Since entering the NBA five years ago, Damian Lillard has maintained two streaks of which he is proud:
He has never declined to sign autographs before games, and he has never skipped out on speaking with the media after games.
“Never,’’ Lillard said. “Not once.’’
On Tuesday, the Professional Basketball Writers Association announced Lillard as the 2016-2017 Magic Johnson Award winner, which is awarded by writers who cover the league to the player who best combines excellence on the court with cooperation with the public and the media.
“It comes with the job,’’ Lillard said. “There will come a day when people won’t want my autograph … and there will come a day when the media doesn’t care what I have to say. So I think you have to appreciate it, and that’s what I try to do. I don’t take either for granted.’’
Lillard was a finalist for an unprecedented third consecutive year. This year, he beat out Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, Indiana’s Paul George, Atlanta’s Paul Millsap and Golden State’s Draymond Green. Last season, Stephen Curry of Golden State won, and the year before Pau Gasol, then of the Chicago Bulls.
Lillard becomes the second Trail Blazers player to win the award, joining Brandon Roy, who won in 2008-2009.
The award is not just a reflection of how accessible Lillard is with the media, it’s also a recognition for what he has to say. He has become one of the more thoughtful and transparent players in the NBA, both unafraid to tell it like it is while also maintaining a grounded and reasoned tone.
He could be blunt, like in November after a blowout loss in Houston, when he said “We kind of suck right now. It’s that simple.”
He could be inspiring, like in February, after his late turnover contributed to a home loss against Atlanta: “Sometimes I just tell myself that you have to go through a struggle. Sometimes it has to be hard on you … and sometimes you have to grind it out and stay with it, and it will come back to your favor as long as you stay true to what you’ve been doing.’’
And he could be prophetic, like in Salt Lake City, when he succinctly captured the Blazers entering the break: "You've got two options: You can either run from it or ... man up. I know, personally, I'm going to … man up. Period. That's what has to happen."
He is, as writers like to say, locker room “gold” … a player whose candid remarks can carry your story … a can’t miss interview.
Keep in mind, this is a league where some players decline to be interviewed after a poor performance or a painful loss. And more in more in all pro sports, players are increasingly viewing the media as the enemy.
In Portland, the players treat the media with respect, and only rarely – Maurice Harkless in playoff frustration and CJ McCollum escaping out the door while everyone interviews Lillard -- does a player skip out without talking. Lillard, meanwhile, answers every question after every game, regardless of his performance or the outcome.
“It’s my opportunity to share what is going on, or what I think about something,’’ Lillard said. “That way, I can limit people having to assume things, or make things up. I can explain myself, or share my thoughts. It’s my opportunity to take the stage, so to speak, to say my part.’’
For the Blazers’ organization, the award likely doesn’t come as a surprise. Lillard has been serving as the team’s unofficial spokesman since his rookie season. But to those around the franchise, how Lillard handles the public and represents the organization through the media is only half of the story.
Lillard over the years has established what can best be described as a culture inside the Blazers. It is a culture rooted in hard work. In accountability. In relationships. And in caring.
You have heard his interviews, and read his quotes which have earned him the Magic Johnson Award.
Here is a deeper look at what you don’t see or hear when the microphones and cameras have gone away. They are little moments that stand for big concepts, and it is where Lillard separates himself.
The day after the Blazers were eliminated from the playoffs with a disappointing sweep at the hands of Golden State, Lillard still had one task to perform: Getting the rest of the team to sign off on donating their playoff checks.
When a team makes the playoffs, they are awarded a bonus check. This season, any team participating in the first round of the playoffs was given $223,864 to be divided among players. For the Blazers, that is roughly $16,000 per player.
As captain for the past two seasons, Lillard has made it clear to his teammates that their playoff checks should be donated to the Blazers’ support staff, which consists of everybody from massage therapists to the trainers at the practice facility.
With some Blazers teams, the locker room leadership was not always as generous. Three seasons ago, when veteran Chris Kaman joined the team, he became appalled that the Blazers were keeping their playoff checks. Kaman, who became close with Lillard, told him if he ever led a team he should insist on getting the guys to donate to underscore the importance of unity and having one’s back.
Once again this season, with Lillard going from player to player to assure they followed through, the team voted to give up their full shares. The money was divided among 25 support staff, with some getting more than others depending on their role.
“We divide our playoff shares to give to the people who we work so closely with because they spend as much time away from their families as we do, and they are just about as invested as we are,’’ Lillard said after the season. “They also do as much as possible to make our lives easier, even if it makes theirs more difficult – all while making far less. So it’s a further way of showing appreciation beyond a thank your or a handshake.’’
In October, both Lillard and CJ McCollum paid a surprise visit to the home of a Portland cancer patient. At the time, the Blazers requested the visit be kept private because it wasn’t made for publicity.
But the day after, the patient posted a picture on social media of himself with Lillard and McCollum, and the two players were peppered with questions. Both seemed taken aback at why it was such a big deal.
“I mean, I do stuff like that all the time,’’ Lillard said in October. “But I do it because I want to, not because the team says I should, or because I think it looks good. I understand in this position I can help people, and I try to do that as much as I can.’’
He has stopped at a young boys’ birthday party in West Linn, he has visited people in the hospital and he has donated everything from backpacks to tickets to shoes.
“We have to realize we are in position to make an impact on people’s lives,’’ Lillard said.
One of the bigger impacts has been made with Portland teenager Matty Vachter, who has cerebral palsy.
A partial season ticket holder, Vachter has formed a special bond with the Blazers players, coaches and front office. When he attends games, the team allows him backstage access. Positioned in the tunnel that leads from the locker room to the Moda Center court, Vachter slaps high fives with each player as they head and from the court, with each player knowing his name and some stopping to chat. The coaches went as far as charting how often they won with Matty in attendance after they noticed a spiked in wins when he attended.
Lillard, who is a global ambassador for Special Olympics, spends the most time with Vachter.
“I care to make him feel part of our team,’’ Lillard said. “Every guy shakes his hand on the way to and from the court, and he’s as big a Blazers fans as anyone. He was even at a road playoff game this year.’’
When Evan Turner arrived for his first tour of the Blazers’ practice facility after signing a free agent deal this summer, he got a first-hand view of what it meant to play for the Blazers.
It was just past 9 a.m., and in the gym, covered in sweat on a July morning was Lillard. And his workout still had another hour left.
Later, as the team struggled and teetered on falling out of the playoff picture, it was Lillard setting a different example.
In interview after interview, often times with his teammates pausing at their lockers to hear what he had to say, Lillard persisted in keeping a positive outlook. He kept reminding that the struggle would make the reward more meaningful, and he kept urging for personal accountability.
In a day and age when stars want to leave teams for the comfort of success, Lillard continues to relish playing in Portland, embracing the challenges and the fight it takes to build a winner.
Lillard can’t say how close the Blazers are to becoming a championship team. He figures it will take some development from some players, probably some key moves, and likely some time. But he knows the first step of the foundation – the team’s culture – is secure.
“Our culture is great and beyond solid,’’ Lillard said. “From the relationships, to the work ethic, and that is not one bit fabricated.’’
Magic Johnson Award winners
2000-01 Ray Allen, Milwaukee Bucks
2001-02 Elton Brand, L.A. Clippers
2002-03 Jalen Rose, Chicago Bulls
2003-04 Jermaine O’Neal, Indiana Pacers
2004-05 Antawn Jamison, Washington Wizards
2005-06 Grant Hill, Orlando Magic
2006-07 Shane Battier, Houston Rockets
2007-08 Derek Fisher, Los Angeles Lakers
2008-09 Brandon Roy, Portland Trail Blazers
2009-10 Chris Bosh, Toronto Raptors
2010-11 Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
2011-12 Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns
2012-13 Shane Battier, Miami Heat
2013-14 Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
2014-15 Pau Gasol, Chicago Bulls
2015-16 Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors