NBA star Damian Lillard believes the children growing up in his “rough” hometown neighborhood in Oakland are now exposed to more “bad” influences than he experienced growing up. So, he felt compelled to go back.
When he was young, Lillard says, “drugs and crime” were prevalent near his home in Brookfield, a neighborhood in the eastern part of the city. He and his friends had little access to sports equipment at the local recreational center and park.
Now that he’s a six-time NBA All-Star, Lillard wants to give children in the community what he lacked when he was a kid.
“We didn’t have the resources like that, but we had each other,” says Lillard, who credits his family for much of his success.
Portland’s star guard, who spoke to PEOPLE as part of his partnership with shoe retailer Kicks Crew, says he managed to stay away from trouble because of the “balance of love, care, and compassion” his family poured into him. “That, mixed with the level of accountability, just kept me going in the right way,” he says.
“Having people around me that held me accountable for everything” kept him responsible, he explains. “It was like I knew right from wrong because it was constantly being put in front of me like, ‘You know better,’ and ‘Don’t do this, you shouldn’t be doing this, this is why.’ ”
On the other hand, seeing how some of his “older cousins” dealt with “struggles and issues” while growing up helped push Lillard “in the right direction” as a teenager.
A big part of Lillard’s childhood was spent “learning how to be compassionate and care about people, to be a team player,” he tells PEOPLE. “I had the right type of people around me.”
Now a father to three children of his own, Lillard has noticed a change in Brookfield’s youth.
“Kids are doing things at an earlier age than we were,” he says, referring to what he sees as the normalization of behavior that was “just not okay at all” when he was a kid.
Because the NBA 2K21 cover star — a credit that only the most dominant ballers, like Devin Booker and LeBron James, can boast — knows first-hand what it’s like to grow up there, Lillard wants to be a role model for Brookfield.
“I know what’s needed,” Lillard says. “I know how important it is for them to see somebody that is not only successful but somebody that can also speak on the same type of environment and upbringing.”
Lillard believes he “can provide some real inspiration” for the kids of Oakland, he says. “I fought the same battles that they fight. As an adult, that’s why it’s so important to me — because I know how valuable that is to have that type of presence.”
And he’s got “presence” in spades. Over the offseason, Lillard and Kicks Crew brought a truck full of sneakers and shirts to surprise the next generation of Brookfield’s aspiring athletes.
“We were able to get out to my neighborhood, touch kids that grew up on the same soil that I grew up on, give out some shoes, give out some shirts, be present, and I’m big on that,” he explains. “So the partnership is off to a great start and I’m also excited to just be a part of the growth of Kicks crew and bring what I can to the table, but also learn some things on the journey.”
At this point in his career, being able to “make an impact” and give back to the “kids that grew up on the same soil that” he did is a major priority for Lillard, who was drafted in 2012 by the Portland team, where he’s remained throughout his career.
“I’ve just reached the point where the most important thing to me is giving back and lifting people up and having an impact on people,” he says.
Above all, Lillard wants people to believe in him, especially those brands he chooses as partners and causes he puts his energy towards. Lillard wants to be more than “some NBA star that could bring attention to” something.
“I want people to believe in who I am as an athlete, but also it’s more important to me that they believe in who I am,” he says. And to Lillard, that means being “a high-character person.”
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Lillard says he’s a “what you see is what you get” type of person who is “all about doing things for others.” After a decade playing in the NBA, he says he’s learned that his “happiest moments are when the people and things that I care about are happy.”
“The more that I realize that,” he says, “the more that I dove into being a part of those types of thing, and also lining myself up with partners and friends and people that feel the same way.”