This past Friday the Portland Trail Blazers handed the Golden State Warriors only their fifth loss of the season. In this upset, Portland’s point guard Damian Lillard turned in an iconic performance in which he scored 51 points. The cliché structure of that lead sentence and the miracle nature of Lillard’s performance are, for the most part, self-evident. What’s not self-evident, however, is why this game was relegated to the backchannels of the NBA universe. You could not and would not have seen it on ESPN, TNT, or TBS, which means the phenomenon of Lillard out dueling not just Steph Curry, who had 31 points, but the entire contingent of Splash Brothers is an event left to the imagination.
In a not-so-subtle act of self-promotion, I imagined such a performance looking something like “Damian Lillard was Sentenced to Prison inFrench Guiana”, at The Baller Ball. However, I wrote this bit of fiction in the days leading up to Lillard’s explosive proclamation, when the politics of basketball saw fit to leave him off the Western Conference’s All-Star roster.
The piece I wrote explores the relationship of Lillard to the Portland franchise. After all, a year ago the Blazers could still imagine themselves as title contenders, for they featured one of the best starting lineups in all of basketball. The offseason watched all of that disappear suddenly into what is now a Portlandia diaspora. Good bye, Batum. God bless, Wesley Matthews. You are missed, Robin Lopez. Cursed by thy name, LA! In this wreckage, the Blazers should have died. But they have not. Lillard (and CJ McCollum) keep them fastly alive. And the team currently sits ready to assume the Western Conference’s seventh seed.
What I find so fascinating about Lillard and the Blazers is how his taking the franchise’s reins is about more than basketball. His association with Adidas is well-documented, but he is also quickly becoming the one of the League’s most vocal stars. He is a rapper, but his raps are also as political as they are personal. There’s this freestyle on Sway’s radio show that’sworth a listen, and there’s also this video which debuted in the limelight of aTNT prime time game. These attributes, as much as his point guard skills, are why Lillard follows in the footsteps of a Bill Walton or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And, moreover, they’re also why the basketball court is such an easy staging area for social commentary and allegory.
Maybe I'm wrong, but Damian Lillard feels like something bigger than a basketball player.