Not exactly lost in the shuffle, but certainly taking a seat behind the fact that he played the most minutes in the league last season, is that Damian Lillard started all 82 games last season as well. Every single one.
For all of the things that the adjective “superhuman” is used to describe, I would have to say playing in all 82 games of an absolutely brutal professional sports schedule has to be towards the top of the list. And Lillard didn’t just play in all 82 of the games – he started them all. 469 players played in the NBA last year. Only 15, however, started every game, good for a hair over 3% of the league.
Minor injuries? No problem. Nagging aches and pains? Get out. Sickness? Personal problems? Family issues? Suspensions? Not even on the radar. Playoffs out of reach? Let’s keep chugging. The list of reasons why a player could miss a game is nearly endless, but instead of thinking about these reasons, let’s think about what drives an athlete to suit up for every game, rain or shine (so to speak).
I can’t pretend to know what goes on in Lillard’s head, but I think it is pretty clear that he possesses a raw dedication to the game. This isn’t a “yea-I-want-to-win” type of dedication, but rather the rarer “I-will-give-this-game-literally-everything-I-have” dedication. This, this I like. You can’t teach this; you can’t coach this. A player has to want to play every single game.
This is a decision that an athlete makes for themselves, not for everyone else. No one is going to care if you miss a few games here and there, it’s expected. When that bum ankle is acting up in late March before the second game of a back to back on the road with the playoffs well out of reach, well, let’s just say I think a lot of players would have no problem sitting it out. And to be fair to these players, part of their job is staying healthy, and I am the first to admit that playing through pain can be a far more stupid decision than commendable one.
Lillard, though, made his decision. There are no awards or accolades handed out for this. If he’s lucky, some stats fiend 50 years in the future will see the “82” next to his name on a website and think, “Wow, Lillard was durable!” Other than that, it’s a feat that doesn’t get talked about nearly as much as it deserves to be. That’s fine, though. The athletes who care enough to accomplish this don’t care if the latest pundit brings it up on their morning show. Like I said, they do it for themselves and the sport, not for the recognition.
I love what this says for the future. First off, I realize that this is only one season, and things could rapidly change. But, there is fantastic precedent for players who have proved durable. Former Blazer Andre Miller, himself, has played in every game during 10 out his 14 seasons in the league, while never dipping below 80 games otherwise. Russell Westbrook, a bona fide iron man, famously had never missed a high school, college or professional game until the freak meniscus tear ended his playoffs early this year.
Even switching sports, London Fletcher, the Washington Redskins linebacker, has never missed a game during fifteen seasons in the NFL, in a sport decidedly more savage than basketball. These type of players are just wired differently. Missing time is simply not an option for them. They are competitors, and they will not let anything stop them from competing.
From an administration and management standpoint, this is fantastic. When they can see the physical durability and mental desire, handing out long-term contracts is that much easier. Coaches love it too – they don’t have to spend nearly as much time or effort devising contingency plans for when key cogs in their systems go down. In Lillard’s case, the benefits of him staying healthy are even more apparent, because as a point guard, he is the team’s general out on the floor. Having that kind of continuity for his teammates is a huge boon for them, and can help a young team find its identity faster.
Everyone else, though, can simply marvel at Lillard’s passion. He cares about the game, and while his on-court play speaks for itself, here is hard proof. It is this level of dedication that can push players to the next level, something I look forward to Lillard reaching.