|Damian Lillard, who got little national exposure at Weber State, gets some on this day. (Getty Images)|
For more than a month, Damian Lillard has started each day wishing he possessed a time machine. All he's wanted is for June 28 to get here. Finally, mercifully it has. Today, he wakes up an amateur and will go to bed a professional. This 6-foot-2, 190-pound guard from Weber State who was second in the nation in scoring will be drafted into his dream, and drafted higher than anyone expected two years, two months, even two weeks ago.
Lillard's eyes open at about 8:20 a.m. on the 24th floor of his midtown Manhattan hotel room. (And to give you an idea of the West Coast kid's knowledge of New York City, know that the day before Lillard asked, "What's that place called? Town Square?")
Lillard is awake. He should be excited. Waking up the occupants in the room next to his or even below. But he's not. Make no mistake: Lillard is happy he's about to achieve The Dream. But he's also happy -- as hell -- this process, a necessary and cumbersome conveyor belt of pre-draft responsibilities, is almost over because it has been a nuisance and a grind. Specifically, a mental one. The physical aspect -- criss-crossing the country for team workouts, including the now legendary audition he put on for Portland on June 15 -- hasn't been troublesome at all.
Lillard impressed scouts at nearly every stop. He's a genuine article. A great kid, not just a good one. That's the narrative you can't get away from with Lillard. But the fact is, most of these players are so tired of the process by draft night that, when it comes, it's happiness and relief for the achievement, but also the great escape out of the lab-rat process they've endured for weeks leading up to it.
It's one of those good problems, though. Lillard knows that. And there are only a few hours left of the tedium, then his life changes forever.
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Lillard gets out of bed and heads to breakfast, knowing the answer he seeks most to the only question he's cared about this spring is half a day away.
• • •"You want them to have the nervousness. You want them to be tired of travelling and working out with teams. I want him to experience every emotion he can during this process."
Those are Aaron Goodwin's words. He's Lillard's agent. Goodwin has represented everyone from LeBron James to Kevin Durant to Dwight Howard to another former point guard from Oakland, Gary Payton, whom Lillard feels a massive responsibility to honor with his play.
The process leading up to the NBA Draft can be sapping for players, especially lottery picks, who are handled like children, not the men they think they're becoming by mere virtue of getting drafted into the world's most competitive professional team sport.
It's a curious thing to watch these imminent multi-millionaires mill about a hotel mezzanine. Often times, they look lost. The child wandering alone down the wrong aisle in the supermarket. Part of it seems they're inwardly appreciating any millisecond they can get on their own, away from the fray, the family, the agents and anyone else with a hand in the NBA Draft Machine. The other part of it could be, when someone's not telling them where to go, what to do, who to talk to -- they're just biding time until someone else swoops them away to something else, because there is always something else. These players have been conditioned for coddling, and it's here where they're awkwardly alone, even for a moment. At one point, I spot Meyers Leonard sporting a look on his face probably last seen during his first day of high school.
It's 9:15 a.m. on Draft Day and Lillard appears at the first of three required meetings, this one about player development. He's not too tired; he bypassed any sort of partying Wednesday night and hit the pillow before 1 a.m., after he and more than a dozen friends and family members celebrated his father's 45th birthday at Shula's Steak House.
While he's away, I bide my time at a coffee shop inside the hotel. At 10:23 a.m., Harrison Barnes strolls in to say hello to his mother, who is looking out onto 43rd Street below from her two-person table. A man approaches Barnes and hands him a $1,000 gift card, pointing to a nearby store. Barnes looks at the card and hands it to his mother.
• • •
Damian Lillard is a name a lot of casual basketball fans don't know, and that's with good reason, considering fewer than five of his games were broadcast on national TV during his time at Weber State. Know this: he is an adroit scorer, arguably as good as anyone in this draft. As a boy, Lillard learned to play basketball at his grandmother's house. There was a tree that had an awkwardly grown branch which naturally curled into a makeshift rim. Hitting the branch meant missing the shot. So Lillard grew to shoot the ball better -- completely accurately. Eventually the tree was cut down. And so a milk crate was nailed to a telephone pole. Continual adaptation.
There are a lot of factors that have to fall perfectly into place for a high lottery pick to land at Weber State, but it basically comes down to a promise, persistence, renewed dedication, and all the while embodying personality traits that are coveted by every NBA team. Lillard attended Weber State, plainly, because it was the first school interested in him and the first to offer him a scholarship. He didn't have many offers -- five in all -- but there was no detour from picking Randy Rahe's team. Rahe was tough and straightforward. It was exactly what Lillard's father needed to hear.
"He's got impeccable character and impeccable values, and those were things that came from his parents," Rahe said.
When Rahe told Lillard the City of Ogden declared June 28, 2012, Damian Lillard Day, the player was confused. There would be a huge celebration. T-shirts would be made. Massive screens would be set up so people could publically convene and celebrate Lillard's big day. "Why would they do that?" Lillard asked.
Growing up in East Oakland gave Lillard a culture shock when he got to Ogden, Utah. And it was for the better. He could walk to the grocery store at 2 a.m. just because he was hungry. Back home, walking to the store at any hour isn't a decision most kids make. Lillard's life changed in that way once he arrived on campus, but changed for good in basketball after his sophomore season. That's when Rahe believed he was an NBA player, because his talent maturity began to match his mental maturity.
"He's got an old soul," Rahe, who openly wept the day Lillard left campus, said. "He believes in old, traditional values. He'd fit right in with those old NBA guys. It seems like the new wave of guys is me-me-me, and what are you going to do for me and what's in it for me and he's the opposite."
Lillard was a third-team All-American selection this past season. He finished second in the country in scoring, averaging 24.5 points. There's no entitlement here. He believes his age, 21 on the verge of 22 (July 15), gives him advantage. He believes it's part of why he's moved from the second round to the mid-20s to the low 20s to the mid-teens to one of the top six or seven prospects. He wants teams to know he won't be an hermit. He won't sulk. He knows he's going to a team that will put together a patchwork season next year, and when the losses likely outweigh the wins, he'll continue to the positive reinforcement.
• • •At 10:30, Lillard is back in his room, putting on his suit. It has an undeniable Portland Trail Blazers theme to it. He's nervous, but without fear. His girlfriend, Kayla, who is pre-med and a junior-to-be at Weber State, quietly watches him get into costume. By 10:50, on the ninth floor of the Westin, players saunter into the lobby area. The body language from each lottery pick is telling.
Anthony Davis walks with the confidence of someone who's been propped up as one of the best No. 1 draft picks in years. Without a jacket on, he also looks impossibly sinewy.
Bradley Beal looks as loose as any player. As it's been since he was 16, Beal looks ready for the league in every way.
Jeremy Lamb seems timid, which is not uncommon for Jeremy Lamb.
Dion Waiters looks like he's waiting to be called into the dentist's chair.
Lillard's demeanor is that of someone waiting for an airport pickup. There isn't a lottery pick who's dealt with less attention in college than him. When it comes to mass media attention, he's a bit overwhelmed. Why all of a sudden do all these people want to know what I'm thinking now, all the time? At one point, he mentions a conversation he had with a reporter over the phone, completely forgetting I was the reporter he spoke with. I don't fault him for the brain-locks. You can see the exhaustion on all players' faces.
The intonation of Lillard's voice almost never changes. Aurally, it is a straight line. Yet he readily admits to anxiousness. He's always been anxious. Only a few more hours now. Eventually the players are called in to their next forgettable NBA meeting, and as it's happening, one unidentifiable man in the lobby with some agency says to another, "What you hearing? Charlotte?"
"That's what I'm hearing," the other man says, "but that don't mean s---."
This man responding is in Thomas Robinson's camp. He's correct, because Robinson will fall from Charlotte at No. 2 to Sacramento at No. 5 10 hours later.
After the player development meeting (basically the NBA's chance to tell these guys not to screw up or get in any trouble amid post-draft celebrations), at 11:38 a.m., Lillard emerges with an envelope filled with 48 tickets for his family, a laminated credential, six Kelly Green wrist bands -- clearance to sit in the Green Room prior to the draft -- and a small gift bag containing Skullcandy headphones and the ugliest NBA hat you've ever seen.
During his downtime, Lillard's head is in his phone every 15 seconds. He's checking text messages, dozens of them coming in, plenty from numbers he doesn't recognize.
"Look at that," as he turns the phone to me. "I was trending on Twitter. That's ... tight."
• • •
Lillard started last season in the second round of most, if not all, mock drafts. Then came a most unexpected propulsion. It was bolstered by his historic year in the Big Sky, where he shot better than 50 percent from 2-point range, 41 percent from 3 and sunk 88 percent from the foul line. By early May, he was considered a late lottery pick (the 13-15 range). No one has risen like Lillard. The Draft hasn't seen a guard from a small-time league and from a school the size of Weber State so definitively turn himself into a surefire lottery pick in years -- if ever. His ascension is one of the most surprising and overlooked incredible aspects to the 2012 Draft.
By early June, nearly every team in the top 10 was interested in him. (The Hornets, who owned the first pick and obviously reserved that for Anthony Davis, also had the rights to No. 10). Three days before being picked, Lillard was most confident in Sacramento and Portland, the teams at five and six, choosing him. Two weeks prior, he believed Toronto and New Orleans were the ones who coveted him most. He's wanted it to be Portland for a while. It shows in his suit. It shows in how he won't talk much about Portland on the record, lest he jinx it all.
It also shows when he debates over what pair of socks to wear. Sometime between Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon, someone has been told to buy a specific color of sock. The beauty of all this: Lillard doesn't know it yet, because Goodwin said he refused to spoil the experience for his client, but Portland's been dead set on drafting him -- and knows he'll be available at No. 6 -- for more than a day now. His fate has been decided, but for now he's unknowingly trading hope for knowledge.
• • •After a 90-minute luncheon with David Stern, at 2:15 p.m., Lillard gets some privacy. It'll be the last time he has to himself, outside of sleeping, for the next few days. Lillard's brought a crew of 48 people to New York City, and from the minute he gets drafted until he flies out of New York City, all of those people are going to want his time and attention. Comparisons in drafts are unfair but unavoidable. It's the human response. See something, react, correlate to something else we've seen, done, smelled, eaten, felt. Comparisons help identification. Every player must have an antecedent example. Lillard's most favorable estimation is Joe Dumars.
Like Lillard, Dumars attended a small school (McNeese State). He's a point guard who can score. On the surface, doesn't that sound like something that's so NBA and sosomething the NBA doesn't need more of? But have you seen Lillard play? Not every scoring point guard is alike. Lillard's distribution skills were a pillar to Weber's offense, and at the highest level, he's more likely to distribute, given his teammates will be so much better.
It is all one long audition, where the stages and judges change. But the performance -- if he can help it -- doesn't. It seems so trite, but so necessary, to reinforce just how unlikely it is to play in the NBA and how hard it is to stay there. How many guys each June are picked and have long-last careers in the NBA? In many years, you don't need two hands to tick off the examples. Coming from Weber State, there's an internal need for Lillard to prove himself. When he's selected, he'll be the third player from the Big Sky in the past 34 years to be taken in the first round. Some general managers have said Lillard's workouts were some of the most grueling they've ever seen, and that's how he came to scoot past ranked point guard prospects from North Carolina, Kentucky, Texas and Kansas. "Doesn't matter, though," Goodwin said. "All matters what happens the day of the draft."
• • •Lillard changes into his suit once more, at 3:45 p.m. Eight friends and family members are scattered about his hotel room, sharing stories, teasing Lillard about his Pee Wee football-playing days. It's the loosest I've seen him since getting to New York.
At 6:57, after getting stuck in traffic behind a burning vehicle and needing a police escort to get the players to the Prudential Center in Newark (turning the 30-minute drive into a nearly 90-minute one), Lillard takes a seat at the table closest to the stage. He sits alone, like all the draft picks, until their families arrive. His eyes are looking at his phone again. He is nervous, even if he doesn't want to show it. The expected names go before him: Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Beal, Waiters and yes, Robinson at No. 5. A shock for some, but not for Goodwin.
Moments before Lillard's dream comes to fruition -- it's all happening really fast -- Goodwin moves from his seat in the arena down to the Green Room table. The news is shared, and seconds later, at 8:05 p.m., David Stern calls Lillard's name. He's stifling the tears best he can. Lillard makes his way off the stage, where 11 fans with a Weber State flag and matching school chant scoot down from their seats to congratulate him. Lillard tries to implore some other brand-new fans -- in Blazers jerseys -- who are looking for a photo, but is ushered along to the bowels of the arena. For the next 100 minutes, Lillard goes through nearly a dozen interviews. This is what it's like to be drafted: more questions in between the smiles. It's blurry.
"I'd be lying if I said I expected to be here last year," Lillard said, harkening back to his broken-foot injury that caused him to sit out the majority of the 2010-11 season.
At 9:53, Lillard moves from the sequestered area for phone calls, where he gives interviews to reporters back in Utah, to the huge area behind the stage that's teeming with the picks and their friends and family. It's an absolute herd. He takes official NBA pictures and poses with his family. Eventually, Lillard's horde streams in, and hug after hug after hug is delivered.
"What'd I tell you when I was in f------ middle school?" he says to his childhood friend P.J.
TV can create amazing moments, but it's not capturing the cacophony of euphoria that's playing out behind the stage. Lillard's actually let himself unwind and embrace. The interviews are over, and now we're seeing him begin to realize what's happening here, what this is all for. He signs a few autographs for overeager, thrilled young boys. He looks through his phone at recent photos, declining two incoming phone calls and ignoring another three set of texts messages in a 20-second span. His family peers over his shoulder at the pictures. There he is, finally, smiling and smiling and smiling, his Trailblazers hat snugged perfectly on his head.
This is not relief; it is affirmation bursting through after years of modest dedication. The 2012 Draft's most unlikely star views it as his real beginning. He now has a legacy for himself and his family. At 10:40, Lillard's family and friends, nearly all 50 of them, walk through the bowels of the Prudential Center and out to the luxury bus awaiting to take them back into Manhattan. As he steps onto the bus for his celebratory beginning, his socks flash. They are Trailblazer-red.