Layton • Damian Lillard had time for everyone. Weber State fans. Portland Trail Blazers supporters. Longtime friends, Wildcats officials and random sightseers strolling through the mall last Friday, stumbling upon the No. 6 overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft as he signed autographs and sincerely smiled back.
The 2012-13 season will soon alter Lillard’s world, turning him from just another lottery pick into a rookie who must exceed already-heavy expectations for Portland to have any chance of returning to the playoffs.
Lillard’s eager to embrace the change. He spent four years in Ogden building his name and defying small-college critics, and he’d dive into the 82-game grind right now if he could.
“It might take [the Blazers] one or two years,” Lillard said. “But we saying, ‘Why not right now?’ Look at Oklahoma City: People said the same thing about them. Maybe not the championship, but why not make the playoffs now?”
But what Lillard and those who’ve long known him swear won’t change is the ex-Wildcat’s realness. He took a strong step toward proving that in Layton, going out of his way to reach out to devoted fans who’ve long called his name — some of whom lined up five hours early just to be first in line when Lillard’s Sharpie pen started moving inside Pro Image Sports.
“[Ogden’s] a second home for me. I obviously grew up in Oakland, then here. I’ve been here for most of my adult life, since I’ve been a man,” Lillard said. “You know, it’s just been fun. They’ve embraced me since I first got here, shown me so much support, even while I was at Weber — after I broke my foot and throughout the draft process. So I appreciate it; this is a way I can show my appreciation.”
By the time the modestly dressed future millionaire arrived last Friday, more than 100 supporters snaked around a second-floor overlook. Ron Goch beamed as he took in the scene.
For years, Weber struggled to build its brand. Even selling Wildcat-emblazoned merchandise off-campus was a lost dream. Lillard’s already changed that. As he shook hands and was captured in photographs, fans snatched Weber gear off a table. By giving back to the faithful, Lillard also spread the word.
“He’s an unbelievable player on the court,” said Goch, Weber assistant athletic director for marketing and promotions. “But as I tell most people, he’s even a more unbelievable person off the court. That’s just the consensus of somebody who’s meeting him for the first time or has known him for a long time.
“He’s just a neat kid. So that has helped a tremendous amount. That he is approachable. That he is personable. That people look at him and they’re in awe of his talent. But they see him off the court and they see how nice and humble and approachable he is, and they’re even more in awe.”
In a simple one-hour meet-and-greet, Lillard only added to the praise. The idea for the session occurred after Lillard anonymously walked through the mall. There was no entourage. No flash. Just Lillard being himself. And when a friendly proposal was later delivered — sign some autographs, spend your free time around your fans — the Blazer didn’t blink.
“I [was shopping] and I walked out of the store and I guess they didn’t notice me. I just kept going,” Lillard said. “And then someone came, basically when I was shopping, and said, ‘Sorry we didn’t notice you.’ And I was like, ‘Naw, it’s all right.’ ”
Damian Lillard file
Position • Point guard
Year • Rookie
Vitals • 6-foot-3, 189 pounds
2011-12 stats • 24.5 pts, 5 reb, 4 ast, 46.7 FG, 40.9 3pt, 34.5 min
Draft • No. 6 overall in 2012 by Portland
College • Weber State
Born • Oakland, Calif.