by Chris Haynes
PORTLAND, Ore -- Ribs, chicken, steak and hotdogs are fresh off the grill this Saturday evening.
The living room, kitchen, and dining room are filled to capacity with family and friends in this beautiful multimillion-dollar Lake Oswego home.
Gina Johnson is having a great day.
Game 3 of the Thunder-Grizzlies series is on the tube. For Gina, it’s just like old times in east Oakland. These occasions haven’t ensued much since her youngest son became worth more than $100 million in only his second year in the NBA. She says it’s been tough to get the family up to Oregon all at one time. But on this day, everything worked out.
“God is good,” Gina says.
Everyone has gathered together for Albert’s 78th birthday. He is the father of Gina, and if you didn’t know by now, the grandfather of Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard.
Houston Sr., Lillard’s father, lays the food out on the table. Rookie CJ McCollum arrives with his cousin at the appropriate time. It’s time to chow down. Gina says grace, thanking the Lord for the years He has provided her dad and for the people that came to celebrate this day with them.
Oscar, the grill chef aficionado and brother of Gina, without delay breaks out the dominoes and challenges anyone who thinks they can dethrone the self-proclaimed champ. A stud out of Fresno is pressured into playing. The results of that game shall not be revealed.
Trail Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool drops by and has a plate. He then makes his way to the living room sofa where Lillard is sitting, fixated on the game. The two begin to dissect what’s taking place.
“Domino,” Oscar shouted followed by a long, loud chuckle, prompting everyone to glance at his direction. In the meantime, Gina is relaxing on the couch beside Lillard and Vanterpool, taking in the scenery. She was soaking up the moment.
“I love the fact that I don’t have to work no more,” Gina said. “I just take the kids to school and handle the bills. I love having my family all together. I am truly a blessed individual.”
Nevertheless, things weren’t always fine and dandy for her and family. For 18 long years, Gina had worked for a medical insurance company. She became sick during the latter part of her tenure. Frequent hospital visits made it severely complicated to attend work on a regular basis.
“I was so stressed out,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. There was so much going on. I just kept praying that God would deliver me.”
God answers prayers.
This was around the time Lillard was going through his pre-draft workouts and good reports were surfacing due to his strong showings. He had cemented his status as the best point guard in his draft class. Once it got to that point, Lillard ordered his mother to make a phone call.
“I told her to call them and tell them that we quit,” Lillard shouted, and then he proceeded to bust out in laughter. “We’re out of here.”
“You’re crazy, “ Lillard’s aunt Vanessa immediately said to him while cracking up. “You’re acting like you worked there.”
Two weeks later, the Portland Trail Blazers selected Lillard with the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. His life and hers, would change forever. He took home Rookie of the Year honors, this year he became an NBA All-Star and most recently he inked an eight-year shoe endorsement extension with Adidas that is worth in the ballpark of $100 million.
Thanks to proper treatment, Gina no longer experiences those health problems nor has to worry about job security. She has moved on with her life. Nowadays, it’s strictly about making sure she’s there for her children and two grandkids. She’s happy she can concentrate on that with Lillard accomplishing feat after feat.
“He threw a touchdown,” Gina yells, looking at a live game on her laptop of her oldest son, Houston, who is the starting quarterback for the Tri-Cities Fever of the Indoor Football League. She's proud of her kids. No matter the distance, she’s supporting her family. That hasn’t changed.
It had to be some ride coming from struggling conditions to where they are now. Lillard’s fame has skyrocketed overnight, it seems. But, through it all, Gina says her son is still the same old Dame. And that’s what she’s most delighted about.
“He hasn’t changed one bit,” Gina expressed as she turned Lillard’s way. “He’s still that same respectful kid he was as a young boy. He takes care of his family and does what he can for people. The money and the fame haven’t changed him and that’s what I’m most proud of. He’s a good human being.”
Before my wife and I departed, Gina urged us to take some food home, which we obliged. Meanwhile, McCollum is getting rocked at the domino table.
“You have to do more than count to play this game,” Oscar jokingly said at McCollum’s expense.
The night was filled with lots of food, laughter, quality people and most importantly, love. That’s what you can expect when you’re around Gina and family.