Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard spoke to Yahoo Sports in his first interview since it was announced he’d be sidelined for the remainder of the 2021-22 season to continue rehabbing from abdominal surgery he underwent in January.
The six-time All-Star revealed how he feels physically, what he learned during the rehab process, why he believes we haven’t seen the best of him, what Portland needs to do in the critical offseason to contend for a title, his personal and collective goals and the impact family has had in his recovery.
Chris Haynes: Tell me about your rehab process and where you’re at. This is obviously something you’ve never experienced in the NBA, having to sit out an extended period of time due to an injury. How has it been?
Damian Lillard: “It’s been cool, bro. I knew it was going be a hurdle to just get used to not playing and traveling, and being in the mix. And once I kind of came to peace with that, which took like a month, I just threw myself into the rehab process and the, the areas I could grow and the things that I could put my energy into. That helped me a lot to this point. I haven’t had a chance in 10 years to take a step back and let my mind relax and to let my body fully recover and relax and have a true opportunity to ramp up and train and start back with my foundation, who I am as a player and spend time with my family, my kids and my wife. So, I feel strong, mentally and physically. I still got six, seven months before next season. I feel great. I love the opportunities that I’ve had through this injury because there were a lot of positives that came from a negative situation. Now, it’s just a matter of balancing these next six or seven months and making sure I’m not burning myself out from training or burning myself out from trying to ramp up. It’s just cruising the rest of the way.”
CH: You’ve dealt with that pain in your abdominal the last two or three years. Does that pain exist now?
DL: “No. It’s the first time that I can say I was pain-free since maybe 2016, 2017. I think that’s when I first started having issues. That was the last time I was probably moving freely, easily and just flowing the way I am right now. It’s a good feeling working out the other day and the coaching staff kept asking what I was thinking about because I had a smile on my face. I was just like, ‘Damn, I got so used to playing with that pain that I didn’t realize how limited I was and how much I was just catering to playing around it.’ So, I’m definitely excited to be playing at 100 percent right now and playing free.”
CH: You accomplished amazing feats during that period of dealing with that pain. What does that say about you?
DL: “I’m not saying I’m going to be a thousand times better than what I was because I had some great seasons while dealing with it. I just think it just shows if anything, how strong the mind is and the fact that I was able to still be the level of player that I’ve been over these last three or four years. I’ve been able to block out the physical part and the issues I was having. And to get the procedure done now, it was going to be a lot less stress going into games wondering how it’s going respond and if it’s going lock up on me, or if I’m going to feel stiff and slow. Going into games just knowing I’m healthy and I’m not going to have to deal with it, that factor alone is good enough for me. So, I’m excited about that.”
CH: Did you miss the competition of the game? Has it been hard being away?
DL: “I got off social media for a little bit just for my own peace of mind. I wanted to at least give myself a chance to miss the game. I actually was telling one of our coaches last night on the bench at our game that I’m finally starting to get that feeling of, damn, I miss playing and being a part of the action. That excitement to play and wanting to be on the court came back. That feeling has been coming back recently. It’s not that I never wanted to play, but it’s that itch to just get back out there and do something.”
CH: Oftentimes, when a star player is absent an extended period, people tend to forget about them. And then there are other emerging stars who are anointed. Is there an eagerness to get back out there and remind those that you’re still one of the best point guards in the league?
DL: “I don’t even take that much of it into consideration. I think there’s always going to be a recency bias. This league is always about what have you done for me lately? There are guys that are going to have big games in big stretches and people are going to act like it’s the best thing in the world. I might have been somebody who benefited from that in the past. That’s just a part of the game. But I’m not looking at it like, ‘They’re going remember me.’ I just made the 75th Anniversary Team. That’s all the validation that I would need. My resume and who I am speaks for itself. I know that the best days for me have yet to come. So, I’m not looking at it like I got to come back and make them remember me. I know who I am. I know what I do. And when I get back on the floor, you know, that’s gonna be that. I don’t think it has to be some big message that I’m coming back to send. We’re in the NBA, great players come along and people find themselves getting the credit they deserve based on performance. But that really don’t have anything to do with me because once I get on the court, I am who I am and I do what I do and people will respect my game when they see me on the court. Right now, I haven’t been on the court. So it’s out of sight, out of mind. I understand that’s how fans and media feel.”
CH: What stood out to me is you said your best is yet to come. Looking at your situation in Portland, do you feel like your best is yet to come personally, or collectively with the Trail Blazers?
DL: “I think personally my best is yet to come 100 percent. Like I said, this is my first time being able to take a step back and just fully address my development. Over the course of my career, there have always been things that I’ve wanted to correct or get better at, but maybe I had a long season and went into the playoffs and then we had a quick turnaround. Whatever the case may be, I never had this much time to fully break down my game and really challenge myself development-wise. Working on things that I’m not comfortable with all the time, things that other guys at my position do really well. I’ve had a window of time and opportunity to add to my game and to watch film with my coaches and trainers to really address those things that a lot of times might be uncomfortable. Since I had my surgery in January, I’ll have around 10 months before the start of next season. So me having that amount of time to look in the mirror to address these things and get my body right, we’ll get the most out of it and I’ll be the best version of myself individually. And I also think we’ve taken some steps back as an organization, obviously with the moves that we’ve made [at the trade deadline]. But we’ve also positioned ourselves to do something that we haven’t been able to do since I’ve been here, which is we’ve opened up money, we got picks, we got a $22 million trade exception, we got a $6 million trade exception, we got the full mid-level, we got the biannual. We have an opportunity, and we got flexibility. There are guys we can bring in that can make us a team that can compete for a championship, but we have to execute that.”
CH: Are you confident that this iteration of what many would deem a “rebuild” will not extend into next season?
DL: “I don’t see any way that, where we are right now is even possible to be in this place next season. I just don’t see that happening. There’s no way.”
CH: A championship in Portland is still your desire?
DL: “That’s the only thing I care about, honestly. It seems like after I announced that I was having surgery, people were like, ‘Oh, he’s 31 and having this done.’ Man, 31 is not old. They act like you’re old when we have guys around the league older than me that are still playing at a high level. Also, my game is not based on me playing above the rim. I’m a sniper. I shoot. I got a good step. I can think the game. I can manipulate the game, and I know how to play. My game will age well, and I don’t have a history of injuries. And the one that I just had is not a bad injury to have. I’m going to come back and be fine. Like I said, my best is yet to come. And the only things that I play for at this point is I want to be the MVP of the league and I want to win the championship. And once I do those things, I feel great about the investment that I made to this game over my whole life. If I accomplish those two things, I’m walking away feeling like I literally got the most out of myself as an athlete.”
CH: How critical is the offseason for the franchise?
DL: “Most definitely. I don’t think we’re in a situation where it’s like, we have to win the championship next year, or it’s a failure, but we just need to position ourselves to compete for the championship and also to where we can continue to build in that direction. I think this is definitely critical, [a] critical summer where we have to capitalize.”
CH: What did you learn about yourself as a man, not a player, during this time away from the game?
DL: “I think it’s documented how much of a family person I am, but I think when this is what you do when you’re traveling and you hoop and you get immune to spending that time away from your family. But having the time to sit still and waking up every day and seeing my kids in the morning before I leave. Just going to rehab and getting on the court and being able to go on dinner dates with my wife. Attending a Raiders game with my wife, going to the Super Bowl. I went to Cabo with all my kids and my wife and stayed on the resort for a week. I’ve been able to just be a family man. I’ve been able to go out to dinner with my mom and go to dinner with my sister and go to high school basketball games. I’ve been able to realize just how much I’ve missed. Those precious moments with my wife. I’ve been able to date her. You get so used to being just partners. When I would I come home off the road, she would be like, ‘Let’s go watch a movie. Let’s get dinner to kind of catch [up].’ But this is my wife. So we’ve been doing random things together and it’s been fun. My family is the No. 1 thing to me. That fills me up, and I have better days going to rehab. And then I come back home before my kids go to sleep. My son is laying in the bed with me and my wife. We’re watching TV, he’s on his iPad. I wake up the next day and I feel better. So, I realized this is really good for me. This makes me happy. This makes me feel stronger. I’m more full. My wife and kids contributed a lot to how strong I did in rehab. I would attack rehab happy. I just had a positive attitude. I used this time to connect with my family, and it has been one of the best experiences.”