Editor's Note: This story originally ran in early August. With the 2018-2019 seaons getting underway with Media Day we are re-running this piece as Blazer fans gear up another exciting season.
When you see or are around someone in your everyday life, it’s easy to take that person for granted, even if they mean a whole hell of lot to you.
Whether you are a Trail Blazers fan or a player on this current roster, you look to All-Star Damian Lillard as a leader but where did that leadership come from? Are leaders like Lillard born or made?
In a recent sit-down interview with Blazers sideline reporter, Brooke Olzendam, Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey had a lot to say to Blazers fans about this offseason. He also had a lot to say about how fans need to recognize what they have in this moment, especially as it relates to the leadership of Damian Lillard.
“I think when guys like Damian show up, when Meyers Leonard shows up, when CJ McCollum shows up we take it cavalierly because they’re our guys. We know they’re great guys. They hop on a flight… How many people like Damian, are going to fly commercial into Vegas to watch guys play Summer League? It’s pretty inspiring. I think what we forget is the impact it has,” Olshey said.
After talking with Lillard Thursday morning, it is obvious he knows that he has a lot of people to thank in his life when it comes to learning to become a great leader. He also told me he believes it was not by chance that he became the man he is today.
“I think my leadership qualities came natural because serving others and wanting the best for them is just how I’ve always been even outside of sports,” Lillard said.
As a floor general in the 2017-18 season, Lillard averaged 26.9 ppg and dished out 6.6 apg, but more often than not, people on the national scene like to talk about how Lillard is the player who makes his team better and commands respect.
“It’s one of Dame’s great gifts. One of the things for Damian, being under recruited out of high school, playing at a low to mid-major school, having to stay for four years before he entered the draft, I think Damian really understands the path that guys have to take and he understands that it wasn’t that easy for him,” Olshey told Brooke.
Whether you believe or don’t believe that someone is born to become a true leader or not, Lillard acknowledges those in his life who have helped him along the way. It’s clear that the 28-year-old is forever grateful for many family members over the years.
“My leadership ability developed over time though just having to step up for a new young team and having guys look to me for more than just taking over a game. Major influences in my life that helped, I would say, my family because we were always taught to look after each other, share, want the best for each other, be unselfish, and there was so many of us,” Lillard said with a laugh.
Dame’s mother, Gina Johnson, has been prevalent in his life over the years. She’s often seen at Moda Center supporting her son on the court, but she’s also been seen often in the Portland community sporting her infectious smile.
“My mom is where I learned to be a great servant because she just does for everybody. Whether they deserve it or not... whether they will say thank you or not... and because of it everyone loves her not because she gives or does things for them but because they know she truly cares by her actions time after time... never waivers... nobody went a Christmas without at least one gift because of her,” Lillard said.
But what Trail Blazers fans might not know is, it wasn’t just Lillard’s mother who showed him the ropes of family values and earning people’s respect.
“I learned to not make things about me and it’s always better when everyone feels apart of things. My dad was always a great leader to me but just not a very vocal guy. And, my uncle Richard was too, but he was always vocal and my grandmother was like the perfect leader-- Loved on us but would get on our case, had our backs but always made us see the lesson in what we had done,” Lillard said.
So it would appear in the case of Lillard, a leader was both born with a natural instinct but also made from a collective influence of those who raised him.
“These types of people and things cut me out to be a leader of men,” Lillard said.
Olshey realizes what he got in the No. 6th pick overall of the 2012 NBA draft.
“I think what he tries to do is, when he identifies guys that have a like mindset, a like work ethic, guys that are committed to the organization that want to be players, Dame gets invested in them really quickly,” Olshey said.
Some Trail Blazer fans are frustrated by the recent playoff sweep. Sure, things aren’t always sunshine and roses, but in the offseason of Lillard’s sixth year in the league, make sure to wake up and smell those roses, because this is a guy who is talked about as going down as the best Trail Blazer of all-time. These type of players don’t come along all that often, especially in a smaller market.