Cool Dads

Damian Lillard Says His Injury Made Him A Clutch Parent

“I'm not just a dad that's paying for my kid’s stuff.”

PORTLAND, OREGON - SEPTEMBER 26: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers poses for a portrai...
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Perennial NBA All-Star Damian Lillard is so well known for hitting big shots, that calling him “clutch” became an inadequate descriptor. Eventually, people started referring to him — and the end of close games that he was playing in — as Dame Time.

The expectation was that he would hit the big shots, and not only did he deliver on a regular basis but he also embraced the lore of his late-game heroics by tapping his wrist every time he hit a last-second winner. Equal parts confidence and cool, Dame Time is a whole vibe.

But Lillard has embraced a new nickname over the past year as he’s spent more time parenting and less time on the basketball court. An abdominal injury limited him to just 29 games last year, requiring surgery and ending his season five months early. During his recovery, Dame Daddy became the name of the game as he suddenly had an abundance of unexpected time to spend with his wife Kay’la and their three kids Damian Jr. (4), and twins Kali (1) and Kalli (1).

In many ways, the recovery allowed Lillard to make up for lost time. Finishing the COVID-interrupted 2019-2020 season in the NBA Bubble at Disney World kept him away from his then partner — and now wife — Kay’la and their son Damian, Jr. for over a month that summer.

Immediately following Lillard’s departure from the bubble, the couple announced they were expecting twins, but he got to spend less time than usual with his family after they were born in January 2021 due to travel limitations and COVID protocols. And the following offseason was busier than usual as Lillard played with Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics, returning home with a gold medal.

Fatherly recently caught up with Lillard as he gets ready to start his 11th NBA season to talk about what he’s learned about parenting as well as about himself during the last two years.

From a family perspective, how was the time in the COVID bubble different from a normal NBA season?

Not only was the bubble long, but my family couldn't come with me. I was just gone. With our typical travel schedule, it’s usually a two-game road trip and sometimes I might even arrange for them to come with us. But when they dropped me off at the airport so I could fly to the bubble, I felt like I was going off to prison. We had FaceTime and could check in on the phone of course, but physically I had to be gone for about a month.

How did your son handle you being gone for longer periods of time?

At first, he was OK with me leaving. But then he got to the point where he would ask “Where are you? When are you going to be home?” And it was tough because he couldn’t really understand that I didn’t know exactly when I’d be home.

Photos courtesy of Damian & Kay’la Lillard

You found out that Kay’la was pregnant with twins right after you left the bubble. How did you respond to the surprise of going from parenting one child to parenting three kids?

I didn't know what to expect. Even though Junior was barely three years old, I felt comfortable having another kid because we had experienced parenting. But then finding out that it was gonna be twins it was like, how are we gonna handle three kids under three years old? Even if we have help, how is everyone going to handle me being gone? Stuff like that. So it was an adjustment, you know, and it's still hard. Now the twins are active and they're moving around and all of the kids want different things at once. It’s been a challenge going from one to three.

Recovering from injury had you more immersed in those parenting challenges this year. How has your experience changed with more family time?

So in a way, it was a gift because I got to see every stage of their development. Since I had surgery, the twins have changed five times. They've been five different versions of themselves since then, and I've gotten to see it every step.

But one thing I’ve noticed while being home more is that the kids actually demand more of my time. When I was traveling, obviously I was present and involved when I was home. But when it comes to being home with the twins, they are more used to me meeting their needs so they expect that from me more.

When Junior wasn’t seeing me as much he’d come to me when I came home, but it was different. Now when I leave and come back the minute I walk in the door, they’re like “Daddy! Daddy!” They immediately want me to pick them up. They want me to play with them. They want me to read a book. That demand is different because they’ve learned to expect me to cater to everything that they need.

Was there a point at which you considered not going to the Tokyo Olympics because your family time had been limited due to the bubble and COVID travel restrictions?

I passed up on a previous opportunity to be on Team USA because we traveled so much that I didn’t want to give up my free time with my family at that point. But this time, I was like, “No, let's go get the experience and try to go win a gold medal.” We had a Team USA training camp in Las Vegas before the Olympics, and I had my family with me there to try to cut that time away down as much as possible. But like you said earlier, the fact that I had surgery kind of made up for all that because I've just been home a lot since then.

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How long did it take you after surgery to get to the place where you felt like you could be as active as you wanted with the kids?

After like two weeks, I was able to pick the twins up and walk around and get on the ground to play with them. With it being a lower abdominal injury, I realized how often I used those muscles just sitting down to lean back or get into bed. But it was such an aggressive rehab for that specific injury that I was doing yoga rehab the following morning after surgery.

What's one particular memory that you have of that time when you were injured and at home that you would have missed out on otherwise?

I can't think of a specific memory. But gotten attached to every day beginning and ending with my kids. As much as I'm looking forward to the season, I'm not looking forward to the point where I gotta be away so often. The amount of time we’ve had has allowed me to kind of establish who I am today and establish a real relationship and bond with all my kids. So I think going forward, the times that I do go away and come back, they'll miss me more.

What’s the most hectic time of day at your house?

Right before nap time. Everyone gets really energetic. Each kid wants something different and they all want it right now. They all want to watch a different cartoon. or they want to snack but they just ate and they’re kind of bouncing off the walls and climbing on stuff.

As your kids get older, what differences are you seeing in their personalities?

The thing I like most about Chunk [Lillard’s nickname for his son Kalii] is that he’s independent because it reminds me of myself. He can go off on his own and be fine. He'll go grab a book. He'll go play with toys by himself and he's not bothered by anything. Like his brother and sister will be running around chasing each other and making noise, and he's just kind of in his own world.

And my daughter is a really fast learner. She's also a daredevil. I like to see what she does but it also kind of scares me because she's fearless. She's not timid. If her brother jumps off the couch, she jumps off the couch. If she bumps her head, she’ll get back up and do it again.

And for my oldest? He loves to be active. High energy all the time. But he's also very compassionate. He can get into his feelings sometimes but it makes him a good big brother because he cares about other people.

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What have you learned about yourself most as a person over the last year and a half?

Well, a lot of my joy and the stuff that I care about and what I want to put my energy into is really wrapped up in my kids. I want to make sure that I'm not falling short as a dad.

I always think about my parents. You know, the sacrifices they made for us and how invested they were in their kids. I’ve had to think about what I’d give up for my kids without hesitation. Those things I enjoy doing that take time away from who I’m trying to be as a dad.

What advice would you give to a dad who's younger than you that just has one kid right now, and whose family is getting ready to grow?

Don't try to be perfect. Don't try to go by a book of what a parent is supposed to do, because everybody's experience as a parent is different. All kids are different. You constantly learn on the job. So never feel like you have to check every box every day. Just be willing to give your time and love to the kids.

How does that compare to your basketball philosophy?

As a parent, I'm definitely more able to enjoy the process. One thing people always say is that parenting goes fast. All of the sudden your baby is about to go to college, and it seemed like yesterday they were six years old. So as a parent, I’m definitely an enjoy the process type of person.

But I also want my kids to have a mind and a heart about them similar to what I have in me. I want them to be genuine but strong. And accountable. I would say strive for being the best version of yourself more than for perfection because I don't want my kids to think that I expect them to be perfect. I wasn't and I'm still not.

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You’ve become more intentional about and invested in mentoring young players of late. Do you find your experience as a parent informing the advice you give them?

For sure. Like, with both parenting and basketball you got to enjoy the process. Have some fun along with it, but also hold yourself accountable and demand a certain standard for yourself. One of my struggles in my career is finding joy in the process. I'm just now starting to work on that. Because I had four years of college and the one thing I wish I did was to enjoy that experience more because I was just in the gym all the time. And you know, it ended up working out but I wish I had enjoyed it more.

You’ve had so many memorable on-court moments in your career that basketball fans will remember for years. But what do you want people to remember about you as a dad?

I'm not just a dad that's paying for my kid’s stuff or paying their way through school. I want them to remember that I was a good partner and I really raised my kids. And for people looking at it from the outside, I would just want them to see my kids grow up to be to reflect the type of father that I was.

Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers begin NBA play on October 19, 2022. You can stream all of their games on NBA League Pass.