When he was 16 or 17, Damian Lillard went with his brother and father to watch a high school basketball game at what is now Oracle Arena. A star for Oakland High School, who grew up with season tickets to watch the Warriors, Lillard looked up at his father, as they walked up the south ramp of the Oakland Coliseum, leading to BART.
“The next time I play here,” he said, “I’m going to be in the NBA.”
Lillard has not only beaten the odds and made it to the NBA, but emerged as a bona fide star for the Portland Trail Blazers, who face the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Monday. Back at an arena in which he formed some of his best childhood memories, he has a chance to not only say goodbye to the 47-year old building, but to become part of its history.
“It’s a storybook moment,” Lillard said on Monday at the team hotel in San Francisco. “This being the last year playing in Oakland, me growing up here, I had season tickets for a few seasons to come watch the Warriors play.”
Lillard will have about 15 close family on hand on Tuesday, fewer than he would during the regular season. He likes to keep his circle tight. He’s in his seventh year in the league, after all. This isn’t his first time back on home soil, but things are a bit different this time around.
“It’s an expensive ticket around here,” said Lillard, who lives in Portland, but still calls Oakland home.
It’s about to get even more expensive, as next year, the Warriors move across the Bay to the posh Chase Center in San Francisco, where prices will skyrocket and much of Oracle’s flavor will be lost. It’s a move Lillard has lamented publicly. On Monday, he shook his head and laconically acknowledged that fact.
A proud product of the Brookfield neighborhood in East Oakland who grew up during the lean years for the Warriors, Lillard wears the number ‘0’ to stand for his hometown. He used to walk to games at the arena with his brother, from their grandparents’ house off of 98th Avenue in East Oakland, and evade security to get down to the floor.
Lillard was in attendance in 2007 to watch Baron Davis dunk over Andrei Kirilenko during Golden State’s Game 3 win in their second-round series against the Utah Jazz, after the We Believe team dispatched Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks in the first round.
“That was crazy,” Lillard said. “I remember I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe the Warriors were actually doing it. It was crazy. There were some tough years before that.”
When he was in fourth grade, Lillard wanted to find out what the Golden State mascot Thunder looked like under his bodysuit. So, after a game, he and his cousin stayed in the arena until it was vacated, and the lights turned out. Wandering the tunnels, the two found a backpack.
Inside was Thunder’s suit and shoes. The two looked on in awe, before the bald man who wore the suit emerged from a tunnel and demanded to know what they were doing.
“At the time, they weren’t a championship team, so the security was probably worse than it is now,” he said.
As the Warriors’ fortunes eventually turned, Lillard emerged as a local star at Oakland. A two-time all-OAL selection his junior and senior seasons, Lillard averaged 22.4 points and 5.2 assists as a senior to lift the Wildcats to a 23-9 record. He didn’t receive any high-major offers, and was tabbed a two-star recruit, so he accepted a scholarship to Weber State, where he emerged as the top point guard prospect in the country, and was drafted No. 6 overall in the 2012 NBA Draft.
In his 24 regular-season games against the Warriors since then, he’s averaged 27 points — more than against any other opponent. In 11 regular-season games in his hometown, Lillard has averaged 23.6 points and 4.5 assists. In three of those games, he’s scored 30 points. In nine playoff games against Golden State, he’s averaged 30 points.
In his first playoff series against the Warriors in 2016, he averaged 31.8 points and dealt 73-win Golden State a Game 3 loss by pouring in 40 points and dishing out 10 assists.
In the last of four regular-season games against the Warriors this season — which the two teams split — Lillard hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 5.1 seconds left in overtime while falling into the stands.
“It was really cool,” Lillard said, “but we’ve moved on from it, handled business.”
After four years of playoff disappointment, and being swept out of the playoffs each of the last two years, Lillard and backcourt mate CJ McCollum upset No. 2-seed Denver to reach the conference finals for the first time. On the way, Lillard hit the series-clinching three against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a 37-foot step-back jumper that had Warriors forward Draymond Green effusive in his praise.
“Dame has a chip on his shoulder,” Green said on April 24. “Has since the day he walked into this league. He play like a guy from Oakland, with a chip on his shoulder. A guy who’s been doubted forever. That showed up in a major way in that series.”
Coming from Green — one of his closest companions during the draft process, through the combine and rookie orientation — that meant something for Lillard.
“I think just toughness, fearless, just go out there and compete and play the game,” Lillard said. “I don’t back down from nobody. When he says it, I think it says it with other Oakland players in mind.”
From Bill Russell to Antonio Davis, from Brian Shaw to Hook Mitchell, Gary Payton to Jason Kidd, Lillard can rattle off the names with ease. At Kidd’s induction into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, when asked by the San Francisco Chronicle who was the best point guard from Oakland, the Basketball Hall of Famer, said, “It’s a great question, a great debate, but I would vote for Lillard.”
“That’s pretty cool,” Lillard said. “I actually went to the high school Jason Kidd went to for one year … I didn’t get the chance to be Jason Kidd there, but I made it to the NBA.”
A four-time All-Star who earned first-team All-NBA honors for the first time last season, Lillard, on Monday, thought back to that teenager on the Coliseum ramp, certain he’d make it to the league, certain he’d play in Oracle, but certain of little else.
“I never looked this far ahead,” he said. “In my career, seven years, I’ve accomplished so much. It was always, ‘Just make it to the NBA.’ … I’m not sure what I would say to myself back then, because even back then, you couldn’t tell me that I wasn’t going to make it to the NBA.”
Faced with the prospect of upsetting his childhood team — a prohibitive favorite — and closing out the arena he grew up in, he’s just as focused as that teenager. He ‘ll walk through the halls where he unmasked Thunder, right by that We Believe shirt hung on a wall, opposite the visitor’s locker room, above the signed hole in the drywall 15 feet off the ground, made by a furious Nowitzki, and head to the floor.
“It’s a special ending,” he said. “Hopefully, it’ll end the right way. For us.”