On Tuesday, Portland Trail Blazers franchise player Damian Lillard won the Pro Basketball Writers Association’s Magic Johnson Award, handed out since 2001 to recognize “the player who best combines excellence on the basketball court with cooperation and dignity in dealing with the media and the public.”
Lillard, the 25-year old point guard, brings both qualities in heavy supply. He led his up-and-down, 41-win Trail Blazers to the postseason for the second consecutive year, prior to falling to the Golden State Warriors in a four-game sweep. Lillard averaged 27 points, five rebounds and six assists while falling short of the NBA’s All-Star team yet again.
Media doesn’t vote on that exhibition lineup, at least not professionally, but they do make a point to reward those who show up for an on-record talk come storm, stress or sunny days.
— Damian Lillard (@Dame_Lillard) May 2, 2017
Lillard, mindful of the media’s role in opening freer lanes in its coverage of a rather dynamic league, spoke to his insistence on making himself available to the media at every expected opportunity:
“It’s my opportunity to share what is going on, or what I think about something,’’ Lillard said. “That way, I can limit people having to assume things, or make things up. I can explain myself, or share my thoughts. It’s my opportunity to take the stage, so to speak, to say my part.’’
Dealing frankly with the assembled media, often while perched in front of a locker, is not for everyone. For Lillard, though, the social interaction works for him and the strong cadre of media that covers the Blazers.
Chief among them has long been Jason Quick, at Comcast Northwest. Noting that in five NBA seasons Lillard has yet to miss neither a pre-game autograph session with fans nor a post-game media scrum with reporters (“Never,” Lillard said. “Not once.”), Quick went into further detail about Lillard’s approach toward guiding a more mindful, gracious locker room:
As captain for the past two seasons, Lillard has made it clear to his teammates that their playoff checks should be donated to the Blazers’ support staff, which consists of everybody from massage therapists to the trainers at the practice facility.
With some Blazers teams, the locker room leadership was not always as generous. Three seasons ago, when veteran Chris Kaman joined the team, he became appalled that the Blazers were keeping their playoff checks. Kaman, who became close with Lillard, told him if he ever led a team he should insist on getting the guys to donate to underscore the importance of unity and having one’s back.
Once again this season, with Lillard going from player to player to assure they followed through, the team voted to give up their full shares. The money was divided among 25 support staff, with some getting more than others depending on their role.
“We divide our playoff shares to give to the people who we work so closely with because they spend as much time away from their families as we do, and they are just about as invested as we are,’’ Lillard said after the season. “They also do as much as possible to make our lives easier, even if it makes theirs more difficult – all while making far less. So it’s a further way of showing appreciation beyond a thank your or a handshake.’’
The anecdote immediately reminds of an opposing one run in the same city, nearly 40 years ago, as detailed by David Halberstam in his book “The Breaks of the Game.”
The late author described the rather shaken world of longtime Blazers trainer Ron Culp, charged with minding a fractured Portland locker room working through the brunt of Bill Walton’s deepest injury woes and later move to sue the franchise:
“Then in the spring of 1978 Culp’s world had collapsed. First there had been the Walton injury, which knocked Portland out of the playoffs, and which was eventually to have serious ramifications for everyone involved, terminating friendship with lawsuit. But immediately more painful for Culp had been what happened when the players met to vote shares of the playoff money.
“Since, by NBA standards, trainers were unusually poorly paid, their salaries in those days averaging some $22,000 a year, a share of the playoff money was important. It was, to, a way of the players tipping the trainers who had taped them dozens, perhaps a hundred or more times during the season, and performed countless other services, many of them menial.”
Halberstam posited that “Culp’s sense of humor, which was often sharp, had stung the blacks in some way that had not affected the whites.” The vote briefly cost Culp $2,500 before the franchise intervened, and knowledge of the team-wide decision embarrassed the trainer to no end.
The Trail Blazers attempted to spin the vote as unanimous, Halberstam points out, before he reported that several Blazers players did indeed vote to give Culp what he was owed. The votes against represented an embarrassingly childish line of thinking, even for a pampered athlete in the 1970s.
Halberstam called the offenses “appallingly petty.” Blazers legend Maurice Lucas, “the dominating voice,” complained that Culp spent too much time with the oft-injured Bill Walton. Lionel Hollins “had not liked the way he dressed.” Johnny Davis “resented” sportswriters heading to Culp to chat following games, ahead of some Portland role players, and his wasn’t even the pettiest:
“Lloyd Neal, whom had taped and taped until he was virtually a walking mummy, had resented the fact that the Christmas party had been held for the last two years at Culp’s house, which he interpreted as Culp trying to show off his house.”
We’ve clearly come a weird way, PDX.
Offering up playoff shares to team employees is a regular occurrence in these ranks, so it isn’t as if Lillard, Chris Kaman and the Blazers are breaking new ground here, but it is well worth noting. The rush from adolescence to manhood in public is often too swift even for a four-year college graduate like Damian Lillard. The move into millionairedom often confounds, leaving players often unaware of just how little the trainer or team assistant they spend hours at a time with, are making. You probably couldn’t ballpark an estimate for most grownup salaries yourself, at age 20.
Credit to Blazers for encouraging a more observant locker room, despite some culture cries to the contrary, and congratulations to Damian Lillard for earning the 2017 Magic Johnson Award.
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