Whenever Damian Lillard is asked if someone has ever underestimated him, he always has a quick response.
He tells the story of how, when he was eight years old, he was habitually overlooked in his peewee football team. Unlike his older brother who would eventually become a pro indoor football player, Damian never had the physical build for the gridiron.
Instead, he found his home and his calling on the hardwood, where he would eventually star for the Oakland Rebels AAU team, for Oakland High School under coach Orlando Watkins, and for the Weber State Wildcats all the way in Ogden, Utah. In his three US NCAA Division 1 seasons, Lillard earned accolades aplenty. He was named Big Sky Conference Player of the Year twice and was a finalist for the 2012 Bob Cousy Award, which eventually went to current Philadelphia 76er Kendall Marshall. Despite these, however, Lillard remained an oft-underestimated prospect heading into the 2012 NBA Draft.
Bigger names from bigger college programs predictably got tagged early on, led by Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Bradley Beal. Lillard, meanwhile, was the first floor general chosen as the Portland Trail Blazers took a chance on him with the 6th pick.
The Oakland native would eventually form a dreaded offensive pair with LaMarcus Aldridge, culminating in the Blazers’ winning 51 of 82 games in the 2014-2015 season, where they made it to the first round of the postseason. In the ensuing summer, Lillard became the only Portland starter left on the team as Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews, and Arron Afflalo all chose to bolt.
Needless to say, expectations were low for Portland entering the 2015-2016 season, but Lillard, together with breakout star CJ McCollum, carried the team to a 44-38 record and the West’s 5th seed. They upset the LA Clippers in the first round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs before losing to defending champion Golden State in six games in the conference semifinals.
The loss stings, but the season can be considered a resounding success for a team and a player that, once again, had to swim against the steady stream of doubters and naysayers. Lillard and his Blazers weren’t even supposed to be playing come late April and May, but, heck, there they were.
That unwavering and resilient underdog spirit permeated throughout Lillard’s recent visit to Manila, where he was on a promotional tour sponsored by adidas. Lillard graced the media on the morning of Tuesday, June 14, 2016, had a photo-op at the EDSA monument at midday, and then wowed the fans with his hardcourt skills and rhyme game at the Araneta Coliseum in the evening.
Lucky Pinoys got to meet, greet, and even play with their idol, who wasted no chance to touch base with his supporters, which also included adidas endorsers from the NCAA, the UAAP, and the PBA.
He was a darling for the fans, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his character and narrative resonate so well with Filipinos, given the daily struggles we all have to wade through.
I can only hope that as Damian Lillard continues his career in the NBA, he is able to remain as an inspiring persona who truly represents how we should #NeverDoubt our own capabilities and potential. – By Enzo Flojo
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