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A reporter's indulgence no longer a secret — 'The NBA's Damian Lillard made me a fan'

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, left, drives to the basket on Houston Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr., right, during their NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023. Lillard scored a franchise record 71 points as the Blazers won 131-114.
Steve Dykes
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AP
Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, left, drives to the basket on Houston Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr., right, during their NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023. Lillard scored a franchise record 71 points as the Blazers won 131-114.

PORTLAND, Ore. — After 71 points, it's time to come clean.

I am an unabashed fan of Damian Lillard, the star guard for the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, who awed the league with a 71-point outburst in a win on Sunday.

Lillard became just the 8th player in NBA history to score 70 or more points in a game.

You may ask, what's the big deal? Many marvel at the offensive wizardry of this undersized (in today's NBA) player now in his 11th season.

But you have to understand, unabashed fandom doesn't come easy.

In more than 30 years covering sports for NPR, I've learned, like any well-trained reporter, not to take sides. In my beat that literally means, no cheering.

At times it's been tough. Very tough.

I've been a fortunate in-person witness to Brandi Chastain's winning penalty kick in the watershed 1999 Women's World Cup final; to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' historic comeback in Super Bowl 51; to the 2004 Boston Red Sox ending an agonizing 86-year World Series championship drought; to all of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt's breathtaking Olympic Gold Medals; and to Lionel Messi's crowning moment, leading Argentina to the men's World Cup title last year.

Through all this and more...I was inwardly thrilled. Outwardly? I watched and scribbled notes and recorded cheers and stayed seated, while fans around me lost their collective minds.

But then came Lillard's explosion, and I can no longer hide my one indulgence.

The sports world at large has become familiar with this smallish guard's huge on-court accomplishments – playoff game-winning shots in 2014 and 2019. Clutch moments, dubbed "Dame time," with Lillard tapping his imaginary wristwatch. Jumpers from such long range they earned him another nickname, "Logo Lillard."

Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers taps his wrist signifying "Dame Time" after a clutch three-point basket in the closing seconds against the Los Angeles Lakers at on October 23, 2022.
Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers taps his wrist signifying "Dame Time" after a clutch three-point basket in the closing seconds against the Los Angeles Lakers on October 23, 2022.

But tucked away here in the upper left-hand corner of the country, largely off the nation's sports radar, we in Portland have gotten something deeper and more meaningful from Damian Lillard.

A combination of leadership, loyalty and perspective rare for someone so young and part of today's zillion-dollar, super-hyped world of major professional sports.

Basketball was a sports love language I shared with my two young children. I coached them a little, and watched them a lot, experiencing both glee and angst sitting in the bleachers. I often turned to hoops to impart life lessons, earning me a fair share of eye rolls.

But once Lillard showed up — Portland grabbed him with the sixth pick in the 2012 NBA draft — the kid's eye-rolling stopped, as he dazzled on the court and provided a bountiful harvest of teaching moments.

In 2018, after the New Orleans Pelicans humiliated the Blazers in a first round playoff sweep, bereft Portland fans clamored for major change. Blow up the team!

Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers goes up for a layup against the Chicago Bulls during the first half at United Center on February 04, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.
Michael Reaves / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers goes up for a layup against the Chicago Bulls during the first half at United Center on February 04, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.

Lillard publicly rose above his deep disappointment.

"I'm just going to accept responsibility that we didn't play well," he said. "It was embarrassing. But when you go through stuff like that and you stay together and you keep working, you keep believing in what we do."

It's been argued the Blazers shouldn't have stayed together. But they did, and Lillard's words paid off with next year's rousing first round playoff win over Oklahoma City and his waving goodbye, series clinching jump shot. Portland went all the way to the Western Conference finals, where they lost.

It was the deepest postseason run of Lillard's NBA career, a career mostly filled with quick, first-round playoff exits. As the early flameouts mounted, the basketball universe wondered why Lillard wasn't doing what many stars were – banding together to create what they hoped would be championship-winning superteams.

Social media was filled with photo-shopped pictures of Lillard wearing other team's jerseys. Numerous articles wondered where Lillard might be better off than Portland.

Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots against the Chicago Bulls on February 04, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.
Michael Reaves / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots against the Chicago Bulls on February 04, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.

But loyalty always was a big part of his story. He raps about it. He wears what looks like the number zero on his jersey, but actually it's the letter "O," in honor of his California hometown of Oakland. And after all the speculation about him leaving Portland, fueled at times by Lillard's own sly postings, he signed a whopping contract extension last year that keeps Lillard a Blazer through the 2026-27 season. It's the kind of money that would make anyone loyal, but Lillard sounded earnest about the reasons why.

"I don't think that you earn something like this just by going out there and scoring a bunch of points," Lillard said. "Something that's missing in our league is character, and the fight and the passion and pride about, you know, not just the name on the back [of the jersey], but the name on the front, and how you impact the people that you come in contact with."

Lillard recently told ESPN he admires current NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo and retired star Dirk Nowitzki for winning championships with the only teams they played for – Milwaukee and Dallas, respectively. "Getting Dame a title" is the talk of Portland, from the Trail Blazers front office to the cheap seats in the team's home arena.

And with Lillard playing his best basketball, at 32, the chatter is constant – Portland needs to trade player x, y, and z to bring in another star who'll help deliver a long overdue second championship (the first one was way back in 1977); Portland would be committing a major NBA crime by not getting Lillard the help he needs.

Lillard, as he's always done, provided clarity on the "championship issue" after he dropped his 71-point bomb Sunday night. A performance so efficient, so calm and within the flow of the game, that Portland head coach Chauncey Billups called it a "piece of art."

"Embracing the journey" is uttered so often in sports it's now almost cliché. But again, coming from Lillard Sunday, it sounded real.

"As much as we glorify the end, and the last team and winning a championship, and rightfully so," he said, "the reality of it is everyone's not going to win it. [So you don't] throw out, you know, the moments on the [team] plane, the moments on the [team] bus, being in the locker room, being on the bench and then the huddle when we're doing our jobs cause we do it 82 times before the playoffs. You don't throw that sh** out the window like it means nothing, it means a lot. Because we work our whole lives to be a part of this."

Lillard then smiled.

"And you just hope to have enough of those moments and then win a championship too. You know? That's what it's about."

Win or lose, scoring 71 points or a pedestrian 25, which he did Tuesday night in a loss to Golden State, Lillard always has impressed with a serious thoughtfulness. While his team remains stalled near the bottom of the standings (Portland's record is 29-32, 11th place in a tightly-packed Western Conference), Lillard's calm demeanor rarely has wavered. It's a window into how he's maintained his excellence on a perennially mediocre team.

While fans (yes, me included) squawk about that endless mediocrity, Dame stays cool.

Which is why a recent burst of anger was so startling.

Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers reacts against the Phoenix Suns during the first quarter on December 14, 2021 in Portland, Ore.
Steph Chambers / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers reacts against the Phoenix Suns during the first quarter on December 14, 2021 in Portland, Ore.

It happened after a stinging loss to LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, in which Portland coughed up a 25-point lead. After the game, New York Times columnist Kurt Streeter asked Lillard how much more patience he had.

Lillard called that, and another reporter's question implying Portland's roster wasn't good enough, "a weak move."

"Y'all putting me in a position to, you know, answer questions that I don't think is cool."

It was an eye-raising moment for me, and other reporters used to Lillard's consistently imperturbable attitude. But order soon was restored in the Damian Lillard universe. Streeter recounted after the tense interview room moment, Lillard stopped him in an arena hallway.

"[Lillard] shook my hand and looked me straight in the eye," Streeter wrote. "He said he was sorry for his scolding reaction. The look on his face showed genuine sincerity. 'I didn't mean any personal disrespect,' he said."

"What stars would do that?" Streeter asked in his column, "not many."

And that, perhaps more than all the "Dame time" moments, more than the offensive explosions...the 71 moved Lillard past Michael Jordan and behind only Kobe Bryant and Wilt Chamberlain on the list of most games with 60 or more points...is why "we" love Lillard in this Pacific Northwest NBA outpost.

And why, as Portlanders angst over how the Blazers will build around Dame...quickly please, he's not getting any younger...many also understand it's important not to let that goal obscure what happens on an almost nightly basis - sublime performances followed by wisdom for the taking.

As my now grown son said after Sunday, in a text - "Forget all the BS. We just gotta appreciate this man."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.