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Damian Lillard emotionally drained after 18 months of family tragedies: 'People have no idea'

Cassandra Negley
·4-min read

Damian Lillard is emotionally drained after 18 months of loss his family has endured, including the shooting deaths of two people in his inner circle last week. The Portland Trial Blazers point guard opened up to The Athletic's Jason Quick about the impact of multiple family tragedies over the past 18 months and how he plays through it.

“It’s been a hard year and a half for my family, man,” Lillard said, via The Athletic. “People have no idea.”

Damian Lillard experiences 18 months of loss

Damian Lillard in a Blazers shirt.
Damian Lillard said it's been difficult to get in the right mindset for games. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Lillard said he's mentally drained heading into the All-Star break because of the toll on himself, but also the toll seeing how hard it's been for the ones he loves. When he returned to Portland after playing the Los Angeles Lakers, he saw how impacted his parents were by his cousin's recent death.

It started in May 2020 when he checked in on his cousin and personal chef, Brandon Johnson, at the man's home and found him dead on the kitchen floor. Johnson was 35, and the two talked every day.

“I stood over his body, man. Like, he was dead. Minutes. I’m standing over his body,” Lillard said, via The Athletic. “People don’t know what type of trauma that is, and what that is to have somebody that close to you laid out and you stand over him. Like, I still struggle with that. You know what I mean? Like, I still struggle with that. That’s a battle for me.”

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An aunt died of cancer later in the year, and a family friend died of COVID-19, per The Athletic. In January 2021, days after his twins were born, a cousin was killed in West Oakland. Last Thursday, he received news that two more people in his circle were shot and killed. One was a close cousin who was at the family's Thanksgiving last year. Another was the best friend of a cousin who was among the first to move to Portland when he was drafted in 2012.

It has made him ponder the important things in life over the past week.

“What really matters in life, you know?” Lillard asked, via The Athletic. “When you consider that, and when you consider what your family is going through … it’s a battle mentally to put yourself in that place where this game is the most important thing right now.”

Lillard plays through pain

Still, though, Lillard plays on. He told The Athletic he thought about skipping the Lakers game because "emotionally I was like, whatever," but he took the court anyway. Lillard, 30, had 25 points and seven assists.

He said he plays for his responsibility to his family and his teammates

“I have to put those emotions to the side to care about the game and make sure I’m here for my teammates, and to do my job, because my job takes care of a lot of my family. It does a lot of things for people in my family,” Lillard said. “I think understanding that is what helps me kind of push forward.”

He also takes to the court because he said he knows his entire family is at home watching and doing it makes them happy.

"I know that does something positive for them, and that it means something to them, and that’s a major part of our happiness as a family and us being able to continue forward and stay together.”

Amid all the loss, Lillard's fiancee, Kay’La, gave birth to twins in January. Son, Kalii, and daughter, Kali, join Damian Jr., who is 2 1/2. Lillard earned his sixth All-Star bid last month, though he barely missed the starting lineup. He's having an MVP-worthy season averaging 29.6 points, 8.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game. And he has the Trail Blazers (19-14) in Western Conference playoff contention with his late-game performances.

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