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Portland Trail Blazers legend Damian Lillard’s drive for a title ‘higher than it’s ever been’ despite uncertain future

During his Formula Zero Elite Camp, he talked about his mindset and more amid Miami Heat trade rumors


TEMPE, Ariz. – While most of his Formula Zero Elite Camp mates departed for the next scheduled event, Emmanuel College swingman KJ Jones approached current Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard to get more insight after the recent media training session ended.

“I just asked him, ‘How do you answer questions that may make you feel uncomfortable answering in front of the camera or people you don’t know well?’ ” Jones told Andscape. “He gave me straight and honest advice, and I appreciated that. It’s more than basketball here. And a lot of the things that he is teaching will help you with character, humility, how you treat other people, how you make other people feel.

“It applies in sports. But it will also make us better as people, 100%.”

During an exclusive interview on Aug. 18 at his Formula Zero Elite Camp, Lillard was asked about his trade request to the Miami Heat, but declined to offer details, knowing he could be fined by the NBA for doing so. A source told Andscape on July 1 that the Blazers’ all-time leading scorer asked the franchise for a trade and he strongly preferred to only be dealt to the Miami Heat. On July 28, the NBA sent out a memo to all 30 teams stating that if Lillard and his agent Aaron Goodwin made any future comments, privately to teams or publicly, suggesting Lillard will not “fully perform the services called for under his player contract in the event of a trade,” he would be subject to discipline by the league.

When asked about the trade request specifically to the 2023 Eastern Conference champion Heat, Lillard told Andscape: “I can say that there was [a trade request] and I would just prefer not to speak on the Trail Blazers.”

Lillard has averaged 33.2 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds in his 11th season with the Blazers after being selected sixth overall in 2012. As the Blazers’ all-time leading scorer, a strong argument could be made that he has surpassed Hall of Famers Bill Walton and Clyde Drexler as the greatest player in franchise history. Lillard was also named to the NBA 75th Anniversary Team in 2022. Meanwhile, the East Oakland, California, native has put down roots in the Portland area, as he moved into a new home recently and many family members have been living there for years.

Regardless of his NBA future, Lillard plans to stay rooted in Portland for life. While the end of his Blazers days are projected to be near, Lillard says he has still been getting “love” when out and about in Portland now.

“I love the city of Portland,” Lillard said. “Every initiative that I’ve started, I’ll continue and I’ll finish regardless of anything. The love will be that because the way I’ve said I feel about Portland is how I feel about Portland. I say what I mean and I mean what I say. It’s been fine. It’s been what it’s always been …

“[Portland-area residents] just tell me they love me. That’s literally what they say. ‘Dame, we love you. We thank you for everything.’ That’s the dialogue. It’s pretty simple and to the point.”

Campers huddle around Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (center) at his Formula Zero Elite Camp in Tempe, Arizona.

Nine84/Avram Arenas/Formula Zero

Perhaps the beginning of the end for Lillard in Portland took place on Feb. 8, 2022, when his beloved backcourt mate CJ McCollum was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Blazers made the playoffs every season since the team drafted McCollum in 2013. Without McCollum, Portland has missed the playoffs the last two seasons, averaging 30 wins each season.

“We are really, really, really good friends,” Lillard said. “In my career in the NBA, there’s not another player that I’ve spent more time around. It was something that me and CJ had talked about being a possibility or it is going to come to this point at some point. We had talked about it for years, so it wasn’t a surprise. I think that made it a little bit easier.

“It wasn’t a surprise that one of us was moved, but it was definitely different. If it was one thing that was a constant for year after year after year, I knew I was going to look over and see CJ. I was going to have somebody I could lean on.”

Lillard hoped that the Blazers would add several impactful veterans to the bench, a source told Andscape, but that didn’t happen in free agency. Portland did re-sign veteran forward Jerami Grant in July in the offseason, but the Blazers are in rebuilding mode with a predominantly young roster featuring rookie Scoot Henderson (19 years old), Anfernee Simons (24) and Shaedon Sharpe (20). Blazers general manager Joe Cronin said to media on July 10 at NBA Summer League, “I don’t feel that I did everything I could because I didn’t get done what I needed to get done. In that sense, I do feel like I failed Dame.”

When asked what was the final straw that led to a trade request, Lillard said: “I’m not going to speak on the Blazers. It’s lot of love and respect, but I won’t speak on the Blazers.”

It wasn’t long ago that Lillard dreamed of an NBA championship parade downtown on Broadway Street in Portland. But the closest the 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year got to the NBA Finals was when the Blazers were swept by the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals in 2019. The Blazers won their lone NBA championship in 1977 and last advanced to the Finals in 1992.

While the Blazers’ roster is a far cry from thinking championship, the 33-year-old Lillard said he is focused on being able to compete for a title now more than ever before. Playing for the Heat would provide much greater odds to fulfill an NBA dream, as they advanced to the Finals last year with stars Jimmy Butler and Lillard’s former USA Basketball teammate Bam Adebayo. The Heat have won three NBA titles and have advanced to the championship series seven times since 2006. Sources say Lillard is also attracted to the renowned “Heat Culture,” consistent winning at a high level, franchise stability, no state taxes and marketing opportunities.

When asked about his title aspirations at age 33, Lillard said: “It’s higher than it’s ever been. When you’re younger and you’re winning, you realize that you got time. When you establish yourself in the league and you know that you’re here to stay, you feel like you have time. The older you get, that just means more time that you’ve put into it, especially when you’re at the top of the game and you’re having all these individual accomplishments, it becomes more and more of a priority to have the ultimate accomplishment, which is why we play the game, in winning the championship.

“I would say the desire for that now is as high as it’s probably going to be. That’s literally the thing at the top of my list. When I wake up and I got to get up and go do what I got to do, I got to train, I got to make time for my kids, I still got to lift, I got to do all these things and I got to make sure that training and the preparation is still my priority. Even with being a father of three now, not one, and having all these other responsibilities, you need something that you feel pretty strong about to stay committed the way I’ve been committed. It’s as high as it’s going to get. That’s ultimately what I want to experience and that’s what I want to get done.”

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard looks on during the third quarter of the Portland Trail Blazers’ game against the Golden State Warriors at Moda Center on April 9 in Portland, Oregon.

Steph Chambers/Getty Images

For years, Lillard has been viewed as being loyal to a Blazers franchise that hasn’t been able to build the team around him into an NBA power. Lillard has talked about winning a title the way former Dallas Mavericks star center Dirk Nowitzki and Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo did with the teams that drafted them. But with the Blazers in rebuilding mode in the prime of his NBA career, where does he stand on loyalty versus what is best for him now?

“If you look at the history of me speaking about loyalty, I’ve always said that I’m loyal to who I am and I’m going to do what I feel like is the right thing to do,” Lillard said. “For me, I know what I want for myself and I’m going to be loyal to that. When I feel like this is the vision I have for myself, this is what I see being fit for me at this moment, I’m going to ride that until the wheels fall off but anything that I’m a part of, it all has to be connected.

“It has to be aligned in what I see happening. That’s just a priority for me. It has to be that way. It all has to be connected and it has to mean the same for me as it means for anybody that’s a part of that. That’s what I’m loyal to.”

Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden has asked for a trade and also recently called team president of basketball operations Daryl Morey “a liar.” The NBA fined Harden $100,000 for “public comments on Aug. 14 and 17 indicating that he would not perform the services called for under his player contract unless traded to another team.” ESPN also reported that the NBA “is believed to be pursuing an understanding of whether Harden was portending a 2023-24 holdout in violation of the league’s collective bargaining agreement or had been referencing past contract discussions with the organization that might constitute salary cap circumvention.”

Time will tell if Lillard gets his wish to go to Miami. But with the NBA watching and listening and his reputation for professionalism, it’s unlikely that Lillard to go the Harden verbal tirade route publicly. Lillard said he has been receiving counsel most notably from former Blazers teammate Mo Williams; former teammates Earl Watson, Dorell Wright and Chris Kaman; and Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach and Oakland, California, native Brian Shaw. The consensus advice for Lillard is to be patient.

“The best word of advice is just that, ‘Everything will come to pass,’ ” Lillard said. “When you in a little bit of a storm, a lot is going on and you’re being talked about, you get a little bit antsy and you feel like you got to react to stuff sometimes, but I know me. I know the type of principle I stand on. I know that I’ve been solid in everything that I’ve done every step of the way.

“It’ll pass and I know it will. When something has to be said and needs to be said about me, my character and what I stand on, it will be. ‘This too shall pass,’ as they say, and I’ll be all right.”

With Lillard’s life on hold, he has traveled this summer to Paris, Dominican Republic and Italy, spent a lot of time with his children and has been getting deeper into his spirituality. Last week, “Dame D.O.L.L.A.,” his rap name, released his newest rap album, Don D.O.L.L.A., with 15 tracks that include Miami’s own Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Jordin Sparks, Ty Dolla $ign, Mozzy and Tobe Nigwe. There is also a song named after ESPN NBA play-by-play announcer Mike Breen.

“I would have [my NBA fans] listen to a track called, ‘Judgment Day,’ ” Lillard said. “In ‘Judgment Day,’ I talk a lot about the present and my journey spiritually that I’ve been on over the last year or so. There’s a lot more depth to it and I’ve taken it a lot more serious. Actually, walking it out, it’s helped me realize some of the things that I struggle with, some of the things personally that I struggle with, some of the things that I want to change about myself and about my ways. It’s not anything dramatic, it’s just that stability and that discipline part of things.

“That’s the song where I just talk about my feelings, how I feel about certain things, where my mind is in certain situations. And I think people would enjoy that song. It is transparent. It is really open.”

Emmanuel College swingman KJ Jones dribbles during a drill at the Formula Zero Elite Camp in Tempe, Arizona.

Nine84/Avram Arenas/Formula Zero

For Lillard’s campers to truly get the best out of his camp, they definitely have to be ready to work hard from a mental standpointl.

While the Formula Zero camp (Aug. 16-20) was attended by elite high school and college basketball stars and scouts from all 30 NBA teams and even Australia, it is also a year-round mentorship community based around the mindset and character of Lillard and his longtime basketball skills coach Phil Beckner. According to camp organizers, the Formula Zero camp “consists of fundamental tenets that have both helped [Lillard] develop as a player but also into one of the NBA’s top leaders.” Speakers included Stephen Mackey on character and leadership development, financial coach Trent Shelton, former longtime Phoenix Suns media relations director Julie Fie, and a devotional with Courtney Ingram. The young men also took part in a Special Olympics event, played games in front of NBA scouts and asked Lillard questions in the final dinner.

“Dame isn’t just doing an elite camp. He’s changing lives and careers,” Beckner said. “Formula Zero has players working first on their minds, their hearts and then their game. Dame saw a need for authenticity and accountability in these players lives and acted on it. It’s the one place they can come to drop their guard, drop their insecurities and become the person and player they are capable of. The level of impact and influence from Dame and everyone who has been part of his Formula is transformational.”

Jones said: “I just wanted to come here and get better and learn from a high-level trainer and player and mix in my knowledge from the court.”

Lillard was once an unheralded basketball star at Oakland High School (California) and at Weber State University, a mid-major Division I school that before him had produced only one other player (Eddie Gill) who suited up for more than 100 NBA games. Several of the college players taking part in his camp also come from mid-majors such as Weber State, Troy, Florida Atlantic, Emmanuel College, South Dakota State, Saint Joseph’s and Appalachian State.

Lillard’s ascension from obscurity to NBA star was far from an easy one and he has applied his tricks of the trade on and off the court with his “mentorship program” camp.

“The reality of it is some kids just get overlooked from the beginning in high school, and the college that they attend doesn’t represent the player that they are. We want to make sure that we’re open to all those possibilities and all opportunities for these kids,” Lillard said.

“If you look at the league, you look at the top, you see a lot of guys from mid-majors because of what the programs require… Being somewhere for four years, becoming a man and having to grow up in that type of environment, it prepares you to be in a locker room, it prepares you to be a solid professional athlete. You look at a Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, myself, CJ McCollum, Ja Morant, when you look around, it’s a trend that’s been going on for a while. If I come from that situation, it’s only right that we carve out some opportunity for those guys as well.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.