- Associated Press - Friday, May 1, 2015

OGDEN, Utah (AP) - Gina Johnson was rooting hard for the Portland Trail Blazers to upset the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Damian Lillard is her son, so she didn’t have much of a choice.

Johnson, however, did have other thoughts.

“I was more focused on him getting here to this graduation,” Johnson said. “I can’t really explain how proud I am of him. … Because it was very important. It wasn’t just important, it was very important. It was what he was here for.

“I told Coach (Randy) Rahe, ‘I really don’t care about basketball. I want him to have a degree.”

Lillard received his degree from Weber State on Friday morning, three years after entering the NBA. The two-time All-Star had promised his mother he would complete his degree when he turned pro. Johnson and about nine other family members and friends were in the stands at the Dee Events Center for the ceremony.

Lillard said it was important to return so his family could take part. He started the proceedings with one of two speeches from graduating students. Lillard earned a professional sales degree from the College of Applied Science and Technology and capped the event as the last student to walk and receive his degree. He wanted the sheepskin for his mother and himself, but also hopes his story will inspire others. Lillard said his involvement with the Special Olympics and an anti-bullying movement began with his experiences at Weber State.

“(College is) about the experience and lot of the things that you pick up along the way,” Lillard said. “Even if it’s not directly your education. … It can be anything. I’m grateful for what I have here. Anything you start you should want to finish. Especially your education.”

Lillard had three classes to finish and met with teachers last summer to arrange a way to complete those credits without having to spend all of his time in Ogden. He wrapped everything up during the winter while the season was going on.

Lillard texted the news to Johnson, who was surprised because she thought he was just training in Ogden during those summer trips.

“I said, ‘What, you’re finished?’” Johnson said with a laugh. “I got on the phone calling everybody, ‘Damian’s graduating. He’s finished.’ It was just a really exciting moment because I couldn’t wait. It’s been a long time coming.”

Lillard said he couldn’t sleep the night before the Blazers were eliminated, so he began thinking about his speech at 5 a.m. Game 6 of the series would have been played Friday and Lillard had contemplated skipping shoot-around to fly in, attend the ceremony and fly back for the game

A large part of Lillard’s speech was spent thanking those at the university that helped along the way.

“My kids don’t believe it,” said Carl Grunander, Lillard’s academic adviser. “Damian’s been a real pleasure. He’s been very self-motivated. Never had to push him. He’s always wanted to do it. Always done it in a quiet way. He just gets it done.”

Rahe added, “Damian’s a helluva basketball player, but he’s a lot better person than he is a player.”

Lillard explained that he didn’t write the speech out and wasn’t nervous. With his final three words, Lillard had the basketball arena roaring again: “I am Weber State.”

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