“I stood over his body. People don’t know what type of trauma that is.”: Lillard’s mental battle to stay on the court after 18 months of trauma

Blazers’ guard Damian Lillard is getting ready to suit up for the All Star game tonight after yet another stellar season. He is at the peak of his powers, challenging Steph Curry’s title of best point guard in the league.

But for the past 18 months, all of that has been on the back burner for Lillard.

It seemed to reach its boiling point last week, when the Trail Blazers were in Los Angeles, when Damian Lillard didn’t know if he could play against the Lakers.

His body was fine. His mind was not.

“I thought about (not playing), because mentally I was like … I don’t want to say I didn’t care, because I did care,” Lillard said. “But emotionally, I was like, whatever.”

You may not know it but Lillard has been fighting demons after a wave of family tragedies. His emotions had been worn thin because, in the past 18 months, it seemed like he had lived a lifetime.

In 2020, he was the first to discover the dead body of his cousin and personal chef. An aunt died from cancer. A family friend died of COVID-19. And in the early months of 2021, a cousin was killed in West Oakland.

Just before the game against the Lakers a week ago, Lillard learned of the the shooting deaths of two people in his inner circle. One was a cousin close enough to Lillard to be at his family’s Thanksgiving dinner in Portland in November. The other was like family — the best friend of perhaps his closest cousin, who was among the first family members to move to Portland when Lillard was drafted by the Trail Blazers in 2012.

“I could be 45,” said the 30-year-old Lillard. “I’ve done seen and been around so much.”

But Lillard did go out and play that game against the Lakers, to the tune of 35 points and seven assists. His play has once again lifted a depleted Trail Blazers team who needs him night in and night out to remain in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture.

And that is a tough place Lillard finds himself in, to be solely relied on for an entire locker room, an entire franchise, an entire fan base. Not because he can’t hold his weight on the court, but because all that has chipped away at his mental in recent months.

He is hurting. His family is hurting. And every night the Blazers take the court, he is trying to summon the courage and understanding to keep playing.

“It’s been a hard year and a half for my family, man,” Lillard said. “People have no idea.”

The events of the past 18 months have taught him about the fragility of life, the pain of death and the importance of family. And it has driven home the reality that even though he is among the wealthiest and most recognizable NBA athletes, that fame and fortune doesn’t shield him from the violent realities so often played out in his hometown.

It all has come to a head within the past week — the weight of his past, the pain of his present and the responsibility in his future — and has led to him confronting the age-old question that at some point faces us all:

“What really matters in life, you know?” Lillard asked. “When you consider that, and when you consider what your family is going through … it’s a battle mentally to put yourself in that place where this game is the most important thing right now.”

Yet even through all of that, like clock work, or should I say Dame-time, he keeps playing. He keeps leading. And he keeps excelling.

But he would be lying if he said it’s been easy.

“Not like I’m physically tired, but where I’m emotionally drained,” Lillard said.

He is drained not only because of last week’s shooting deaths, but because of the strain his family has been under after absorbing so much loss within the past 18 months.

As he processed his emotions, he by nature started to think about others. His family. His teammates. And his responsibilities to both.

“I have to put those emotions to the side to care about the game and make sure I’m here for my teammates, and to do my job, because my job takes care of a lot of my family. It does a lot of things for people in my family,” Lillard said. “I think understanding that is what helps me kind of push forward.”

He doesn’t view it as a sacrifice — having to compose himself and perform while holding his pain — because he credits his family for shaping him and guiding him to the person and place he is today. By performing at a high level, it is somewhat of a payback.

“I know that my success makes them happy,” Lillard said. “Every game we play, my whole entire family is at home watching. They don’t miss a game. I know that does something positive for them, and that it means something to them, and that’s a major part of our happiness as a family and us being able to continue forward and stay together.”

And when he is on the hardwood floor whether it be in Portland or on the road, Lillard compartmentalize his personal life and his professional life. He almost feels like he owes it to both his family and his teammates.

“When we play, it’s like, well, right now this is the most important thing,” Lillard said. “I will handle everything else, and I will get back to everything else, after that. That’s where I’ve been. Each game I go into the game and I say ‘This is the most important thing right now. This is what I have to do.’ And that’s just how I’ve been carrying it.”

And if you know anything about Lillard’s demeanor then you know this approach is right up his ally, even though it is difficult.

In 2019 he was quoted saying “I’m not an emotional person.”

But then 2020 and 2021 happened.

The day he checked in on the Portland-area home of his cousin and personal chef, Brandon Johnson, and found him dead on the kitchen floor, he changed.

“I stood over his body, man. Like, he was dead. Minutes. I’m standing over his body,” Lillard said. “People don’t know what type of trauma that is, and what that is to have somebody that close to you laid out and you stand over him. Like, I still struggle with that. You know what I mean? Like, I still struggle with that. That’s a battle for me.”

That morning, Lillard called teammate CJ McCollum, who was also close to Johnson, and when McCollum arrived, the two cried together in the kitchen.

“I was hurt by that,” Lillard said. “I cried a lot. Just hurt … I was with B every day, and in the summers when I would travel to train, he would come and make sure I was eating right. I was with him every day. Talked with him every day. Sat there with him every day. So that one just had me hurt. To this day.”

The emotional toll has reminded Lillard of a lesson engrained by Phil Beckner, his former college assistant coach and current trainer. Beckner observed how much Lillard pours into those around him, and worried that he would eventually be drained. His message was that Lillard needed to let others pour into him.

One way he has been replenished is by family Zoom calls during the pandemic.

“It hasn’t been all the time, but since we’ve been dealing with stuff the last year or so we’ve been checking in with each other, praying over each other, and telling each other we love each other,” Lillard said. “I think stuff like that is what has been helping me just be OK, you know?”

At this point in a regular season mind would be on solving the relentless traps and double teams opponents are sending his way, or how he could lift one of his teammates to heights they never imagined. But instead, he finds himself surrounded by sorrow and pain, and the realization that little, if anything, can make it feel better.

He’s done a lot of reflecting as a result. Reflecting on the past, his present, and what the future may hold. In January, he and his fiancee, Kay’La, welcomed twins — son Kalii and daughter Kali. They join 2 1/2-year-old son, Damian Jr. But of course those thoughts circled back to the loss he’s suffered.

“Two come in … couple go out,” Lillard said.

All of this true pain and hurt is why all the “basketball hot takes” have irritated him in recent months.

“I’ll say this — it’s been bittersweet for me the last year and a half,” Lillard said. “A lot of people don’t know, because I don’t seek sympathy, I don’t make excuses. I just show up. It’s like, you get on Twitter and people have so much to say. And when I post on Instagram, people have soooo much to say. ‘You didn’t do this’ … ‘Your team is never going to win a championship’ … you know, everybody just got so much negative shit to say. And I’m just looking at it like, I’m coming out here to practice every day, I show up for my team every damn game. I don’t make excuses. I just do stuff the right way. And I perform. I show up. If shit goes bad, I don’t shy away from it. I say, ‘My bad. I wasn’t good enough.’ When shit goes well, I don’t say it was all me. And that’s not just me trying to do the right thing. I say how I feel about stuff and how I see these situations.

“I think there’s a lot of people who don’t take into consideration that we have lives, too,” Lillard said.

It angers him more than it hurts him, and it angers him because he is hurt. He feels pain just like we do. All the money he has earned and all the fame that has followed him throughout his career is not enough to insulate him from the real-world realities of his hometown of Oakland, and his Brookfield neighborhood.

“They think because I make money and people know who I am, and that I play in the NBA, they think that’s just it. But it’s been a hard year-and-a-half, man. Trying to keep my mind right, keep my mind clear, and staying present with my kids and family …”

It’s a snapshot into the fury that at times can rage inside of Lillard, and a glimpse at the scars the past 18 months have left.

It’s all a reflection of what has become the most trying and emotional stretch of his life. And yet, he finds a reason to play. A reason to excel. His reason is family.

“Dad, let’s go downstairs. Dad, let’s watch TV. Dad, play dinosaur. Over and over. it just brought me happiness, that he (Damian Jr.) was calling me ‘Dad’ over and over.”

“And when I’m holding the twins and feeding them, just knowing they belong to me, and that one day they are going to feel as strongly about me as Junior?” Lillard said. “It helps things a lot when you come home to that.”

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