OGDEN — Not only did Damian Lillard wear No. 1 during his days as a Weber State basketball star, but that's also where he ranks in the hearts and minds of this generation of Wildcat fans.
Yep, No. 1 — as in the greatest Wildcat player ever.
On Saturday, many of those WSU fans came to honor him in a ceremony at the Dee Events Center where, during its annual Men's Basketball Alumni Classic, the school retired Lillard's No. 1 jersey. It will now be displayed prominently in the arena along with those of the only other two former Weber State players, Willie Sojourner and Bruce Collins, to receive that tremendous tribute.
Indeed, it's a special honor for a special player and person whose basketball career at the professional level has ascended far above any of his Weber State predecessors.
And the 27-year-old Lillard, now an NBA star with the Portland Trail Blazers, admitted that it took him awhile to appreciate just how big of a deal it was to have his jersey retired at his collegiate alma mater.
"I get so focused on just moving forward to the next thing in my life that I don't appreciate things like this as much as I should," the two-time NBA All-Star selection said. "I think I do a bad job of appreciating it when it's happening, and when they told me they were gonna do this, I was in the same mode. I was like, 'Oh, that's cool. I'm gonna go, they're gonna retire the jersey,' and I was already looking ahead to the upcoming season and looking past this honor.
"But then I had a conversation with a few of my friends, and it was just like, 'You're getting your jersey retired at the school you played at. Everybody doesn't get that honor.' There's a lot of great players that have come through this program, and for there to only be two, and me being the third one to receive that honor, I mean, I sat there and thought about it and I was just like 'Wow, that's a pretty big deal.'
"When I came here, all I heard was 'Harold Arceneaux, Harold Arceneaux,'" recalled Lillard, who came to WSU as an unheralded 17-year-old point guard in 2008. "I remembered him from the NCAA Tournament, and that was the name that popped out to me — not even the two guys whose names are actually up there (Sojourner and Collins). And (Arceneaux's) jersey isn't even up there yet, so it's a great honor. I'm still in my twenties and I'm getting my jersey retired, so it's pretty cool. I think a lot of it has to do with the amount of success I've had in such a short amount of time."
As the honor of having his jersey retired finally started to sink in, Lillard reflected on his thoughts and goals when he first came to the Ogden school.
I just wanted to be one of the best players that came from Weber State," he said. "I walked around the (Dee Events Center) concourse and I would see those old pictures of the guys who came before me, and I wanted to be part of that group.
"I never looked this far into the future. When I came here, I came on a visit, I saw the big arena, and I was like 'I'm coming here.' I was like, 'Man, this is where I'm coming. I like the arena, this is cool.' And I automatically started thinking, probably just like every other freshman that comes in, I'm gonna be the one that makes it to the NBA someday. That's where my head was. I never looked at it like 'Oh, I'm gonna be a Hall of Famer at Weber State.' I was just like, I'm gonna make it to the NBA. I definitely didn't look this far ahead to having my jersey retired, and definitely not this early if it ever was retired. We're just five years into the NBA, so it's pretty cool.
"When you actually look at it, it's kinda crazy that it's happening to me," Lillard said. "And I think I'm able to continue to do things because I don't stop and look at it, and I'm never in amazement at anything that I accomplish or anything that happens because I'm constantly moving on to the next thing."
Since coming to WSU, Lillard's hoops career path has been a mighty impressive one to follow. He was a two-time Big Sky Conference Player of the Year and was the sixth overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft by Portland, and he followed that up in 2013 by being just the fourth player in history to be unanimously voted the NBA Rookie of the Year.
His seasonal statistics have steadily improved each year, from 19 points per game as a rookie to 27 ppg last season, when he joined LeBron James and Michael Jordan as the only players to reach 8,000 points and 2,000 assists in their first five NBA seasons. He's led the Trail Blazers to four straight playoff appearances, and he scored a Portland franchise-record 59 points in a game against the Jazz last April.
And in May, he was named the recipient of the 2016-17 Magic Johnson Award, which honors the player who best combines excellence on the basketball court with cooperation and dignity in dealing with the media and the public.
Hey, not bad for a guy who, when he came to Weber State nine years ago, was rated as only a two-star player and was ranked as just the 48th-best prep point guard in the country.
But with a tremendous work ethic, focus and determination, he's come a long, long way since then, and he's always quick to give the people at Weber State and the Ogden community a ton of credit for making him the player and the person he is today.
Lillard expressed gratitude to many of those people on Saturday.
"I think as much as I've had an impact on the Weber State program and on Ogden and just being around here and as much as I speak of this city and coach (Randy) Rahe and coach (Eric) Duft and (athletic director) Jerry Bovee and (Associate AD Jerry) Graybeal and even the teachers like Tim Border and Jo Ellen Jonsson," he said, "all the teachers that I had and the coaches and everybody that had something to do with this program, they played as big a part in all of this being able to happen as anybody.
"Getting here when I was 17 and leaving when I was about to be 22, there was a lot of growth in between that time. Some people miss that part; they don't grow when they need to grow, and they don't do what they need to do because they don't always have those people that are willing to push ’em and are willing to have their best interests at heart. I actually had that when I came here, so that level of appreciation will never go away.
"Just like they're honoring me, I should be honoring them," Lillard said. "Any time somebody asks me about my time here, it's only right that I speak to the people who played a part in me being able to make it to the NBA and to know the things I know and be the kind of person that I am."
After signing with the Trail Blazers, Lillard chose to wear jersey number "0" to represent the letter "O," which signifies his life's journey from his hometown of Oakland, California, to Ogden, where he played collegiately, and Oregon, where he plays professionally.
Coach Rahe, who helped guide Lillard's collegiate career when Lillard played for the Wildcats and has remained very close to his prized pupil, is rightfully proud of all of his former player's accomplishments on the basketball court.
But Rahe might be even more proud of that "kind of person" that Damian Lillard is and has remained despite all the fame and recognition he's received since leaving Weber State.
"It's really, really cool that he's getting his jersey retired, and it goes without saying how deserved it is for him," Rahe said. "He deserves this honor as much as anybody, not only because of all his basketball accomplishments, but also because of the kind of person he is — the integrity that he has, the teammate he was when he was here and remains today, the unselfishness and the humility he's always shown. That's just the kind of person he is.
"As important as all the other accomplishments he's had on the court, one great thing about Damian is he's never thought he was a big deal, and he's still that way. Damian has an old soul and he just gets it — he gets how to be a good person. And he never forgets the people who helped him get there — his parents, his friends, his classmates, his teachers, his teammates, his coaches. That's what makes him special and that's what separates him from a lot of the guys in the league.
"He's an incredible ambassador for our program, for the university, and for the community of Ogden," the Wildcats' coach said. "He's constantly talking about all of the positive experiences he's had here, and he's helped our program a great deal as far as recruiting. And the great thing about it is it's all genuine. It's truly how he is and how he feels."
Yes, Damian Lillard is truly No. 1 in many ways, on and off the court.