Former Wildcat Damian Lillard has jersey retired at Alumni Classic

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OGDEN — To most of the world, Damian Lillard was an afterthought when he first arrived on Weber State’s campus as a freshman in 2008.

On Saturday, he left as a luminary.

The 27-year-old Lillard returned to the Dee Events Center on Saturday to watch his No. 1 jersey retired as part of Weber State’s second Alumni Classic. Now forever enshrined in Wildcat lore, Lillard becomes just the third player in program history, alongside Willie Sojourner and Bruce Collins, to have his number memorialized.

“As far as my journey as a basketball player, it’s a really special moment,” Lillard said. “It was a great feeling to be able to do it in front of all my people and all the people that really played a part in making this happen.”

Standing at center court with his friends and family in tow, the ceremony began with a video commemorating Lillard’s finest moments on his journey to the NBA. After the video played, Weber coach Randy Rahe thanked Lillard for his time at Weber State and called him a “great ambassador for the program.”

The ceremony concluded with a chorus of laughs and cheers as Lillard struggled to unveil his retired jersey from underneath a purple curtain hanging along the concourse.

“I had never done it before,” joked Lillard, who added: “That was my first time getting my jersey retired.”

A two-time Big Sky Player of the Year, Lillard’s decorated career at Weber State spanned three years and 103 games. He amassed 1,934 career points to finish third on Weber State’s all-time scoring list. He left Weber State as the all-time leader in 3-pointers made, free throws made and free throw percentage, while ranking second in career assists.

On the national level, Lillard’s talent remained a well-kept secret until his junior year, when he exploded onto the scene with per-game averages of 24.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists.

After deciding to forgo his senior season, Lillard declared for the 2012 NBA draft and was selected sixth overall by the Portland Trail Blazers. His success in college followed him into the professional ranks. The point guard won the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award in 2012-13, beating out New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and Washington’s Bradley Beal en route to a unanimous selection.

“I want him around our players as much as possible because he’s such a winning player off the court,” Rahe said. “Most guys in his postion, in that league (NBA) don’t get it. Damian gets it. He remembers where he came from, he’s genuine in his appreciation for it. … He’s an old soul.”

During his teenage years, Lillard, an Oakland, California, native, grew up playing in the shadow of the Oakland Soldiers, an inner-city, talent-rich AAU program whose alumni include LeBron James, Brandon Jennings and Chauncey Billups, among others. So despite starring for both Oakland High School and his AAU team, the Oakland Rebels, Lillard received little interest from the top-flight college programs.

The scouting services underrated him as well. Coming out of high school, Lillard was rated as a two-star prospect by the popular recruiting website, while ESPNU ranked him 48th in its Top-50 point guard list. As such, Weber State was among a short list of mid-major programs targeting Lillard’s services, and the first university to offer him a scholarship. In the end, the blueblood’s loss proved to be the Wildcats’ gain.

“Coach Rahe is somebody who’s like a father figure to me,” Lillard said. “To this day, if I’m in a tough spot or if I’m going through something, I’m not very comfortable letting my guard down and saying what I need to say to people, and he’s one of the people I can say that to.”

As the face of Portland sports, Lillard’s professional opportunities off the court have expanded at a rate consistent with his growing celebrity. In 2014, USA Today reported that Lillard and Adidas agreed to terms on a shoe deal in excess of $100 million — widely believed to be the third largest shoe contract for an NBA player. His partnership with the shoe brand has led to his image being used in several of their television commercials, in addition to advertisements for State Farm and Foot Locker.

When asked what’s next for the former Wildcat, Lillard said: “I have a problem with my accomplishments. … I’m always on to the next thing.

“Right now, I don’t know what it is. … If I continue to work the way I work, and I continue to be myself, I think that opens a lot of things for me.”

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