SALT LAKE CITY — Year: 2012.
Setting: Salt Lake City.
Six years ago, a baby-faced Damian Lillard enjoyed a nice view to watch the Utah Jazz from the green seats of EnergySolutions Arena.
It was Lillard’s senior season at Weber State.
His friend and mentor, Johnnie Bryant, was still operating his Bryant Sports Academy while training Jazzmen Ronnie Price and Paul Millsap, so they decided to check out a game together.
“Man, I know I can play here,” Lillard told Bryant in the stands. “I know I can play on this level.”
At the time, there was still some doubt with Weber State being a small school from the Big Sky Conference, but there was still belief from Bryant that he was more than capable of playing in the NBA.
“Obviously, the rest is history,” Bryant recalled.
Three NBA All-Star appearances later, Lillard returns to the home of the Jazz, now Vivint Arena, as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers Friday night.
Lillard is averaging 26.1 points, 6.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds while being widely respected as one of the top point guards in the league.
On a personal note, he still holds a close bond to Bryant, now an assistant coach for the Jazz. As fellow Oakland, California, natives, their friendship is bigger than hoops.
“That’s my big brother,” Lillard said. “I remember barely being in the seventh grade, getting ready for an AAU tournament and Johnny was in college at Utah and they would come back and scrimmage us on outside courts with no net.
“That type of struggle, that type of background and I’m happy to see his success as a coach as well,” he added.
Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard shares a close relationship with Utah Jazz assistant coach Johnnie Bryant. “That’s my big brother,” Lillard said. Both are natives of Oakland, California. pic.twitter.com/j3YLDLBJlF— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) February 23, 2018
Lillard’s bond first formed with Bryant as early as middle school. At the time, Bryant was still playing for the University of Utah while Lillard was making a name for himself in their hometown.
They would train in the offseason together at California’s Berkeley Adult School, also known as “West Campus.” Literally nothing in the crackerbox gym was state of the art from the wooden backboards with black tape to form the boxes to the dusty floor and old-school rims.
In that small, rundown gym is where both guys learned the value of hard work through their mentor/coach, Raymond Young.
Bryant still has a screensaver of the gym on his phone as a reminder of their upbringing.
“Literally if you worked out with a ball, your hands were going to be black when you’re done. Our mentor, his coach at the time, Raymond Young, it was raw and uncut in there,” Bryant said. “We did defensive slides with bricks in our hands, walking around the gym with sandbags. All the step-backs you see him do, he had to make 50 of those in one direction then you have to go 50 in another direction. That’s ultimately where we learned how to work hard and perfect your craft.”
More so than basketball, Bryant and Lillard view themselves as family.
When all the media, bright lights and cameras are gone, they know they can call on each other for anything. Even on opposite ends of the floor, they’re always rooting for each other. Win or lose, that won’t change.
“I don’t look at him as Damian Lillard. I look at him as Damian, my little brother I’ve been knowing for so long and when we talk it’s not about basketball,” Bryant said. “It’s about life, just how to become better people. He has a baby on the way and things other than basketball. If he wants to talk basketball, we will, but for the most part, a lot of it is just old memories.”