2014 All-Star Profiles: Damian Lillard

In the Chinese tradition of Taoism, there are eight legendary xian who became immortal by following the way of Tao. Each of the Eight Immortals represents a different facet of humanity and had unique powers — as well as unique paths to immortality. For the 2014 All-Star Profiles, I took a look at the Eight Immortals of the NBA. Damian Lillard is Lü Dongbin, a scholar and poet whose dreams changed his perception of the world.

The tides have started to shift against Damian Lillard.

He broke into the league with transcendent brilliance and was thus crowned the unanimous Rookie of the Year. As Portland’s offense reached historic levels in the first half of this season, Lillard’s star continued to rise. This weekend, he’ll participate in all five All-Star events, likely winning at least one. It’s been a good year and a half for the Blazers’ young point guard. Still, there’s this sense of foreboding just over the horizon. You can see it in the standings, where Portland has taken several steps back to the fifth seed in the Western Conference. The optimism that this might be the year for the Blazers has crashed headlong into the reality of the situation, and it threatens to take some of the sheen off of what Lillard’s done. Allies who once overlooked flaws are poised to point them out with unmatched fervor once the fall comes for the young and bold.

This was Lü Dongbin’s nightmare. Literally. A precocious child, Lü demonstrated remarkable intelligence and ambition, earning high marks in his scholastic endeavors. Yet unmarried at the age of 20 and twice a failure on the civil exam to become a government employee, Lü discovered that he had a taste for alcohol. One day, he found himself in an inn where, unbeknownst to Lü, he met Zhongli Quan. Zhongli was himself Immortal by this point, and he saw in Lü a philosopher’s soul. Entertained by the possibility of an in-depth discussion of the Tao with a sharp mind, Zhongli invited Lü to join him in drinking wine and contemplating the way of things. The two men so imbibed and conversed until nightfall, when Lü passed out.

Understandable — it’s difficult to keep up with an Immortal. As Lü slept, he dreamed. Floating, happy, rainbows-and-puppies dreams, at least in the beginning. In his reverie, Lü took the imperial exam once more, and he naturally aced it. He soon rose to the rank of adviser to the emperor. He married and had a family. Finally, he became the prime minister, all in the time it took most officials to be promoted just once or twice. His rapid success fostered contempt, however, and he gained powerful enemies who convinced the emperor of Lü’s betrayal. Lü was fired and exiled; his wife sided with the emperor, and bandits killed his children. His paradise had turned to hell.

Lü awoke with a start to see Zhongli smiling at him. It was enough to convince Lü that worldly possessions and status had nothing to do with Taoism. The next day, he sent away his servants, cancelled his appointments, and joined Zhongli to study under him. For years, the two were inseparable, and Lü became an Immortal himself. Without Zhongli, though, and without time and perseverance, he’d never have reached such lofty heights. Though Lü’s mind showed him the way to a proper life, it took Zhongli to free Lü of his worldly burdens. Ever the curious and willing student, Lü needed a teacher, someone who had been through his trials and come through the other side as the stuff of legend. Lü needed LaMarcus Aldridge.

So the Blazers might not win the title this year, and people might take their frustrations out on Damian Lillard. Rapid success doesn’t go over well with those inclined toward resentment. But Lillard and his Zhongli, the once-and-future All-Star, are set to toast to dreams and nightmares. And as long as the two are together, Portland’s own chance at regaining basketball immortality is alive. Let those whose existence is defined by the now disparage Lillard at their own risk. Patience will win out in the end. And this student and teacher have nothing but time.

Andrew Lynch

When God Shammgod created the basketball universe, Andrew Lynch was there. His belief in the superiority of advanced statistics and the eventual triumph of expected value-based analytics stems from the fact that he’s roughly as old as the concept of counting. With that said, he still loves the beauty of basketball played at the highest level — it reminds him of the splendor of the first Olympics — and the stories that spring forth from the games, since he once beat Homer in a game of rock-paper-scissors over a cup of hemlock. Dude’s old.