OAKLAND, Calif. -- Weber State's Damian Lillard, the reigning Big Sky MVP, didn't exactly fly under the radar as a recruit coming out of high school. Rather, he was the one that got away.
Programs like Saint Mary's and Fresno State knew of the Oakland native's talents and recruited him, as did San Diego State out of the Mountain West Conference.
Only when Weber State offered a scholarship did Lillard jump at the opportunity to make his next destination an old railroad town in Utah. The results of that decision after the 6-foot-2 point guard's sophomore season? Back-to-back Big Sky regular-season championships to go along with this season's conference scoring title and an appearance on the NBA radar.
Schools closer to home can take solace in Lillard getting away from them because he wanted to get away from his rough neighborhood, where violence claimed the lives of friends growing up and the threat of it still keeps him from going out much during trips home.
"I just try to show people that there's actually good things going on in Oakland," Lillard said. "Good things come from it.
"A lot of my friends died before we even graduated from high school. I know a lot of people that were playing basketball with me in elementary school and middle school, and they ended up going the complete opposite direction of what I did. They're still here in Oakland now, just on the streets, just living for the next day. I feel like getting away from that helped me a lot. Separating myself from other people and doing my own thing."
Lillard also came to Weber State to play for coach Randy Rahe, who went into his parents' home during a recruiting visit and impressed with a no-nonsense style.
"He was just, 'If you don't go to class, I'm going to send you home.' He didn't just tell me what I wanted to hear. It's like it was on my visit to this day. He's always looking out for me. If being around these kind of people was going to take me to Utah, then I was willing to do it."
And on the court, Lillard has starred. During the Wildcats' 20-win season, he scored 19.9 per game while averaging 44 percent on 3-pointers in conference play and leading the team in assists.
But it's been disappointing to Lillard that two regular-season titles have resulted only in two first-round NIT losses. Weber State missed out on the NCAAs due to upsets in the Big Sky tournament, including a particularly stunning loss in this season's title game to Montana -- a loss that left Lillard in tears.
It was Montana's Anthony Johnson who came away with the headlines and the NCAA tournament bid after a showstopping 42-point night. To Lillard's recollection, Johnson scored each of the four times Lillard guarded him.
"That's just more wood on the fire," Lillard said of losing. "I think everybody's going to come back ready to work and expect to get back to that point. We just have to finish it off this time.
"I’m proud to see that people realize what I'm doing, but it's all about our team at the end of the day. It's about winning to me. If we could have won two Big Sky tournaments already and I could give up MVP and all that, I would give it up."
Lillard said he plans on staying in school for four years unless his draft stock soars. He's scheduled to participate in next month's adidas Nations camp and might literally have room to grow, having grown nearly three inches in height since his days at Oakland High.
"It’s my goal," Lillard said of the NBA. "I realize I’m not there yet. I tell myself every day that I'm not good enough. Even I was good enough, I'd tell myself that to keep myself humble."