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OGDEN — When a college is trying to recruit an elite high school athlete for its program, everything matters.
From how the team travels (charter or commercial), to facilities (practice facilities and academic facilities), big things play a role in how much capital a program has with recruits.
One of the biggest difference-makers for a program is the notoriety of the school’s alumni. For football programs like Ohio State, Alabama and Southern California, the success that the graduates have had over the years makes a different. The same can be said for basketball powers Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke.
Schools in the Big Sky Conference, like Weber State, don’t traditionally have a high-powered alumnus to call on when they need things. However, the Wildcats have trumped not only their conference foes but also the entire Wasatch Front as they are the only institution in Utah that counts a current NBA All-Star as one of their own. Of course, Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard is that star.
Besides his play, Lillard has gained notoriety for his endorsement deals, including his lucrative deal with basketball shoe provider Adidas. Adidas recently launched the “D Lillard 1,” the former Wildcat point guard’s first signature shoe with the company.
While there are several different varieties of the shoe that pay tribute to various moments in Lillard’s life, the Weber State variation has the Wildcats most excited.
The shoe is made of purple suede, with wildcat-like marks on the shoe itself. Also, Lillard placed a rap lyric inside the shoe that ends with “You bleed purple,” which is a signature phrase at the institution.
For Weber coach Randy Rahe, who recruited the two-star prospect out of Oakland, Lillard’s involvement provides a welcomed lift to the Wildcats’ basketball program.
“Damian is such a loyal soldier,” he said. “He wants to help us in so many ways, but for him to take the time to design a shoe for our program, I think it’s huge. We can sell it in recruiting. We can sell it to everybody. It just gives your program a boost.
“God Bless Damian; he’s still a Wildcat through and through.”
Even though the shoe will benefit Weber’s basketball program indirectly, Lillard directly provided the shoes to the program before the Feb. 6 launch.
The Wildcats will have the option to wear the shoes this weekend in their game Thursday against Portland State, and Saturday against Sacramento State.
Junior forward Richaud Gittens, who enjoys a friendship with Lillard when the NBA star returns to Ogden in the offseason, said he would wear the shoes this weekend as a tribute to his friend.
“Damian has been a big role model to me since I got here,” he said. “Coming back for summers and stuff, me just learning a lot from him. (Lillard) tells us what we need to do to succeed, and what he had to do when he was here.
“Dame’s like a big brother to me, so I’m going to go ahead and support him. I support anything he does.”
"God Bless Damian; he's still a Wildcat through and through," said Weber State coach Randy Rahe.
While most of the players on Weber’s roster know Lillard as a mentor, senior center James Hajek knew Lillard as a teammate. Lillard played his final year in purple when Hajek was a freshman, and the senior captain said he appreciates that Lillard cared enough about the team to create something to honor their program.
“It’s pretty awesome, especially at a Big Sky school,” he said. “Damian being loyal to us, and his first signature shoe comes out and he makes a Weber State edition — it speaks to his loyalty and the character of a guy he is. Three years out of Weber State, into the NBA, he still thinks this highly of our program. It’s really awesome he’s still so loyal to this program.”
With Lillard’s breakout success in the league, several athletic apparel companies, like Adidas, made strong pitches to be his brand of choice. The Wildcats are an Adidas program, and Rahe said that might have played a small role in Lillard signing with them once he turned professional.
“He was pretty loyal to Adidas,” he said. “He knew that we were an Adidas school, and had some loyalty there. When the number came out on his contract, and they were very, very good, I think it was a natural for him.”
Still, the importance of having a signature shoe that represents the program isn’t lost on players like Gittens, who said it’s a big honor for Weber State.
“It means a lot, and we’re all very grateful for it,” he said. “Not a lot of schools get to produce NBA players, and for us to produce an NBA player, and for him to give back to us — it’s just the greatest thing that we could ask for.”