OGDEN — Two weeks ago, Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard drove the paint in a game at Vivint Smart Home Arena and put up a floater as Utah Jazz defenders Rudy Gobert and Jae Crowder converged.
It was a mostly ordinary play, captured in a still photograph by Associated Press photographer Rick Bowmer, during a game in which Lillard scored a team-high 26 points and Portland took a 109-104 win. For many, it would appear to be a normal photo among many you’d typically see coming from an NBA game.
Except for the man with a purple shirt clearly visible sitting behind the play in the front row, complete with a VIP pass around his neck — Weber State head men’s basketball coach Randy Rahe.
“The relationship is strong still to this day,” Lillard said. “Having him at that Jazz game was like I would feel if one of my family members was there.”
Lillard hasn’t played for Rahe in seven years, but it hasn’t changed much for the two men now most synonymous with Weber State basketball.
“I’ve got a lot of family and coach Rahe is right along with the rest of my family. I’ve got my mom, my dad, my uncles, my aunties, my cousins, grandparents, coach Rahe. And coach (Eric) Duft,” Lillard said. “They all go right in that group. They’re family to me. We speak regularly.
“If I’m a little bit upset about something, there’s something on my mind, I can reach out to both of them. That started when I was here, just how they took me in as a teenager and cared about my life and who I was as a person, more so than what I could do for them as a basketball player. I appreciated that and my family did as well.”
Lillard returned the favor and sat courtside at Weber State’s Jan. 31 loss to Portland State, signing autographs for fans and standing during the first half to be recognized for his hours-old selection as a 2018-19 NBA All-Star, the fourth time the Oakland native has received the honor in seven professional seasons.
“It’s awesome. Damian’s family. We’re very close, he’s a part of our family, always will be,” Rahe said Thursday about the star’s visit. “He’s a loyal guy, man ... He’s always around to help support us as much as he can, no matter what he does. And that will never change with him.”
Lillard said that, in addition to summer visits to campus, that support often takes the form of taking Weber State guards under his wing as much as he can.
“Whoever the point guard is, I just try to get in their ear. I want to see where their head is and see how I can help them. It was that way when I left,” he said.
“I grew up with (Davion) Berry so I was always talking to Dev when he was here. Jeremy Senglin, me and him spoke a lot while he was here. And now Jerrick (Harding), we text and go back and forth, and I’m kind of in his ear, too. That’s kind of the role that I play.”
Lillard departed Weber State second in all-time scoring with 1,934 points (now third, ceded to Senglin and, likely, soon Harding), leaving with one year of eligibility remaining to enter the NBA Draft. He was selected sixth overall by the Trail Blazers in 2012. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 6.3 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game this season and has spent his career climbing Portland’s all-time leaderboards.
Minus the chance of a playoff matchup with the Jazz, Lillard’s trips to Salt Lake City with the Blazers are finished this season. But there are likely more front-row visits for Rahe in the future. Lillard says he thinks their special relationship is noticeable.
“I don’t really have to say much about it. Usually before the game … we sit and talk for a while. Depending on when was the last time we saw each other, we’ll sit there and catch up for a while,” Lillard said. “I think guys can put it together pretty easily because they know what their relationship might be with their college coach and it might have been a good relationship, but it’s not something that continues after they leave.
“I think they look at it like, ‘man, they’re really tight, they’re really like family to each other.’ That’s just what it is. We don’t have to try to make it seem like it’s something that it’s not. We’ve been tight like that since I was here and it’s just continued.”
Lillard, once vocal about being left off previous All-Star teams, was selected by NBA coaches to All-Star honors for the second straight season and fourth time overall Thursday.
“It’s always an honor to be amongst that group. Only the best of the best get to be part of All-Star Weekend. So I’m always thankful to be one of the guys invited there,” he said. “But over my seven years, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience a lot of individual things so I’ve reached the point where it wouldn’t be the end of the day if it didn’t work out or I wasn’t selected.
“I’m happy that it did work out, it shows that hard work is being rewarded. You’re getting the results you’re working for. So it’s always an honor and a pleasure.”