PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard stood in front of a few hundred kids at his annual basketball camp, with a microphone in his hand answering questions about future projects in TV, his next album, the excitement of the upcoming basketball season and recovering from his most significant injury as a pro.
"I had to find peace not doing what I love to do," Lillard said, about missing the final 46 games last season after having abdominal surgery, the first extended break of his 10-year NBA career.
This was Lillard's first time hosting his camp at the Beaverton Hoop YMCA since the start of the pandemic. He said it's an event that is important to him.
"I love doing it in Portland because my strongest support for what I've done as a pro is here," Lillard said. "A lot of these kids, it's a lot of pride they have about the Blazers. The parents as well."
He was asked to share one piece of advice.
"Be a good listener," he said.
That lesson — learning to listen to others — has been top of mind for the six-time All-Star this year, after he spent the past few seasons battling through a nagging abdominal injury.
"I was struggling. The battle I was fighting was I wanted to prove, show people I could do it anyway," Lillard told local reporters at his camp. "Even when it goes not well, I can show you that I can make it go well. That was my pride and natural disposition, how I go about stuff."
Lillard recalls a workout in Portland with his trainer Phil Beckner last season.
"I just wasn't healthy and Phil was like, 'Dame, just listen to me. Your body is not right,'" Lillard said. "He was like, 'Dame trust me, I've known you a long time. I’ve looked at you close for a long time.' I was damn near tuning out what he was saying because I made him a part of the other group that was saying things like what’s going on?"
On New Year's Eve, the Trail Blazers lost to the Lakers 139-106. Lillard scored 18 points and dished seven assists, but shot just 1-8 from three and 5-15 from the field. It was Lillard's last game of the season.
Reality set in.
"After the game against the Lakers, I said it to myself: 'I'm not right.' He [Beckner] had told me that even before that night we worked out and I just wasn't hearing him. I was like, 'Nah, I’m going to show him too,'" Lillard said. "Now that I'm here, I'm looking back at that same situation like, I should've just heard him out, but I wasn't taking in what he was saying to me."
Lillard had abdominal surgery on Jan. 13 and by the next day he was doing rehab.
"I didn't even realize how bad it was because I had been dealing with it for four and a half years," he said. "It was just getting worse and worse, but I was still able to have 50 (points) on a night or I was able to move kind of well some nights."
After games, Lillard said the swelling was like the size of a baseball.
"I would go home and have like a bulge in my pubic area, it would be like a baseball was under there, like that type of swelling," he said. "By the time I would wake up, it would go down and then the next day it would do it again. I was just fighting through it."
The time away from the game was an opportunity to heal from a decade of wear and tear of playing in the NBA.
"I really feel as strong as I’ve ever felt. I feel healthy, 100% healthy," Lillard said.
The recovery wasn't just physical, but mental and emotional as well.
"The burden of we have to win, I gotta perform, that's a little bit stressful. Going the last seven, almost eight months not having to think about none of those things have kind of cleared my mind," Lillard said. "It's crazy to say right now because I never thought I would say it, but I think it was exactly what I needed. It was exactly what had to happen."