A seven-time veteran of the NBA’s All-Star weekend, Portland Trail Blazers star guard Damian Lillard may have had perhaps his most memorable trip yet.
On Saturday, Lillard won the 3-point contest for the first time in three career attempts with a clutch final rack, making his last four shots to beat out former champion Buddy Hield by one. Then on Sunday, he poured in 26 points — including a half-court shot as well as the game-ending 3-pointer — along with three rebounds and four assists to help Team Giannis to a 184-175 win.
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“I think this was a goal of mine (to win the 3-point contest),” Lillard said, according to ESPN, “because I think, as a shooter, any time you come into a competition like this you want to win it. I had done it two times before this, and I didn’t take it seriously enough. As a shooter, I wanted to win at least one time before I was done playing, and that’s why I took this one a little more serious.”
What’s more, the All-Star festivities were held in Salt Lake City, home of the Utah Jazz and only about a 30-minute drive south from Weber State University, where Lillard starred from 2008-2012. He sported a Weber State jersey with his nickname, “Dolla,” on the back during the 3-point contest.
“I feel like everything just lined up,” he said. “Being back here, I went to school here. I was here four years. A lot of family, a lot of friends here. People that I’m still in touch with. You know, when I touch down here in the summer, whether I’m going back for an alumni game or just going to train, or this time, I feel the love. I know that I’m welcome here. It’s a second home for me.
“Sometimes, that’s what it takes for an experience to be what it’s supposed to be. I feel like this is how it was supposed to happen. I’m happy that it happened here.”
At 32 years old and in his 11th year in the NBA, all with Portland, Lillard is on pace to set a new career high in points-per-game (currently averaging 31.4) and field-goal percentage (46.7%). He’s also a regular in the playoffs, helping the Trail Blazers reach the postseason each year from 2013-14 to 2020-21.
In the midst of one of the most trying of those playoff seasons, the 2019-20 season that began with a slew of injuries and ended in the COVID bubble, Lillard revealed to The Athletic that it was a faith in God fostered the previous summer that gave him the ability to endure.
“It’s ironic that this season has been this type of season,” he said in December 2019. “I think in the past, it would have been more frustrating. I mean, it’s been frustrating, but I think it would have been more frustrating had I not been moving in this direction. Because when you get into it, you start to see signs, you begin to see it like you do in the Word. Like, this is a test.”
Lillard grew up attending church in Oakland, California, but had drifted from his Bible-reading habits. And as he reflected on his life — a healthy son, a lucrative job, worldwide fame — he came to the humbling realization that it wasn’t due to anything inherent in himself.
“I needed to have a better understanding of that and understand that this favor on my life isn’t because I’m so great,” he told The Athletic. “So I’ve just been trying to be closer to that. It’s not some major, major change and going to church on Sundays; it’s just being into the Word and being a more humble servant of God.”
Lillard, previously sporadic in his attendance at pregame chapel services, made sure to be there every time. At other moments, teammates would find him with his Bible app open and him busy reading.
It all gave Lillard a deeper sense of gratitude for God’s gifts in his life, and that gratitude resulted in prayer.
“It’s important to give thanks, so I started actually getting on my knees and praying,” he told The Athletic. “Usually, you tell people all the time, ‘I pray for you,’ or you send prayers and all that stuff, and people don’t actually pray. I’m on my knees, just to let my posture show the true posture of my heart, because I’m really thankful.”
Of late, Lillard has been seen wearing clothes from faith-based apparel companies.
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He even has the Bible passage Psalm 37:1-3 tattooed on his left arm, inspired by a sermon he heard about the passage. In April 2020 at the height of the pandemic shutdown, Lillard explained in a video call with TNT’s Ernie Johnson the spiritual growth he’d seen in himself the previous year.
With a 28-30 record, the Trail Blazers are currently out of the Western Conference playoff picture. If they don’t make a run, Lillard will have missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons for the first time in his career. Yet he has peace either way, knowing there’s much more to life than wins and losses.
“We are going to have to answer to Him one day,” Lillard told The Athletic. “… [God] will ask: ‘Did you live for Me? Did you do stuff the way I would have liked you to do it?’ When that time comes, I really want to say I tried, and I really want to give thanks and really be into the Word.”
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