SALT LAKE CITY – The unfamiliar will simply see a zero on Damian Lillard’s NBA All-Star jersey this weekend. But it’s actually the letter “O.”
This letter “O” represents Lillard’s hometown of Oakland, California.
It represents Oregon, where he plays for the Portland Trail Blazers.
It also represents Ogden, Utah, where he played college basketball at Weber State University.
The “O” for Ogden will take center stage for a “homecoming” here on Sunday as Lillard will play in the 2023 NBA All-Star Game just 38 miles away from where he starred at Weber State.
“I do think the state of Utah, not just Weber State and Ogden, but the whole state of Utah, loves him,” former Weber State men’s basketball coach Randy Rahe said. “He’s their own because he played here and had such great experience, and talks about his experiences in Utah, and not just Ogden but the state of Utah. It’s going to be statewide, no question. He’s going to have so much support. It’s going to be really cool. People are going to be going crazy for him.”
Said Lillard: “They give me major love when I go back. When I’m named in the starting lineup, the Jazz fans cheer for me like they cheer for their team. I view it as another home.”
Lillard has immersed himself in the underdog mentality since growing up in the Brookfield neighborhood of East Oakland. That mentality was there even when he played NCAA March Madness 06 during his youth. Instead of playing as basketball powers like North Carolina, Duke, Michigan State or Arizona, Lillard played the video game as himself in season mode with mid-major schools to make it the most challenging to win a national championship.
“I would create a player on a low major school and win a national championship,” Lillard said. “I used to put my player on Weber State. That is on my kids. That is how I first heard of the school because I used Weber State. On the video game they were one of the only small schools that had a nice arena. Usually, the small schools had an arena that looked like a high school gym. At Weber State, they actually had an arena.
“It was the March Madness video game with North Carolina’s Raymond Felton on the cover. I used other schools, too. But most of the time I used Weber State. So, when I started getting recruited, by then I knew who they were.”
Lillard wasn’t a heralded recruit when he played for Oakland High School. ESPN 100 and Rivals didn’t have the then-6-foot-1, 165-pound point guard ranked nationally, and 247Sports listed him a distant 214th. AAU Oakland Rebels coach Raymond Young called Weber State initially about Lillard in January of 2007 just before he was named to the 2006-07 Oakland Athletic League’s boys’ basketball first team as a junior. Rahe trusted Young’s opinion and began recruiting Lillard.
“It was January of Damian’s junior year at Oakland High School. He called me and he just said, ‘Hey, you going to need a guard down the road?’ ” Rahe said. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘I got a guy, and nobody’s recruiting him. He’s really good.’ ”
Rahe and Lillard initially spoke over the phone, and the coach said that the prospect didn’t sound too excited initially. He gave short answers and didn’t say much. Rahe first saw Lillard play in the spring of 2007 with the AAU Oakland Rebels in Texas during a 9 a.m. tipoff. Young told Lillard before the game that Rahe was there. An impressed Rahe offered Lillard his first scholarship after the game.
“Coach Rahe was the only [college] coach at the game,” Lillard said. “He was sitting under the basket. I had a good game. We ended up winning the game, and he offered me a scholarship right after at the hotel. That was my first offer.”
What Rahe quickly fell in love with was Lillard’s all-around game because he made his teammates better, didn’t force scoring and owned a will to win. Lillard said Rahe also attended another game that afternoon and afterward he also received scholarship offers from Western Kentucky, San Jose State and Santa Clara.
“When me and my assistant went to watch him for the first time, I said, ‘We can’t get him. Nobody’s recruiting him and he’s too good,’ ” Rahe said. “But then we just stuck with him. One thing you’ve probably realized about Damian, his loyalty is incredible. We offered him a scholarship right away, and then as the spring and summer went on, people started figuring him out, bigger schools and all that.”
Lillard recalls Rahe and an assistant telling him over and over to please keep it honest with them and let them know “when we are out of the race.” But Weber State never was out.
“They were never out of the race because I liked them as people,” Lillard said. “I had normal conversations with them. We talked hoop, growing up and my childhood. It was never like they were pitching something to me. It’s the only school where I didn’t feel pitched. Other coaches would criticize me to my AAU coach saying, ‘He’s quiet. He doesn’t talk much. He’s hard to recruit.’ I didn’t say much because I was just listening.
“When it came to Weber, I had actual dialogue with them. They would always think they weren’t in the hunt because my recruitment was picking up. But I said, ‘No, y’all in my top three.’ ”
Lillard took an official visit that didn’t go well with St. Mary’s College, located in a suburb of Oakland called Moraga, in late August 2007. He next visited Weber State in late September 2007 with his mother, Gina Johnson. Oakland was 765 miles away from Ogden. Lillard couldn’t just turn around and go home if he wanted to.
After dinner with the coaches, Lillard saw the 11,500-seat Dee Center for the first time. He said there were several players taking part in a 3-point shooting drill with 50 shots. Lillard joined in, making about 30 3-pointers while wearing jeans.
“I shot, was sweating and went back to the hotel. The visit was good,” Lillard said.
Lillard said his final three schools were Weber State, Santa Clara, and Boise State. Rahe came to a game in Oakland to watch Lillard, who had to come off the bench because he was late. During an in-home visit afterward, Rahe told Lillard that tardiness wasn’t accepted at Weber State. Rahe gave Lillard a straightforward recruiting pitch that was music to the ears of Lillard and his father, Houston Lillard Sr.
“I just told him, ‘If you come here, No. 1, your talent is enough to play right away as a freshman and really help us,’ ” Rahe said. “ ‘But you’re going to have to go to class every day. You’re going to have to give me your best every day. You’re going to have to be a great teammate. You’re going to play for Weber State, not for Damian Lillard, and we’re going to win a bunch of games. If you don’t do those things, you’re not going to be here. I’ll send you home.’
“Damian is so old school that he wanted to hear that, and his dad really wanted to hear that because he was getting people telling him, ‘Hey, come here. You’re an NBA guy. You can shoot every ball. You get to do what you want.’ His dad is just like Damian. They’re very like, ‘No, that’s bulls—. Tell me like it is.’ So, we just tried to be really honest with him and tell him what it was. That’s what he wanted.”
In the midst of the meeting, Lillard asked his father to discuss it all outside.
“My pops told me, ‘They are real people. But don’t make a decision for me or anyone else. You have to live with the decision and don’t feel like you have to many anyone happy with the decision,’ ” Lillard said. “I said, ‘I think I want to do it.’ He said, ‘Well, tell [Rahe] you want to do it. We’re not going to be going back on our word. So, if you say you want to do it, let’s do it.’ So, I went back inside, and I committed to him.”
Weber State certainly was fortunate Lillard signed before averaging 28 points as a senior at Oakland High. Lillard made his presence known immediately at Weber State. He helped lead the school to a 21-10 record, 15-1 in the Big Sky Conference during the 2007-08 season. He landed 2008 Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year honors and made the All-Big Sky Conference first team after averaging 14.1 points in conference play.
According to the U.S. Census, Ogden today is about 60% white, 30% Hispanic and nearly 2% Black. It was the first time Lillard ever lived in a predominantly white environment. It was also predominantly Mormon. While being different from most students at Weber State, the focused Lillard adjusted just fine.
“It wasn’t bad, honestly,” Lillard said. “I feel like I adapt well, so it wasn’t a big deal for me. There were other athletes that were people of color. But honestly, it wasn’t a major adjustment for me. I knew what I was there for. I can’t let my people down. I wasn’t worried about a culture shock. I was there to handle my business.”
As a sophomore, Lillard averaged 16.1 points while earning honors as the 2010 Big Sky Conference MVP and Honorable Mention All-American honors. It was after Lillard’s sophomore year that Rahe realized that he had an NBA player on his roster.
“We had our guys playing pickup in the summer after his sophomore year,” Rahe said. “One of my [assistant coaches] came up to me. He looks at me while they’re playing pickup with my players and he says, ‘Coach, Damian is an NBA guy, right?’ It kind of hit me, and I was like, I never really thought about it because I haven’t really had a lot of those. I say, ‘God dang. I think he might be.’ ”
Lillard played only nine games as a junior during the 2010-11 season with Weber State before suffering a season-ending foot injury. He averaged 19.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists and received a medical redshirt. In what perhaps might have been a blessing in disguise, Lillard took Rahe’s advice to spend the new free time in the weight room to get stronger.
“He was struggling mentally. I remember him coming into my office about every day. I finally had to snap him out of it a little bit,” Rahe said. “He’s sitting in there with a boot on. I said, ‘Damian, what the hell we doing sitting around here? This is a great opportunity for you to get better. You need to get in that weight room right now. We’re going to set you up. You’re going to go four, five times a week, get that upper body strong. You could be ball handling until you can’t ball handle anymore, until your hands are sore sitting in a chair. You can shoot free throws with a boot.’
“And so, we gave him a plan. Once he got that plan, then he just went crazy. He was in the weight room six, seven days a week. His handles got so tight.”
Talented, stronger, and more skilled, Lillard went on to have a nationally renowned junior season during the 2011-12 campaign. He led the Wildcats to a 25-7 overall record and a 14-2 record in Big Sky Conference play during that season after averaging 24.5 points, which ranked second nationally. Lillard became the first player in Big Sky Conference history to be named to an All-American team, was the 2012 Big Sky Conference MVP and the District VIII Player of the Year.
Lillard next entered his name in the 2012 NBA draft. He finished his Weber State career second in school history in career scoring with 1,934 career points and fifth in Big Sky Conference history. Lillard was selected No. 6 overall in the 2012 NBA draft by the Blazers.
He is now a seven-time NBA All-Star, a 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year and a member of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team. Lillard has averaged 25 points per game in his NBA career, is averaging 31.4 points this season and is the Blazers’ all-time leading scorer.
Rahe said there is no way he could have projected that Lillard would enjoy this NBA greatness.
“I knew he was going to be good, but all the stuff he’s doing right now … he’s never satisfied, and it’s ingrained in him,” Rahe said. “He can be an All-Star and Rookie of the Year. He doesn’t think he plays good. He doesn’t think he’s good enough. ‘I got to get better. I got to get better. I got to get better.’ ”
During Lillard’s junior year, his mother grew increasingly frustrated with her job back home and how she was being treated poorly by one boss. Lillard told his mom that a change was coming for her after NBA scouts became regulars at his games and practices. After the draft, Lillard surprised his mother by coming to her job, telling her she could quit in front of her co-workers and immediately packed her belongings in boxes as he planned to take care of her.
“Once I saw [then-Atlanta Hawks general manager] Danny Ferry came to our practice at Weber, and I knew who Danny Ferry was, I felt like there has to be some NBA teams interested,” Lillard said. “I told my mom, ‘the Spurs were at practice today. Such and such is coming.’ I would recognize the scouts. Utah Jazz scouts were at practice after practice and at games. I started recognizing scouts.
“We had a game at Portland State, and a lot of people from the Blazers front office were at the game. I told my mom, ‘It’s about to happen. Don’t worry.’ At first, I would hear that my name was in NBA circles and in mock drafts. But when I started seeing the NBA scouts coming, I was like, ‘It’s happening.’ I would keep her updated to give her some hope.”
There are also some special off the court reasons Weber State University is special to Lillard.
Lillard would also meet the love of his life, a student named Kay’La Hanson. Lillard proposed to her during the 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago. The couple got married on Sept. 4, 2020, and now have three children. Lillard received a bachelor’s degree from Weber State in 2015, fulfilling a promise to his mother. He also gave a speech at the graduation. His No. 1 jersey that he wore at Weber State has been retired. Lillard also is known to spend time in Ogden to relax during the NBA offseason.
“I spent four years there. I know a lot of people there,” Lillard said. “I still have friendships with a lot of people there. Every time I go [to play the Jazz], I see Weber State alumni and people I played with at Weber. People that went to school at Weber or people around campus. It is a homecoming type of thing.”
“He’s the pride and joy of Weber State and Ogden,” Rahe, who retired in 2022 and now resides in South Carolina, said. “Anybody that’s a Weber State fan or lives in the community loves him. He’s endeared himself so much to Ogden.”