Lillard thankful for pact with pals to get degree
Damian Lillard's five best friends are mostly scattered now, playing college basketball at schools from California to Illinois, in programs from mid-major to obscure.
Lillard compiles the list of guys who kept one another in the gym and out of trouble, remembering his childhood in Oakland, Calif.
"These names right here," he says, "they're the reason I'm the player I am now. I'm really thankful."
This is a good week for Weber State's junior guard to be going home. The Wildcats are playing Sunday and Monday in a tournament hosted by Saint Mary's, not far from Oakland, and Lillard is eager to play in front of friends and relatives.
He's just thankful to be playing, period.
A broken foot cost him most of the 2010-11 season. Coaches and teammates say Lillard is not the same player as before he's better, after spending 11 months developing his body, his mind and his game.
"I appreciate [basketball] a lot more," Lillard said, "because it can be taken away from you so fast."
The darkest moment in Lillard's lost season came early, when his injury caused him to miss the meeting with the most celebrated opponent on Weber State's 2010-11 schedule. "Everybody knows Jimmer Fredette," Lillard said.
They also should know Lillard, by now. He's a star whose best attribute, coach Randy Rahe said, is he "doesn't picture himself as a big deal."
Lillard was caught off guard that December day in Rahe's office, when the coach suggested that he take advantage of his chance to work on his game. "My foot's broken," Lillard replied.
Yet if running and jumping were out, lifting weights and watching videotapes were in. Lillard spent four or five days a week in the weight room and considerable time in the film room, studying all 71 games he had played for the Wildcats. The results are noticeable.
Besides Lillard's becoming much stronger, "His basketball IQ has increased dramatically," said senior forward Kyle Bullinger.
Discipline and structure, hallmarks of Rahe's program, are important to Lillard. "I know that's one of the last things you would expect of somebody from Oakland," he said.
Yet he had good influences growing up in that inner-city setting. Lillard's father, Houston, "taught me at an early age to surround myself with people who want to do the same things as me," he said.
It all started in first grade, when PJ Taylor and Lillard became best friends. Along the way, they picked up Dondrale Campbell, Drake Green, Davion Berry and Mark Samuels, plus Taylor's little brother, T.J. They played AAU basketball together and developed college ambitions, rising above the culture of the Oakland streets.
"Honestly, I don't think anybody here can relate to it," said Berry, who is redshirting this season after transferring to Weber State. "That's something you have to experience, but it's tough. There are a bunch of bad influences. If you don't make the right decisions, you can get lost in the shuffle fast."
That almost happened to Berry, who credits Lillard for pulling him back to basketball and the promises the friends made to one another. "That was our pact: We have to get to college and graduate," Berry said.
In a fortuitous twist, Lillard's injury will enable him to play with Berry next season, because Lillard was granted a medical redshirt year.
So he's a junior again, and the Wildcats are thrilled to have him back. Lillard is an "ideal teammate," forward Kyle Bullinger said. "When your most talented guy is the hardest worker and your most coachable player, then you've got something going."
Now that Lillard is back and blending in nicely, the Wildcats have opened the season with wins over Northern New Mexico, Utah State and UC Irvine and are heavy favorites in the Big Sky Conference. As the season started, Lillard already was thinking about the ending. In his first two years, Weber State won the league's regular-season titles, only to lose at home in the conference tournament and miss the NCAA Tournament.
So there's no Jimmer in his immediate future, but sufficient challenges are looming in a season when, even more than before, Lillard is thankful to be playing basketball.
Damian Lillard and his five closest friends from the Oakland, Calif., area promised one another they would play college basketball and obtain degrees. Here's where they are now:
Davion Berry • Weber State
Dondrale Campbell • Greenville (Ill.) College
Drake Green • Pittsburg (Kan.) State
Damian Lillard • Weber State
Mark Samuels • Cal State East Bay
PJ Taylor • Lewis & Clark College
T.J. Taylor • UC Santa Barbara
Damian Lillard's Weber State career stats
Season G Min. FG Pts. Ast.
2008-09 31 29.4 .434 11.5 2.8
2009-10 31 34.3 .431 19.9 3.6
2010-11 9 31.4 .438 19.7 3.6
2011-12 3 31.0 .404 23.0 3.3