“Ball is Life” is a phrase that has permeated the world of professional basketball, both as an inside joke and a half-serious mantra about the sheer amount of dedication and work it takes to play at the highest level. So, when Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic quipped after winning the NBA championship, “It’s an amazing feeling… but it’s not everything in the world,” his comments shocked the NBA media. There shouldn’t be anything more important than basketball, right?!
The NBA and its fans have often had a problem separating the player from the person. It’s something that Damian Lillard, an All-Star point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers, has preached every offseason. “I think it takes time to get to that place,” Lillard, 32, tells Esquire over Zoom. “When you’re younger, you spend your whole life trying to get here so this is everything to you. You haven’t completely found yourself and you don’t have kids. It’s just you.” Jokic’s comments are the first major sign that Lillard’s attitude is finally rubbing off on the league—and a step forward in the dilemma of working as a professional athlete and trying to balance a semblance of self.
When I catch up with Lillard, he’s in the midst of the offseason, preparing to enter his 12th season in the NBA for the same team that drafted him over a decade ago. He’s a rare kind of star, one who promised to bring Portland home a championship—and hasn’t once strayed from that quest. Still, he can’t help but find himself the subject of trade fodder every offseason. And the rumors always heat up when the man is just trying to enjoy his summer! Ask any veteran of the game and they’ll tell you that this time away from basketball is for honing your skills, reflecting on your successes, and maintaining a balanced life. As Lillard warns, “I’ll drive myself crazy if it’s just basketball, basketball, basketball.” Now, he just wants to be there for his young kids, Damian Jr., and twins Kali and Kalii.
“Eventually, things slow down,” he continues. “Other players will come along and they won’t talk about me. Even when they mention me about whatever record, that’ll be it. We should be consumed by it because it’s what we get paid to do and what we love to do, but it goes. Your family, and the people you love and care about, that never goes. That’s permanent.”
Of course, there’s a certain corner of fans who don’t think about how much goes into a trade—besides the jersey colors, however they land. Another well-meaning faction of hoops loyalists want to see Lillard succeed because they love him. And sometimes that love can blind them to what he’s been trying to accomplish in Portland. Lillard’s family is there, and if you’ve been listening to him talk over the years, there’s nothing more important in his life. All of that? It’s uprooted when you move cities. “I was just at my son’s Pre-K graduation, and I’m thinking, That’s my son, I had him,” Lillard says. “I’m in the house with him every day, and I raised him. It’s a different thing when you sit back and think about what you brought to life. Not just your kids, but the things I participate in and bring to life with my own success.”
Another hard truth: Only one team out of 30 wins the championship every year. As Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo stated after getting eliminated from the playoffs last month: “Every year you work towards something. To get a promotion, be able to take care of your family… It’s not a failure. It’s steps to success.”
For Lillard, success is how you’ve been able to maximize your time in the NBA. For all the humble talk about how the basketball world won’t be focused on his three-point record or scoring acumen once he’s left the game, Dame still had his best season last year, statistically, and he’s showing no signs of stopping. He averaged an insane 32.2 points over 58 games played, even putting down a career-high 71-point game against the Houston Rockets this past February.
While other NBA stars have gone on to form super-teams, he’s still trying to win his way. And yet, despite showing no signs of wanting to leave, Lillard is the talk of the town once again. The Miami Heat are reportedly “keeping an eye on Lillard’s situation in Portland,” which, if you ask Lillard himself, hasn’t changed in the slightest. Just this past week, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst stated on Get Up that he’s, “checked in on the Lillard side of things, about whether or not there had been a change of heart there, and I was told, unequivocally, ‘No.'” There you go.
“It’s hard to wrap your head around it because it’s uncommon,” Lillard says about his decade-long loyalty to the Blazers. “A person from anywhere can say something on Twitter and it ends up on First Take the next morning. But because of the attention that comes with that, and the criticism, it just makes it hard to keep believing what you believe. So many people are trying to convince you that you’re crazy, or you’re wrong… saying, This is what you should do. It becomes harder to even believe in what you’re doing, and in yourself. Especially when you become one of the only ones who believe it. That makes it tough.”
In the meantime, Lillard does the only thing he can: use the offseason to get his mind off basketball. He’s curating an upcoming Modelo Summer Bucket Sweepstakes, which offers a chance for fans to interact with their basketball hero and win prizes, including a pair of autographed sneakers. It’s all a part of a mindful retreat from the cyclical nature of sports media—and a way to give back some of that love to his fans.
“It’s just one of the things I do to balance myself out,” Lillard says. “I also do music and I box. The summer is the time for it. When I’m playing basketball, I’m not spending as much time with my kids, seeing my family, being in my neighborhood and doing barbecues, giving out shoes and school supplies. The summer is the time to really dive into the things that you’re passionate about.”
If Lillard has it his way, he’ll be back in Portland, for the first game of the season, in October 2023—with that same drive to win. But when Lillard does eventually step off court for good? “[I want to] be remembered for being the ultimate example,” he says.
So, long into the NBA’s future, when a team enters the draft and begins their search for a prospect, he hopes they have him in mind. “I want them to say that Dame was the perfect example,” he continues. “I wasn’t the biggest name, but I came in from Day One and I was productive. I’ve been a good teammate, and I represent the fighting spirit. I do things the right way, and I treat people the right way. We’ve won a lot of games, and hopefully we’ll win a championship. But everything I’ve done and who I am, it does represent the ultimate example that I think people in the league—and in sports period—would say that, if we get this, we’ve made a great decision.”
Josh Rosenberg is an Assistant Editor at Esquire, keeping a steady diet of one movie a day. His past work can be found at Spin, CBR, and on his personal blog at Roseandblog.com.