Sports

Damian Lillard Is the Coolest Player in the NBA

Damian Lillard.
Damian Lillard.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images.

If you are like me, you have been watching the clip of Damian Lillard’s ridiculous, series-ending 3-pointer against Oklahoma City on a loop since last week. Everything about it is amazing, but it was on about my 12,551st viewing that I realized what, exactly, makes it such a perfect highlight. When the backboard’s buzzer light illuminates, precisely one-half of the ball is inside the hoop while the other half is still above the rim’s invisible plane. It’s a perfectly balanced buzzer-beater. Lillard couldn’t have framed it any better if he were illustrating a Game 5 comic book.

I’m not positive that Lillard intentionally timed his 37-foot dagger to create this type of symmetry, but with him you need to be open to the possibility. The man is extremely measured and absurdly cool. While everyone else in the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon, was busy losing their minds, Lillard celebrated his series winner by simply waving “bye-bye” to the Thunder.

The man kept calm even while being tackled to the ground by nearly a metric ton’s worth of teammates.

I am not an arbiter of coolness. I drive a Subaru and have a pair of “gardening shoes,” for Pete’s sake. I say things like “Pete’s sake,” for Pete’s sake, but it’s obvious even to me that Damian Lillard is the coolest player in the NBA. Who else could score 50 points while hitting a series-clinching buzzer-beater and act like it’s no big deal? At that point you’d imagine his adrenal glands and nervous system would take the wheel and prompt just a tremor of excitement, but Lillard is apparently cool even at the cellular level.

Take this excerpt from an article by Yahoo’s Chris Haynes, which was published shortly after the Game 5 buzzer-beater and describes Lillard’s preparations ahead of the career-defining contest.

Damian Lillard invited a few people to his home for dinner on Monday night to watch Game 4 of the first-round series between the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets.

For several minutes, the Portland Trail Blazers’ star guard sat quietly on his sofa, chowing down on fried catfish, red beans and rice, and broccoli. And then suddenly, he spoke: “I’m getting rid of these motherfuckers tomorrow.”

Goodness gracious. We’ve all made bold claims while watching TV and eating beans, but Lillard is cool enough to actually follow through on his promises. His assertion that he would be “getting rid of these motherfuckers” and his wave “bye-bye” could be interpreted as boorish bravado—which is rather uncool—but Oklahoma City’s players had been goading the Portland guard all series. After hitting a jumper on Lillard in the third quarter of Game 3, Thunder star Russell Westbrook “rocked the baby” and bellowed to the home crowd that Lillard was “too small” to guard him. Westbrook did this again later during the game to really rub it in.

All this occurred in the one game of the series that Oklahoma City actually won. For the four other meetings, Lillard calmly put his opponents in a blender. “I’m not even paying attention to it,” Lillard told Haynes about Westbrook’s attempts to get under his skin. “But when I do see it, that’s cool. He does it every game, so it doesn’t bother me. I don’t celebrate in someone’s face and try to disrespect my opponent. … I’m not going to say some wild shit. I think with him, he’s pounding his chest and talking shit and that’s what gets him going. That’s the difference between us.” By humiliating the Thunder on national television with an audacious game-winner, Lillard had the final word in that dispute. It just so happened to be his first word too.

Damian Lillard calmly waves goodbye to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Damian Lillard calmly waves goodbye to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday in Portland.
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Lillard’s buzzer-beater was the kind of transcendent moment that elevates an athlete to a level of fame beyond his sport. Fittingly, it was his reaction that put the highlight over the edge, and the broader public is now hip to what basketball fans have known since he was a rookie: Lillard is a cool dude. And, like fellow cool dude Dylan McKay from 90210, he entered the fray with an air of mystery and a relatively cloudy past.

Lillard joined the NBA as much an unknown quantity as a lottery pick can be. Few colleges acknowledged his existence during high school, which led him to enroll for four years at Weber State. Weber, as you may know, is not a state. The school is located in Ogden, Utah, and its hoops program isn’t exactly storied. When he was selected sixth overall by Portland in 2012, Lillard became just the eighth Weber State player to make the NBA. He’s the only Wildcat to average more than 4 points per game in the pros. This is why Lillard is almost always in a position to punch up, even now.

Lillard has somehow managed to be cool since his very first game in the pros. After recording 23 points and 11 assists in his NBA debut in 2012, he made it clear that the moment wasn’t too big for him. “I felt real comfortable,” he told reporters. “It’s a lot easier when [LaMarcus Aldridge] is making shots, Wes [Matthews] is making shots, and Nic [Batum] is making shots. I gotta give credit to them, they made shots, and it made it easier for me.” After becoming just the third rookie in NBA history to notch a 20 and 10 in his debut, Lillard deflected praise onto his teammates while simultaneously inferring that professional basketball is rather easy. Damn, that’s cool.

None of the teammates he credited for helping him during that first NBA game are still with the Blazers, but Lillard’s balanced perspective in terms of handling pressure and success hasn’t wavered throughout his career. A Lillard quote from a 2017 Sporting News interview has been making the rounds on Twitter since last week’s buzzer-beater, and it’s synoptic to the point of being literary.

Pressure, nah. Fam, this is just playing ball. Pressure is the homeless man, who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. Pressure is the single mom, who is trying to scuffle and pay her rent. We get paid a lot of money to play a game. Don’t get me wrong—there are challenges. But to call it pressure is almost an insult to regular people.

Throughout Lillard’s career, I can find only a few things that could be described as “uncool.” Despite putting up career numbers in 2016 and 2017, Lillard failed to make the All-Star team in either of those seasons, and he complained about the snubs to the media. That’s not too cool! However, in doing this, Lillard framed the matter with uncommon self-awareness. “I try to speak on that stuff to a minimum because I don’t want to look too sensitive,” he told ESPN at the time. “My issue is, when I see something is wrong, I have to [address it], so it comes off as sensitive or overly bothered. I might be a little bit bothered, but it really ain’t that deep.”

Heightened self-awareness may lead to risk aversion, but there’s no evidence of Lillard succumbing to fear in any regard. Sure, postseason crunch time is tense, but Lillard took real risks when he released two hip-hop mixtapes. It almost never goes well when athletes pursue rap careers, but Lillard’s music isn’t awful. Given the curve, that’s as impressive an accomplishment as hitting a 37-foot playoff game-winner.

There is nothing left for Lillard to do to prove his coolness. Winning an NBA championship might be superfluous at this point, but it certainly won’t make him any less cool. As such, he has the green light from me, a Subaru-driving amateur gardener, to go for it.