a boy from Brookfield, cultivated and cared for by the hands in his hometown.
“I grew up in East Oakland, it was tough there,” Lillard says. “(But) I knew right from wrong because of my foundation. I think that’s why I was able to branch off and do my own thing.”