Lillard and Phil Beckner first met in 2008 when the Trail Blazers star was a freshman at Weber State and Beckner was an assistant coach.
PORTLAND, Ore. — The journey of one of the NBA’s 75 greatest basketball players passes through a barbecue restaurant in Utah.
“Every Sunday we used to eat at Famous Dave’s when I was in college,” Portland Trail Blazers star goaltender Damian Lillard said. “There wasn’t a Sunday we didn’t go to Famous Dave’s.”
These weekly dinners with Phil Beckner lay the foundations for a bond that goes beyond basketball.
“We were talking about what was going on with my family in Oakland, my mom is about to lose her job, one of my cousins went to jail, that person is sick,” Lillard said. “It was like I never had to wonder where he really stood, so I trusted whatever he was pushing me to do more and that relationship just grew more.”
Beckner was one of Lillard’s coaches at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah and is now the Blazers star’s longtime coach. Beckner helped Lillard becoming a six-time All-Star and one of the greatest Trail Blazers of all time. It’s a 14-year relationship that matters.
“Some of the former Trail Blazers staffers used to give us bullshit all the time,” Beckner said. “You’ve lasted longer than some marriages. We’re still so involved.”
They bumped heads a lot, especially when Lillard first came to Weber State as a 17-year-old.
“I was like the best rookie they had in a long time,” Lillard said. “Everyone was welcoming me, delighted to have me. I literally remember, to this day, our coaches watching us in the tunnels [at the arena], and Phil would still be in the background just watching, like he looked upset. He was always like, ‘You’re not that good’ and ‘I don’t know who you think you are, just because you’re from Oakland doesn’t mean you’re tough’. He was just always on top of me about something.”
Lillard said his first class of the day at Weber State started at 8 a.m. and every day Beckner stood in front of his class, waiting to see if he would be late. He said he couldn’t have a moment of peace without hearing Beckner talk about something.
“I blow up my phone,” Lillard said. “‘Did you take an ice bath?’ ‘How many shots did you fire?’ ‘What time did you fall asleep?’ “Are you chasing girls on campus?” He was right on my case about every little thing to the point where I was calling my dad and saying, ‘This guy is crazy.'”
Beckner persisted in challenging Lillard and his message began to sink in. “Eventually I got to the point where I was just allowing him to push and push and push,” Lillard said, “and here we are.”
Beckner said he saw something special in Lillard.
“Dame had character. He had willpower. Something that we’ve talked about a lot with him this offseason and praising him for is the willingness he has to do anything from his coach,” Beckner said. . “Just for him to have that discipline, even as a young guy in college and seeing it grow now has been really impressive. He’s not afraid of roadblocks. He’s not afraid of things that might happen. get in his way. He’s going to attack that they run into it.”
The coaching didn’t stop once Lillard declared for the NBA Draft. In a pre-draft interview, Lillard said he wanted to be rookie of the year.
“As soon as I finished that interview, he lost it,” Lillard said with a smile. “Why do you think you’re going to be rookie of the year? Why do you say things like that? You’re not even that good. He was on my case.
“We had a big, explosive argument, screaming in each other’s faces because I said I wanted to be rookie of the year,” he said. “That’s the kind of relationship we’ve had. There’s always been a high level of responsibility and a lot of challenges, but at the back there’s always been a lot of love and support.”
Lillard has relied on that balance of tough love and support as he works to achieve his hoop dreams. He said he and Beckner were like family.
“Being in the NBA now, outside of my dad, my mom, and my older brother, most people don’t want to step on my toes,” Lillard said. “They don’t want to overdo it so maybe it feels like they’re going to drive me crazy or something. Phil is like the complete opposite. It’s great for me, even as a professional, d “Having someone who will say whatever they want because they know their intentions are right and they’re really on my side. That’s how our relationship has been.”
This bond is part of the formula that made Lillard the man he is today. It inspired his Formula Zero basketball camp, where he relishes sharing those basketball and life lessons with the next generation.
Lillard said he would return to Weber State in the offseason and train. He would be joined by young NBA players like Anfernee Simons, Mikal Bridges, Tim Frazier and Keljin Blevins. During those sessions, Lillard would talk to them about some of the things he’d learned during his decade in the league — “casual chats,” he called them. Lillard shared things he was taught by veteran teammates when he was young, players like Earl Watson and Mo Williams.
Beckner noticed the bond Lillard was making with young players.
“It got to the point where Phil would be like, ‘You need to share more. You’re not saying much but you need to start sharing more of what you know, your experience, what people put into you and what that makes you, you,'” Lillard said.
The rest is history. Lillard has invited some of the country’s top high school and college prospects to Beaverton for its first Formula Zero camp. Some of Lillard’s messages on humility and the law have been viewed thousands of times through social media, creating a conversation around the culture and state of basketball.
“All these people want this and kiss each other’s ass, putting them in a position where they feel empowered”, Lillard said, talking about how he thinks elite young basketball players are treated today. “Their mentality is messed up with what it’s going to be, having to earn stuff, having to work, take criticism, listen and be coachable and stuff like that. It puts them in a position where it lets them down when they get into a professional environment and their talent cannot pass them by.
“You have to be stable and strong mentally. You have to be solid and have something to stand on because it gets tough for all of us,” he said. “It’s something that’s been put in me all my life and people have been cheering for.”
Lillard said he learned those lessons from people who care about him, including Beckner. Those meetings at that barbecue restaurant years ago solidified a relationship that is still going strong.
“It’s just something I’m grateful for,” Beckner said. “You coach so many guys. I’ve coached at the Division I level, I’ve worked with NBA guys now. There aren’t too many people that you find such a deep connection with. He was a huge WWF fan, I was a huge WWF fan.” He was an ultra-competitive guy, I was an ultra-competitive guy. I think those dinners kept us connected through all the ups and downs. He knew I cared about him, I knew he cared about me. It built trust.”
Beckner said that even after 15 years, Lillard still amazes her.
“The level of work this guy does, I’ll be honest, it made me cry at times,” he said. “There have been training sessions where I watch him and it moves me because of his effort, how much he wants to win a championship, how much he really cares about other people.
Follow KGW sportscaster/reporter Orlando Sanchez on Twitter @orlandokkgwon Instagram @osancheztv and on Facebook @OrlandoSanchezKGW.