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Nia Wilson’s stabbing death hits close to home for Damian Lillard

Victim of brutal attack went to the same high school as the Portland Trail Blazers guard

LAS VEGAS — NBA All-Star Damian Lillard was on edge and in fear when he walked around in public recently. The Portland Trail Blazers guard’s fear came from news that an 18-year-old African-American girl from his native Oakland, California, and his old high school was fatally stabbed in the neck after leaving a subway train late Sunday night.

“After that, when I was walking down the street or anywhere I went, I was on edge,” Lillard told The Undefeated after USA Basketball’s minicamp practice on Thursday at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “I was at the airport and I was thinking that the person sitting next to me could do something crazy after this. It was so crazy. He was on BART and he randomly went and slit somebody’s throat.”

Nia Wilson and two of her sisters were riding a Bay Area Rapid Transit train last Sunday night. John Lee Cowell, a 27-year-old white man, was on the same train. According to BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas, Cowell “very rapidly” attacked Nia Wilson and 26-year-old Lahtifa Wilson with a knife on the train platform at MacArthur Station. Nia Wilson, a graduate of Oakland High School, died at the scene. Lahtifa Wilson survived.

Rojas said in a news conference that in his “30 years of police experience, it was one of the most vicious attacks” he ever saw, and he described it as “unprovoked and unwarranted.” Cowell was arrested on Monday. He has been charged with murder and attempted murder.

Lillard learned about the tragic news on Instagram.

“Everybody that I grew up with, that I know, my cousins, everybody was posting about it,” Lillard said. “I didn’t know what happened. Then I started seeing the other stuff. The guy that did it was on the run. Then I started seeing pictures when they were looking for him and the surveillance. It just hurts you, man. My sister is always moving around with public transportation, my cousins. Miss Grace, the lady that lives next door to my grandmother, who is 90-plus years old, is still moving around and still catching the bus. When you think that, he could have done that to anybody.

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Nia Wilson

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“It is tough to put something like that in words, because there is really no reason for it. Then all of the sudden you see his family put out a statement that he wasn’t mentally stable. It’s like, of course. You have to be held accountable. It’s sad, man.”

Lillard, who also is a rapper, performed at Oakland High on Dec. 16, 2016, with Fetty Wap, DJ Esco and Lil Uzi Vert in the gymnasium and had his jersey retired. He doesn’t know if Nia Wilson was there that day but said “she looked real familiar.”

“I’m certain that I’ve seen her on more than one occasion,” Lillard said. “My cousins know their family. It’s sad. I saw the video of her dad talking about it. What if that was one of our kids? Eighteen. She didn’t do nothing. I used to be on BART at 11 o’clock at night going to practice in Berkeley and catching the bus or BART. Going to San Francisco. Everywhere I went, it was bus or BART. It is packed on there. At any time, anything can happen.”

Lillard is an East Oakland native who still keeps his neighborhood and city close to his heart.

The 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year has a free picnic annually at Brookfield Park, not far from Oracle Arena in East Oakland, that includes music performances, barbecue cooked by firefighters, games for the kids and horseback riding. Lillard plans to host this year’s picnic on Sept. 8. The 28-year-old Lillard grew up in an Oakland that was predominantly black and known for being the home of the Black Panther Party.

Lillard said he has noticed the gentrification in Oakland, which has raised the cost of housing and living. The city of Oakland was 35.7 percent black and 31.3 percent white in 2000. By 2010, whites made up 34.5 percent of Oakland’s population, and 28 percent were black.

“Every time I go home it looks a little different,” Lillard said. “ ‘Where did that building go?’ They knock down one building and I drive up to an intersection and am like, ‘Something is different?’ A whole building is gone. Then I go to Portland and come back home and there is a new hotel or something. I told someone the other day, ‘Home is not what it was anymore.’

“East Oakland is gentrifying. I see it happening. There are very few people who were in the houses near where I grew up that still live there. It takes away from the feeling of our neighborhood. When we lived there, there was Miss Grace and Miss Rosemary and Pee Wee. Their kids and grandchildren were playing with us. … Now, it’s not the same thing.”

Lillard knows the story of “BBQ Becky,” a white woman who made headlines by calling 911 in late April when she spotted two black men, Kenzie Smith and Onsayo Abram, using a charcoal grill in a non-designated area at Oakland’s Lake Merritt. A video taken by Smith’s wife went viral and sparked talk about racism and gentrification in Oakland. Lake Merritt has had a positive party atmosphere since then with weekend picnics.

“She got caught on video. She was wrong,” Lillard said. “I have had situations like that in general. … Even if they weren’t supposed to be barbecuing there, why are you calling the police? He is not harming anybody. He is not doing anything. Why are you doing that?

“Why do you feel like you need to do that? Are you just so perfect and so self-righteous that everything is perfect? You are not the only person that lives in this city. You don’t run the city. I was happy how it turned out. That led to something positive at the lake now.”

Lillard averaged 26.9 points, 6.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds last season while leading the Blazers to the Western Conference’s third-best record at 49-33. The Blazers, however, were swept in the first round of the 2018 NBA playoffs by the New Orleans Pelicans. The Blazers will return Lillard, guards CJ McCollum and Evan Turner, and big man Jusuf Nurkic, but there was no major free-agency addition.

McCollum and Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant had some playful banter recently when the latter made an appearance on the podcast Pull Up with CJ McCollum. McCollum told Durant that “he was hot” about the reigning champion Warriors adding a fifth All-Star in free agency in center DeMarcus Cousins. Durant responded by saying of McCollum and the Blazers, “You know you’re not going to win a championship.”

Durant and McCollum exchanged shots on Twitter on Wednesday. McCollum called Durant’s decision to go to the Warriors as a free agent in 2016 “weak” and said he betrayed his brothers with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant responded by calling McCollum a snake and cursing his podcast. Lillard said he wished the two would have just expressed their differences over the phone.

“I saw that he went on CJ’s podcast and they went back and forth. It sounded like they were joking, so I didn’t think much of it. But when I saw that they went on Twitter, I was like, ‘All right, they have each other’s phone number. It doesn’t have to go on Twitter. Call each other, man, and get it off y’all chest.

“It ain’t got to be on Twitter, because everyone is going to make a big thing about it and try to pit them against each other. People love drama. It doesn’t have to be all that.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.