OGDEN — Damian Lillard is a newly minted millionaire after signing a two-year, $6.3 million contract with the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, but he hasn’t forgotten about his alma mater. Lillard made a surprise visit to Weber State University on Friday, talking to a group of student government representatives about leadership and believing in oneself.
Speaking before a crowd of about 50 at WSU’s Wildcat Theater, Lillard recounted his journey from the streets of Oakland, Calif., to his college days at WSU and, finally, reaching his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA.
The Wildcats’ second all-time leading scorer said much of what he learned about leadership came from his time at WSU and from playing under head basketball coach Randy Rahe. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned about leadership is that you have to lead by example,” he said. “If you’re not working hard, how can you tell the next man to do it?”
Lillard said he learned from Rahe how to try to do the right thing all the time, even when that action might not necessarily make other people happy.
“One of the main things that stuck with me from Coach Rahe was, don’t try to be popular,” he said.
“There are times when you want to be cool with everybody and be accepted, but sometimes you have to do things that won’t please everybody. You’ve got to be willing to make tough decisions, even though everybody might not love it.”
Lillard says he has always believed in himself, even during trying times in his basketball career.
He said that belief and hard work are what got him to where he is today.
His goal from the time he could remember was to make it to the NBA, but now that he has achieved that as the sixth overall pick in this year’s NBA draft, he’s focused on reaching new heights.
“I want to be rookie of the year,” he said. “I want to be an All-Star in the next few years, and after that, I want to be in the Olympics in 2016.”
Although he has set some lofty goals and had some early NBA success by winning the most valuable player award for the NBA’s Las Vegas summer league, Lillard seems to have maintained his humility.
Since being drafted, Lillard has become a fan favorite in Portland. He now has 50,000 followers on Twitter and said he gets recognized and approached by fans quite often.
But it hasn’t gone to his head.
“All of a sudden, everywhere I went, people would be looking at me and pointing at me,” Lillard said. “It was kind of weird at first because I forget that I’m an NBA player.
“It’s just one of those things where you don’t see yourself as that big of a deal, so you are kind of like, ‘Why is everyone staring at me?’ But it’s nice. Hopefully, I am inspiring people.”
As for Lillard’s own inspirations, he said his favorite NBA player is LeBron James, but his parents — Houston and Gina — have had the biggest impact in his life.
As Lillard grew up in Oakland, his family often struggled to make ends meet financially.
“There were times growing up when we didn’t have the most money and we struggled as a family,” he said. “But as a kid, I never knew that anything was wrong. My parents didn’t let us see it, and they really fought through. (Hard times) never altered our family or our relationships with each other.”
Lillard said although he has already played and practiced with some of his Portland teammates, he can’t wait for his first official NBA game, which happens to be against Kobe Bryant, two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash and the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I think I can take Steve Nash,” a joking Lillard said. “I got Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Tony Parker after that, so I might have some rough nights with them. But Steve Nash, I think I got him.”