Damian Lillard was shaped by his Oakland roots, but it was his years at Weber State that transformed him into a superstar

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) In 2009, Weber State's Damian Lillard scopes in two over Utah's Kim Tillie, who led the Utes with 20 points. But Lillard scored 28 as Weber State sent Utah back to Salt Lake City with an 83-76 loss.

Chris Gold has a couple of photos on his phone, ones that look strikingly similar to The Shot that not only defines this NBA postseason, but also the man who stepped back so fearlessly and took it. The photos are from so long ago, before Damian Lillard became the heartbeat of an NBA franchise. Back then, he was the heartbeat of a Big Sky Conference program, who’d made the move from Oakland to Ogden, when he was still doubted by so many.

There were believers, though. So many of them. The believers got Lillard to where he is now. They helped him get to this point where he is seen tapping on his wrist signaling precisely what time it is, or in those brief moments after The Shot fell comfortably through the cylinder, waving goodbye to the Oklahoma City Thunder, a second career playoff series clinching buzzer-beater. It’s been a few weeks since Lillard’s shot and Gold can’t talk about it without admitting it still brings on some chills.

Those photos on his phone are of Lillard rising and firing from near the logo inside the Dee Events Center back when nobody but a select lucky few, like Gold, were watching.

“That shot was a decade in the making,” said Gold, Weber State’s former director of basketball operations. “He was shooting from that distance long before people knew who he was.”

Of course. The Shot personifies Lillard, a once underestimated, underappreciated guard from East Oakland who knew that there was so much more within himself. While Oakland made him, it was Ogden that eventually transformed Lillard into the player who not only took the big shots, but so often sunk them. He became the player, who in a 36-point performance at Saint Mary’s in the Bay Area in 2011, tugged on Randy Rahe’s shirt out of a timeout and said, “Coach, give me the [expletive] ball.”

“He grew into a man here,” said Rahe. “Damian’s an old soul with old school values.”

To those who know Lillard best, they say he doesn’t forget who pushed him or made him feel like he could do it when so many others found it convenient to look the other way.

Building toward ‘a storybook moment’

His first hoop was a plastic milk carton nailed to a telephone pole in East Oakland. Long-range shots were more difficult then, but he still took them and didn’t blink. It made the transition to shooting on an actual hoop that much easier. With Lillard’s Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2000, headlines have surrounded the hometown kid facing off against his hometown team.

“Just a storybook moment,” he said recently.

Because the Golden State Warriors are leaving Oakland and Oracle Arena, bouncing across the Bay to their new full-time home in the Chase Center in San Francisco. It’s Dame Time in Oakland officially for the last time this series. Raymond Young has known Lillard and his family since Lillard was in fifth grade. Young began coaching Lillard in middle school on the AAU circuit. Young recalls when Rahe recruited Lillard out of high school and told his future superstar that at Weber State, nothing would be easy.

The opposite, in fact.

“Never sugarcoated anything,” Young said.

That’s what sold Lillard’s parents. Ogden would be a place for him to shine if he did what was asked of him. Did he ever. He never complained about the cold or the long winters, Young said. Not once. When he wasn’t changing his own fortunes on the court with his tantalizing style of play, he was hanging out with friends and teammates in the university village dorms mixing beats and rapping after long, grueling practices. That’s what Kyle Bullinger remembers most about those days. That, and Lillard’s obsession with Burger King for lunch. And how even as his performances turned heads and caught the attention of NBA scouts nationwide, he remained the same Dame.

“I think the greater the spotlight came on him,” said Bullinger, one of Lillard’s teammates at Weber State, “the more grounded he became, to a certain extent.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Weber State guard Damian Lillard, pictured here in 2011, was the state's best college basketball player at the time.

Lillard’s legacy at Weber State is secured. He’s third in school history in points scored with 1,934, third in 3-pointers made with 246 and ranks second in career assists with 362. He became a two-time Big Sky Conference MVP and was named an All-American his junior year.

It was before his sophomore year, though, that Weber State’s staff knew that eventually his evolution as a player would catapult him to new heights. Every fall, the program tries to attend a Utah Jazz practice before the Wildcat season starts. This was during the Deron Williams era of the Jazz and after the Wildcats wrapped up and went to find some lunch in Salt Lake, the coaches all concurred on something.

“Well, Dame’s probably not as good as Deron Williams right now, but he’s pretty much better than everyone else they have,” said Weber State associated head coach Eric Duft. “He could be outta here in a hurry if things work out right.”

Lillard was built to persevere and prove to himself and others that he could do it.

“We did some hard [expletive], man,” Young said of coaching Lillard. “I put them kids through the fire, man.”

Which is now why he can make it look just so easy.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard reacts after making the game-winning shot at the buzzer against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Tuesday, April 23, 2019, in Portland, Ore. The Trail Blazers won 118-115. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

No. 0 for Oakland, Oregon and Ogden, too

Last summer was a low point. Lillard and the Blazers were the third seed in the West but were abruptly swept by the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round. So when he needed some time to decompress and re-center, he came back to Ogden, laced up his sneakers and worked on attacking various traps in the pick-and-roll. He did so on the court inside the Dee Events Center as the summertime temperatures outside rose. His break from basketball was to find what led to his team breaking down. It led him back to Ogden.

“When he comes back here, it’s normal,” Duft said. “We can go to lunch, hang out and just talk. It’s not a big deal. Nothing’s being recorded. I think he feels free to be honest and open and it just feels natural.”

Lillard’s memory is a lockbox as well. He never forgets a good deed. Or a slight. But more often than not he chooses to remember the positive, like still remembering every single student manager’s name who rebounded those thousands of practice shots for him nearly a decade ago.

“He sees their grind, he sees how special people are and what they do for him and he doesn’t take that for granted,” said former Weber State teammate Scott Bamforth. “He’s about relationships.”

Added Bullinger: “He’s got such a great grasp of what he means to various communities and people that know him.”

Rahe’s definition of Lillard sounds kind of like how a coach would describe a former player — all trust, pure loyalty. But what makes this former player different is his ability to spot a phony, Rahe explains. It’s an inherent trait he possesses, something he can spot a mile away, Rahe adds. It’s the uniqueness of Lillard’s “soul” that’s helped him get to where he is now, the All-NBA talent who with a simple flick of the wrist can end a dream. Lillard only wants genuine people around. No phonies. Rahe remembers seeing that relentlessness on display during Lillard’s freshman year when he hit a game-tying 3 against Northern Colorado to get Weber into overtime. The Wildcats later won.

“And he acted like he’d done it a million times,” Rahe explained.

It’s because he had. On the milk carton hoop in East Oakland or in the high school gyms around the country or on his home floor inside the Dee Events Center where he practiced the sort of shots most players don’t dare attempt in the moment. When his jersey was retired at Weber State in 2017, ensuring no other Wildcat would ever wear No. 1 again, Lillard grabbed the mic and thanked university event staffers for unlocking the gym for him in the middle of the night so he could get shots up.

“I’m so loyal to this program and this city,” he said.

“That’s correct,” Young said, “all the way 100 percent correct.”

Lillard has explained why he wears the No. 0 in Portland. It symbolizes Oakland, Oregon, and Ogden.