Every player remembers their first official "welcome to the NBA" moment.
For Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, it was October 10, 2012 in Ontario, Calif., when the sixth-overall pick in that year's draft took the court at Toyota Arena in his first preseason game vs. the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I just remember going out there and seeing Kobe lined up over there, and I was just like man, I wonder if he going to come out here and take it serious or he’s going to come out here and take it easy, it’s just a preseason game,” Lillard recalled. “I remember just watching him just like I’m really about to line up against Kobe, you know? And that’s like my first memory.”
He continued, “I was just in awe of the fact that my very first game of the preseason was against Kobe. He had Dwight [Howard] and all those guys on the team. I just remember like I didn’t say nothing to him, and he didn’t really say nothing to me. I was just like; I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to act or whatever. I just went out there and played. We ended up playing well, we won the game, so that was that.”
But Lillard didn’t line up against the Lakers legend at all that game.
Bryant was listed as DNP for the preseason duel with a strained right shoulder suffered in practice while dunking on Antawn Jamison. Portland came away with 93-75 victory over Los Angeles, but Lillard’s Mamba moment would have to wait until Halloween 2012 when the Trail Blazers welcomed the purple-and-gold cladded Lakers to Portland for the season opener.
It didn’t take long for Kobe to notice the eventual Rookie of the Year. In his NBA debut, Lillard recorded 23 and 11 assists as he joined Oscar Robertson and Allen Iverson as the only players in NBA history with at least 20 points and 10 assists in their debut. The Trail Blazers also secured the 116-106 victory over the Bryant-led Lakers.
This time it was Kobe in awe of Lillard’s stunning feat.
“I think the world of him,” Bryant told NBCSNW Trail Blazers Insider Dwight Jaynes after that first meeting. “It’s my first time really watching him play outside the preseason. He has a great, great deal of talent. Seems to be fearless. I think he has a really bright future.”
Lillard, like Kobe, never backs down from a challenge. He leaves his blood, sweat and tears on the court and is a ferocious opponent that is willing to do whatever it takes to get the best out of his opponent.
When Bryant and Lillard faced one another in April 2013, the two of them got after it. Kobe ended with 47 points, eight rebounds while Dame scored 39 points and had nine assists. Post-game, Bryant was singing Lillard’s praises.
That respect continued to grow over the years, even after Kobe’s passing.
As the world grieved the loss of the revered athlete, Lillard honored the Lakers icon in his own way with a commanding performance Bryant would be proud of. He scored 48 points, dished out 11 assists and grabbed nine rebounds in the Lakers first game since the former guard died in helicopter crash along with eight others.
While the Trail Blazers walked away with the 127-119 victory on Jan. 31, 2020, there were no winners.
Kobe's indelible legacy, however, will live on forever.
For Lillard, he will never forget his fierce head-to-head matchups with the Lakers great and the first time he played against Black Mamba, a once in a generation talent who left the world too soon.
“I just remember being kind in awe-- like this is Kobe.”