Brutal, steep hills roll through San Francisco's Chinatown where cane-assisted old men—God bless them!—and well-to-do citizens stand at a 45-degree angle waiting for buses. Higher above sea level, a crew of about a dozen people attentively guard a secret in an alleyway.
The secret is Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, who's wearing black shorts, a black tanktop, and his matching yet-to-be-released colorway of his signature shoes while chilling next to a bowl of fruit on a basketball court. Today's event is a hush-hush affair, but you can guess who's behind things simply by looking at the feet of the executives and publicists in attendance. They're covered in adidas, looking on as photographers take pictures you'll likely see become posters inside sneaker spots next season.
Lillard's the star here. Then again, when you've become one of the NBA's most lethal offensive threats in just your third year, you're the star in most places. But you don't get starstruck by Lillard. There's actually a sense of familiarity when talking to him; he's a fairly laid-back dude who's unfairly good at what he does. He also comes with sense of solemnity—something that's hard to notice during play but comes more into focus when the game clock dims.
Lillard and I are in a black Cadillac as we make our way from San Francisco's tech bubble splendor to his hometown of Oakland, whose comparative grayness is only spotlighted by the Oracle Arena. Between moving to the next photoshoot and a bad "Who was better: Mutombo or Dienda?" joke (Google it), we chop it up about the state of Oakland, the breakup of the Blazers' starting five, and ghostwriting in rap.
Interview by Brian Josephs (@Bklyn_Rock).
Is it weird that people are going to say, "I’m rocking the Damian Lillards"?
It ain’t weird, but it’s still crazy to me.
Was this part of the plan?
I knew there was a chance, but had I thought it would happen so soon? I wouldn’t have been like, "Yeah, it’s definitely happening."
real rappers can’t rap half the time, let alone a basketball player. A lot of basketball players tried it—it just didn’t work.
How involved were you in the process?
I was very, very involved. You know I live in Portland. I pop up at adidas [headquartered in Portland] all the time. And every time I come it's, “Let me see something.” And when they do, I’ll say what I don’t like. I show ‘em pictures of shoes that I do like and colorways and different ideas. They wouldn’t directly say, “OK, we’re going to do that.” They would take what I say in consideration, so when the shoe finally came, it looked how I wanted it to look.
What was more important to you: Playing basketball in it or the design? Because there’s a lot of good-looking basketball sneakers that seem impractical to actually play in.
Versatility was important for me to have a low top shoe that functions well on court but also was able to be worn off the court. I wanted to be able to wear it with jeans and with sweats—just wear it everywhere.
What were some inspirational models?
I looked at a lot of shoes. I looked at older adidas [shoes] that I liked. I looked at some other shoes from different brands that I liked. I shared that with them and that was really helpful.
What stands out about Oakland?
It’s about what it molds you into. People like tough people. People that can deal with adversity and can function up against different things. Growing up here, everybody is like family. You learn loyalty early, and you learn certain values that people don’t always learn. People value a lot of the things that Oakland breeds.
I think when you grow up and you’re in a situation like a lot of people I grew up with, you just want to do better. You want a better living situation for yourself. You want people around you to do better. It motivates you to work for something.
I imagine Oakland must be in brighter spirits after Golden State won the championship. Is that weird to you since that’s one of your rivals?
To see the Warriors win the championship is crazy. They were winning 20 games when I was growing up. That’s a huge part of people saying Oakland is changing and it’s getting better. Everything that you see—the architecture, the BART stations, and around the coliseum—they’re here to make everything look better. The Warriors fans would drive through the arena and see that it’s nice around there and watch the game and see the Warriors win the championship. They go home and don’t know what’s really going on. Of course, they’re going to say Oakland is doing better when they’re not really in the mix. So that’s false.
What are some of the issues?
It’s a lot. It’s stuff that just kind of get ignored. It ain’t got nothing to do with sports. That’s what they relate Oakland doing better to.
I picture the Yankees when they were on that championship run. People didn’t realize that the area around that stadium in the Bronx (South Bronx is notorious) was still in disarray. Why do you think people don’t get it?
Because it ain’t what they see. You go on the newspaper and you see the Yankees on the front with Derek Jeter—that’s what you see. They put out there what they want you to see.
Let’s switch to rap. What got you into rapping during your professional career?
I’ve been rapping for a while. I’ve been rapping for years, but this summer I actually had the time to get to a studio and record. A lot of the stuff I recorded I wrote a long time ago. Now I’m just starting to put it out. I think having the platform helps.
How long you’ve been rhyming for?
Since the seventh or eight grade.
Was there a point where you thought rap might be a career for you?
Nah, I never thought it would be instead of basketball. I just always thought I would be able to rap.
How are you feeling about the response to Music Mondays?
I believed in it but I didn’t know the response would be like it has been. It’s been much more support than hate. Usually when basketball players try to rap, they always say, "Stick to basketball."
You think that sort of reputation is unfair?
No, it’s not, because half of the dudes that try to rap can’t rap.
Even in rap rap—hip-hop.
I mean real rappers can’t rap half the time, let alone a basketball player. A lot of basketball players tried it—it just didn’t work. The second you see a basketball player rapping, you’re expecting to be like, "Why is he doing this?"
You know I gotta ask you about ghostwriting. What’s your stance on that?
I’m still confused at why he came at Drake in the first place, but Drake has definitely been the aggressive one.
A lot of people think Meek Mill had this beef. There’s pictures of him in the cornrows on YouTube battle rapping.
I mean, he put out two tracks and Meek put out one—and [Drake’s] tracks were better. I mean, Drake got two great diss tracks and that’s it. And Meek started it.
I don’t think anybody is expecting me to go out there and win the championship right now.
Well, what do you think about ghostwriting in rap?
If you’re considered the top rapper and one of the best rappers, of course somebody can call you out for having a ghostwriter, because if you’re not the brains behind these bars then how can you be the best rapper? That’s one thing. I do personally think Drake writes his stuff. He seems like he’s as clever as his bars [are].
But some of the best songs in the history of music are co-written. So if there’s really something wrong with that, that’s sort of an insult to some of the greatest songs in history.
Tell me about next season. You’re pretty much going to have a new starting lineup. Does that put more pressure on you at all?
I mean, everything changes. Responsibility changes. Expectations change. Pressure changes. I don’t think anybody is expecting me to go out there and win the championship right now. That’s not to say we can’t, but I don’t think anybody’s expecting us to do that. So that takes pressure off. So I’m gonna go out there and do what I have to do to help my team the best I can.
What was going through your head when the lineup left?
It’s part of the business. Some things are out of your control.
Any feelings when you face off against LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs?
He’s not on my team no more. It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be.