When the 2019-20 NBA regular season was suspended back in March, Damian Lillard was playing like the best point guard in the league, a nightly 50-ball threat filled with uncontaminated confidence; the deserved face of a Portland Trail Blazers organization that leapt at the chance to align with his value system. That he was playing out of his mind was not a coincidence: Before the pandemic, Lillard was guaranteed more money (roughly $258 million) than any player in basketball history.
But Lillard’s sagacious reputation outweighs his financial worth. Before he protested George Floyd’s murder, arm-in-arm with hundreds of exhausted Black and brown faces in downtown Portland, Lillard publicly questioned his own role in potential comeback plans that were floated by the NBA.
And under the alias Dame D.O.L.L.A. (which stands for Different on Levels the Lord Allows), he also raps. Earlier this week, through clenched teeth and balled fists, Lillard released “Blacklist”—2 minutes and 54 seconds of hot tar dumped on the incessant systemic racism he and other Black Americans have endured since the day they were born. To cap off the week he dropped another track called “GOAT Spirit,” featuring Raphael Saadiq. “All of my favorites are the ones who stood for something. Muhammad Ali. My favorite rapper is 2Pac,” Lillard tells me. “They stood for something. And they are guys widely considered as GOATs in what they do. I love Michael Jordan because of the charisma and him being able to sell his shoe and be popular and his work ethic and his killer mentality and all those things.”
GQ: I was talking to my dad the other day, asking for his perspective on everything that’s going on, as someone who lived through the civil rights era and faced racial discrimination his entire life. He just kept saying he was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I was reminded of that phrase when I first listened to “Blacklist.” Is that how you felt writing it, and what was your mental state when you got in the booth?
Damian Lillard: I mean, just frustrated. Feeling like a little helpless because growing up, I experienced so many of those things where we had, you know, neighborhood picnics where a fight would break out and guns were drawn. I had guns drawn on me as a little kid. I grew up around people like Oscar Grant who was killed by a cop. And he’s face down on the ground. Seeing people get harassed by cops my whole life. Then I went off to college in Utah where things were way different. I got a chance to focus on myself and have peace of mind. Now I live in a suburb.
So now, the more you see people losing their lives and people killed by cops with no guns, no nothing, they’re unarmed people. [Killed] for petty crimes. Silly stuff. Writing a bad check. Doing stuff like that and they’re losing their lives. I’m only 29. And you’ve seen this so many times that you’re just at the point like, man, when is it gonna really change? We always have outcries and people posting on social media and that stuff, but like when is it really gonna change? You get to the point where you’re like man enough of this shit. This is not equality. This ain’t right. This ain’t justice.
What do you want to see happen now, in the weeks, months, and years ahead?
I think for starters, a lot of people are saying defund the police, just because so much is being funded into police departments. I think that’s fair. A lot of money being put into that I think could be put into Black communities to have better resources and better programs and give a lot of African-American youth better opportunities.
Where I grew up, I had to work super hard and go above and beyond—and, you know, one in a million of us make it to the NBA. I just happened to be that one. But so many people gotta fight and fight and fight and fight and go through so much, and the opportunity is not equal. You don’t get the same resources. You don’t get the same amount of opportunity. You don’t get to be in the best school districts. You don’t get the best teachers because the schools aren’t funded the same, so the teachers are working for less. I went to a school where teachers were passionate about teaching us and being part of our lives because they cared about our community, which we were fortunate to have. But everybody don’t have that.
I think back to when I was growing up. My grandmother and my mom, the way I was taught was just like, keep your head down and make sure you stay out of dodge, when I shouldn’t have to worry about that. I make hundreds of millions of dollars. I’m a professional athlete and all these things, and when I see a cop get behind me, my concern is never the ticket. When people are getting pulled over they’re like “man I’m gonna get a ticket.” I don’t think about the ticket! I think, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen.” I literally think that. And that’s a problem, man. Because I know I’m not the only one.
Have you experienced police brutality or racial profiling by the police yourself?
One time when I was driving after I just got my first car. I bought my car in Oakland and I had to be back at school in Utah the next day. I drove back to school with my cousin, and I got to Elko, Nevada, and I was just driving through Nevada, a couple hours from Utah. And I get pulled over by highway patrol. They pull us over, walk up to the car. They ask for my license and everything. I tell them I just bought this car yesterday at home. It’s a new car. I’m registering the car in Utah. I start school tomorrow. I got insurance. I tell him everything but I’m giving him an update on where I am with it. And they’re like, “So what are you doing in Nevada. We get a lot of drugs coming through here. Do you have any drugs in the car?”
I was like, “Man, I’m a college athlete.” I pulled myself up on the phone and showed them. I’m a college athlete. I go to Weber State. This is gonna be my last year. I got a chance to be a draft pick, I’ve never been in trouble. I’ve never been arrested. I tell them everything. And they say, “Let us search the car. We get a lot of drugs coming through here.” And I told them no. And they said, “You either let us search the car, or we’re gonna get permission from the judge.” And I said, “I’m not letting you touch my car.”
So they made me get out of my car, with my cousin. They made us walk up the road. We’re in the middle of the desert. They made us walk like 30 yards up the road away from my car. I started thinking they were gonna plant something in my car, but they didn’t. They just tore my car apart. They took the inside of the doors off. They went in my trunk and took out all my suitcases and luggage and had all my clothes flying out all over the road. They broke my window. They just tore my car apart and then three hours later after being on the side of the road in the desert. It was three squad cars out there, six cops, and they just harassed us, basically. And I didn’t even get a ticket! And I put this on my son’s life, this a true story, man.
You marched in downtown Portland last week. Do you consider yourself a social activist, or would you like to be recognized as one?
I don’t look at myself as an activist. I just look at myself as somebody that’s willing to get in the field with my people and be a part of the fight. That’s the pride I take in being a Black man. Because just as fast as I became an NBA star, I could’ve been living in Oakland and on the ground in front of somebody’s house. For me, it’s about being present in the fight with your people. Even though I’m a part of billion-dollar companies and make millions of dollars, I’m one of these people that’s out here. [They’re] who I’m gonna stand with, 100 times out of 100.
Why was it important to you to be physically part of the protests? Did anything you saw or heard that day stick with you?
First of all, when you’re out there, you realize that at any moment you can be face to face with police. You’re putting yourself in harm’s way by protesting. I felt that tension. Once you hear the leaders speak and you hear how sincere and how passionate they are about the message that they’re pushing, and what they’re fighting for, they get you to follow them. And I was following them! I was there, and I believe in what they were saying. And it’s not about getting famous people and celebrities out there, it’s the fact that we’re all out there. Recognized and not recognized. That’s what you’re seeing, and that’s why it’s making a lot of noise.
I don’t mean to spring a hypothetical on you, but if the NBA season starts up at the end of July and there are country-wide protests while you’re in Orlando, how do you think you would feel playing in games while all these important issues that you obviously care so much about are being fought over?
I think about it everyday. I can’t speak for everybody but for me personally, I’m able to do my job more effectively when I’m in a good place personally. You know what I’m saying? And this is something that affects me personally. I’m one man. I make a lot of money as one man and I do things for a lot of people and my family. But I got a lot of people that live in Oakland and a lot of friends that are still in the neighborhood. I’m just connected to so many people that it’s like, how can I be consumed with a basketball game? Look at the lengths that we’re going to play a basketball game when there’s something so much greater going on. Something so much more meaningful going on, that really needs us. So I mean it’s a battle every day for me, man.
Do you think the NBA season will resume?
If you ask me that question right now, I’ll say yeah. That’s what’s been reported.
It feels like a fluid situation.
As far as I know, we’re playing.
How did you initially feel about the news that Portland would be heading to Orlando, and what do you think about the league’s 22-team format? Anything you’d change about it?
I’m just happy we’re getting a chance. We was in the hunt coming down the stretch and I’m glad we get a chance to make a run for it. That’s all we can ask for.
What specific trepidations do you have about spending however long in the “campus environment,” be it health-related or just having to face so much unknown down in Florida?
I think it’s just the unknown because we’re all coming back together, you have us all in one place, and we don’t know where anybody’s been. Everybody can say they’ve been at home. But you don’t know who’s been at the beach. You don’t know who’s been having house parties. You don’t know what people have been doing and there haven’t been enough tests. Now we’re all gonna be in a bubble. We got that issue. There’s just a lot of things that come into play, you know, it’s a risk. At the end of the day that’s what it is. It’s a risk. But it is what it is, man. We’ll see.
When you talk to teammates and other players, what’s the general consensus on whether it’s worthwhile to finish the season?
I think it’s about split. A lot of my teammates are like, “Whatever, let’s play. Let’s hoop. If that’s what we’re gonna do and they’re saying it’s safe, then let’s do it.” And then on the other hand, people be like, “Are we just doing this because we don’t want to miss out on this money?” People just don’t know.
I want to ask you about a rumor you mentioned in a different interview about possibly getting traded to New York. As someone who follows the NBA very closely and covered it for almost ten years, I don’t really recall any of those rumors. You briefly set the internet ablaze with that one. So when was that?
I was wondering if you could elaborate?
I feel like it was like two years ago, maybe. Maybe three years? It was never confirmed by anybody. I didn’t speak to my team or their team. I just kept hearing it. People kept asking me about it. I kept seeing it coming across my Twitter and I was like, man, where is this coming from? But I mean obviously it was nothing.
You turn 30 in a month. How much have you reflected in quarantine about where you’re at in your career, and what else you want to accomplish?
I’ve thought about that a lot. Like, man, I was 21 when I got drafted. All this time went by so fast. It seems like it just happened, you know? And then I look at the long list of accomplishments that I’m proud of. And then I just start to look at it like, what are the next steps for me?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Source : Michael Pina Link