OAKLAND, Calif. -- Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard gave his grandfather Albert Johnson a priceless gift on Saturday night. Johnson not only celebrated a milestone 80th birthday, he celebrated with his busy grandson, who surprised him at the party the night before Portland's second-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors.
"He wanted to be a part of the event because every time we have an event, he is not around. But this one, he really wanted to be there," Johnson told The Undefeated at halftime of the Blazers' 118-106 loss to the Warriors in Game 1 on Sunday. "I highly appreciated him being there."
Lillard said, "I was just happy to be there for him."
It's not easy for an athlete to make it home for birthdays and holidays throughout the year. It's especially tough for one in the midst of the postseason. But Lillard didn't let that stop him.
Johnson, who was born on April 25, 1936, originally was going to celebrate his birthday in Oakland on April 22 -- during the first round of the NBA playoffs. Lillard begged his family to push back the date, in hopes of attending. The family obliged, moving it to April 30 at a hotel ballroom, just a short drive from where the Warriors play at Oracle Arena.
Lillard, an Oakland native, realized that playing the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round could help logistically, since Game 7s in the opening round were expected to be played May 1, a day after the party.
"During the Minnesota game, which was our second-to-last game of the [regular] season, I was like, 'Man, we need to make sure we get the 5 seed so we can make sure we are playing the Clippers.' If there was a day off in between, I could fly home and fly back," said Lillard, whose Blazers clinched the fifth seed on the final day of the regular season.
Last Friday night in Portland, the Blazers were in an unexpected position: one win away from eliminating the fourth-seeded, injury-plagued Clippers. A win meant the Blazers not only would end the series, but would be in the Oakland area on Saturday night. A loss meant the Blazers would be in Los Angeles on Saturday night, in advance of a deciding Game 7 on Sunday afternoon.
Lillard made sure he was able to attend his grandfather's party by notching 28 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and four 3-pointers to lead the Blazers to a 106-103, series-clinching victory. He said the party served as extra motivation during the game.
"It was perfect. I wanted to get that Clippers series done on Friday so I could make it to town," Lillard said.
Albert Johnson has six kids, 18 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. But he didn't know his celebrity grandchild would be able to attend his party until Lillard's mother, Gina Johnson, told him two hours beforehand. Around 200 people came from all over the country. There was a catered meal, a DJ and toasts from several close to Johnson, including Lillard.
Gina Johnson described her father's tears of joy as Lillard expressed his gratitude and spoke about how "his grandfather took care of [the grandsons] and taught them about being real men."
"He was really happy," Lillard said. "It was good to see everyone acknowledge what he has done for our family. He was the foundation of all of that.
"Everyone came together. Some people came that moved away that you haven't seen in years. Some people from sides of the family that you haven't grown a relationship with. All of them coming and sharing their impact on their life was big."
Lillard was at the birthday party for nearly four hours before returning to the Blazers' team hotel in San Francisco. He enjoyed being introduced to cousins he had never met and getting quality time with his nephews. The point guard danced a little, too, although Game 1 against the Warriors was only 15 hours away.
"I danced a few songs. I had a good time with my family. That's harmless activity," Lillard said. "That is nothing that is going to get in the way of me being able to do my job. This season I've been [roller] skating a day and a half before a game."
Lillard gave 20 tickets to family and friends for Game 1. One of the ticket holders was Albert Johnson, who sat proudly in Section 103, wearing a black Portland jersey with "Lillard" on the back. His grandson scored a team-high 30 points in the loss to the Warriors.
"I am greatly proud of him," Johnson said. "This is nothing new to him. He has been playing basketball all of his life, since he was six years old. I never dreamed of this, but it was in him. He dreamed of being an NBA player."
For Johnson, there's no competition between his grandson and his city. "I'm not really a Warriors fan," he said. "My grandson is playing now. I got to root for him."
When asked about the rest of his family's allegiance, Lillard said, "C'mon, man. Nothing comes before family."