KIDD. PAYTON. SHAW. AND NOW DAMIAN LILLARD. OAKLAND HAS BEEN TURNING OUT GREAT, GRITTY POINT GUARDS FOR YEARS, AND THE LATEST ONE HAS THE NBA'S MOST SURPRISING TEAM—THE TRAIL BLAZERS—PLAYING LIKE CONTENDERS FOR THE FIRST TIME IN DECADES
This is an article from the Jan. 20, 2014 issue
In the spring of 1977 the Portland Trail Blazers won the NBA Finals and the Fremont High Tigers won the Tournament of Champions; and basketball on the West Coast was never to be the same. The TOC capped every hoops season by pitting the winners of the most respected leagues in Northern California against one another. The final, played at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, typically drew more than 18,000 fans. Sitting in the bleachers that March was 10-year-old Brian Shaw. He and his father, Charles, had come to see Fremont, with its Oakland Athletic League title and 22--1 record, face St. Joseph Notre Dame, a private-school juggernaut from neighboring Alameda. Fremont pummeled St. Joseph 61--38 behind 21 points from star forward Phil Barner. But Brian Shaw was more intrigued by Fremont's sixth man, a pass-first point guard and defensive ace named Lester Conner. "He was the inspiration," Shaw says.
Ignored by virtually every major program, Conner enrolled at two junior colleges, transferred to Oregon State, led the Beavers to a No. 1 ranking and was picked by the Warriors in the first round in 1982. By then Shaw played for vaunted Bishop O'Dowd High in Oakland. In '83, O'Dowd reached the state championship game, but, Shaw, like Conner, was the sixth man. Like Conner, Shaw would also become a first-round pick, in 1988, and he introduced a new breed of ballhandler to the NBA: "The Oakland point guard," says Tony Ronzone, the Mavericks' director of personnel who ran point at O'Dowd ahead of Shaw. "Tough, confident, creative, fearless. I know everybody talks about New York point guards, but look at the size of Oakland and look at who came from there."
Oakland's population is only 400,000, and it takes 10 minutes to drive across, so most of its floor generals were reared on the same blacktop. They gathered at Mosswood Park and Rainbow Recreation Center and a carpet warehouse by the Coliseum with baskets hanging from forklifts. Shaw played CYO games against Gary Payton. Payton played pickup games against Jason Kidd. All three shared a backcourt on a summer pro-am team. "You're intimidated because you walk in the gym and you can hear someone talking or growling," Kidd says. "That would be Gary. So you're wondering, What are you really getting yourself into?"
Oakland point guards were mentored by Payton's father, Al, who was nicknamed Mr. Mean and ran an AAU program called We Are Family. They were awed by Demetrius (Hook) Mitchell, who they insist was the best of all, even though he was just 5'9" and never advanced past junior college. Mitchell once leaped over Kidd in a dunk contest. He jammed on 7'7" Manute Bol. He pulled off 360 reverses over cars. Drug dealers paid him a gram of cocaine for high school slams. He snorted the lines at halftime. If Shaw was the role model, Hook was the cautionary tale.
In 1990, the year Payton was drafted No. 2 by the Seattle SuperSonics and Kidd led St. Joseph to the state championship, Damian Lillard was born into the cradle of the crossover.
He learned to shoot on a milk crate attached to a telephone pole outside his grandmother's house. His AAU team practiced in an abandoned gym with wooden backboards. In middle school he played in a cafeteria where high-arching jumpers scraped the ceiling and a vending machine occupied one corner. He attended three high schools and was a two-star recruit who wound up at Weber State, as overlooked as Conner and Shaw, before the Trail Blazers took him sixth in the 2012 draft.
"He plays like the rest of us did, with that little swagger and that complete calm," Payton says. "He doesn't get rattled. That quality comes from Oakland, from the neighborhoods, from going into other gyms and getting challenged."
Lillard is the product of a different time—more of a sniper than his predecessors, less of a stopper—but the same hard-bitten place. "You learn the history, and you learn that Oakland carries weight," he says. "It means you don't get scared. You want to play one-on-one? We can do that. You want to fight after a game at the park with your cousins? I guess we can do that too."
He wears number 0, which he considers an O, for his hometown. He talks in reverential tones about the first time he met Payton, at Jerry's Beefburgers in San Leandro when he was 13; about Kidd telling him, "We're passing the torch to you"; and about a pickup game at Tassafaronga Recreation Center a month before he was drafted, when he was confronted by the city's 5'9" sasquatch: Hook, still battling addiction, was out of jail. "He played me really hard," Lillard recalls. "It felt like Hook was telling me, 'You're the next one representing Oakland. Let me see what you got.' " Lillard passed the initiation.
"He is an incredibly humble kid from a good family," says Portland GM Neil Olshey. "He has a small-school sensibility and is active in the community. But the moment he steps on the court, he is a point guard from Oakland who will rip out your heart to win a game." When the Blazers trail deep in the fourth quarter and Lillard's expression turns to a snarl, forward Dorell Wright often asks, "You good, man?" Lillard fixes him with a hard stare. "No, I ain't good," he replies. "This stops here."
He sucks 10 deep breaths, a brief meditation, to calm himself. He pounds the ball. He sets the jaw. Oakland draws a line back to 1977. So does Portland.
IT IS the second night in January, the NBA's third-best defense is in town, and the Blazers still can't miss. They score 70 points in the first half and sink 10 threes. In the visitors' locker room at halftime, the Bobcats tell themselves that Portland won't be able to maintain this pace. They're right—sort of. The Blazers finish with 134 points but match a club record with 21 threes. Lillard drills all six of his.
"A lot of teams around the league nowadays love to shoot 'em," Charlotte guard Chris Douglas-Roberts says. "These guys make 'em." The Blazers score the most points per game in the NBA because they drain the most threes at the highest rate. Their roster is stocked with marksmen, yet that's only one reason they don't miss. Of their 21 treys against the Bobcats, 18 were assisted. Every possession is hot potato, the ball barely touching the ground. "I've been in the NBA 13 years, and this is the first place where I've never heard anybody complain about shots," says backup point guard Earl Watson. "Things are going on here that don't happen anywhere else—things that are against the laws of sports."
Portland finished 11th in the conference last season and seemed to accomplish nothing of significance in the summer. But the Blazers are eye-to-eye with the Spurs and the Thunder atop the West. "This is not the normal way things go," says Bob Gross, a former Blazers forward who watched Portland's demolition of Charlotte from a suite at Moda Center. "But it wasn't how they went for us either."
In 1975--76, Gross was a rookie forward for the Blazers, who finished last in the Pacific Division. A year later, under new coach Jack Ramsay, they won the title. "The '77 Blazers epitomized team basketball," says Portland coach Terry Stotts, who keeps a black-and-white photograph of Ramsay, taking a champagne shower, behind his desk at the practice facility. "They shared the ball. They were fun to watch. There have been a few teams in the history of the NBA that made me think, That's the way to play. The '77 team is one of them."
Another was the 2010--11 Mavericks, who weren't the league's most talented team but worked for the open three. A Dallas assistant that season, Stotts believed a similar system could hum in Portland, but instead of Kidd at the point, Stotts inherited a rookie, Lillard. "It took a year to get everything in place," small forward Nicolas Batum says. "But you could see the organization was on the right track." The Blazers completed a $4 million remodeling of their practice facility that produced a new locker room, dining room, massage room, barbershop and 30-seat theater. They overhauled their strength and training staffs. Dove bars and chocolate chip cookies, which used to be standard fare on flights, were replaced with baked chicken and brown rice. Coincidence or not, no Blazers starter has missed a game this season. "This is Portland," says Batum, slamming the side of his locker. "You have to knock on wood."
The acquisition of center Robin Lopez allows LaMarcus Aldridge to finally match up against power forwards, and he has blossomed into an MVP candidate. But Aldridge was a known commodity. The Blazers needed a second headliner to emerge. Lillard, averaging 21.4 points and shooting 44.3% from three, is becoming the NBA's next cold-blooded closer. He hit a game-winner against the Suns in November, another against the Pistons on Dec. 15 and yet another against the Cavs two nights later. He set a franchise record with 26 fourth-quarter points in a furious comeback attempt at Sacramento. "The torch is in good hands," Kidd says.
"Basketball is confidence," Payton adds. "And I've never seen a kid this young with this much confidence. You can see how it's rubbed off. Aldridge has it now. Batum has it." In situations defined by the NBA as clutch—last five minutes, neither team ahead by more than five points—Portland is an NBA-best +51.
The Blazers take their cues from Lillard on both ends of the floor. They rank 26th in points allowed, causing concern about the sustainability of their success. "He's not where he needs to be defensively," says Payton. "But he calls to ask what he's doing wrong."
On the bench Watson regales Lillard with the promise of All-Star selections and accolades, but Lillard shakes his head as if a fly has invaded the air space. "He doesn't want to think of himself that way," Watson says. "He still wants to think of himself as a two-star from Weber State. I played with GP and against J-Kidd, and those guys all have that Oak edge. Dame is afraid to lose it."
WHY DO so many great receivers come from South Florida, pitchers from Texas, goal scorers from Minnesota? One person shows what is possible, like Lester Conner, a generation follows and an infrastructure grows. In 1987, the year after Payton left for Oregon State, an Oakland point guard who played at Sacramento State came home and launched an AAU program called the Rebels. "We never got a lot of big kids [in Oakland], so everybody wanted to be a point guard: handle the ball, distribute the ball and attack the rim," says Melvin Landry. Three years later a rival AAU program was established, called the Soldiers. They would become renowned for Nike-issued uniforms, ESPN appearances and flying in prodigies: LeBron James, Chauncey Billups and Brandon Jennings were all Soldiers. Lillard decided in fourth grade he was a Rebel.
The Rebels run contrary to every coddled AAU stereotype. Lillard's coach, Raymond Young, was a custodian at Berkeley Adult School who had keys to the West Campus gym. The place had a leaky roof and no heat or air conditioning. It was perfect for Rebels practices. Players watered down the unvarnished court so they wouldn't slip. Young drove a green pickup truck stocked with bricks he collected doing yard work, and when the Rebels slacked off, he would holler, "Brick time!" Defending to Young's standards was exhausting enough. Doing it with a brick in each hand was mild torture. "Damian didn't fit the mold of what we were accustomed to here," Young says. "He could score, but he was lazy." Young informed Lillard in the summer after eighth grade that he would be cut if he didn't play harder.
"Oakland is not New York, it's not Southern California," says Phil Beckner, an assistant coach at Weber State who helped recruit Lillard. "Point guards there have to scratch, or they will get left by the wayside. You can't break those guys."
Between Kidd, who was drafted No. 2 by the Mavs in 1994, and Lillard, Oakland did not yield an NBA point guard of consequence. "It fell off tremendously," says Lou Richie, a former O'Dowd point guard who played at UCLA and Clemson. Richie and Tony Freccero are codirectors of a basketball training program called Triple Threat Academy, which tutors children as young as four and was founded in 2003. That winter Freccero took out a classified ad in the San Leandro Daily Review, in hopes of drawing kids to the inaugural Christmas camp. Lillard, 13 and 5'2", saw the ad. He was one of 50 kids who showed up at Assumption Catholic School.
Now, according to Freccero, Triple Threat works with 100 players a day in three gyms around Northern California. The Bay Area boasted three McDonald's All-Americans last season plus returning standouts such as Arizona's Brandon Ashley, Oregon's Dominic Artis and Missouri's Jabari Brown. "The talent level in Oakland today is probably higher than it's ever been," Freccero says. "They play all positions, but you keep hearing, 'Who's the next point guard from Oakland? Who's the next one?' "
They still pick between the Rebels and the Soldiers. They still hang out at Mr. Mean's house, jumping on the Super Cat machine in his backyard to enhance their vertical leaps. They still gather at Tassafaronga. Richie is the coach at O'Dowd, arguably the best high school team in NorCal, and Freccero is an assistant. O'Dowd starts two point guards, Paris Austin and Juwan Anderson, because it can be no other way. Its power forward, Ivan Rabb, widely considered the best junior in the country, used to live across the street from Lillard. "He may not remember that," Rabb says. Lillard remembers.
"Everybody has their own confidence," Austin says. "I don't live in a good area. I don't have a rich family. I've been shorter than everybody. But I have heart, and I believe I can do what I desire." No one wants to miss another Lillard.
The NBA is full of Oakland point guards, even if they don't play. They work for the Mavericks, Jazz, Clippers and 76ers as trainers, executives, video guys. Kidd is the coach in Brooklyn. Shaw is the coach in Denver. Two of his assistants are Oakland point guards. One is Conner. "If I could have a staff of all Oakland point guards," Shaw cracks, "I probably would." Denver hosted Portland in the second game of the season, and midway through the second quarter the Blazers led by three and Lillard was scoreless. Over the next two minutes he poured in 11 points, on a step-back three at the top of the circle, a three around a screen on the right wing, a baseline layup over two defenders and a frenetic drive from the half-court line to the hoop. Denver never threatened again. Portland lost once in the following three weeks.
All that Shaw could do was look down the Nuggets' bench and shake his head at what they'd started.
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