PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The gym in Ogden, Utah is almost entirely empty this Sunday afternoon.
No cheers ring out from the purple bleachers. No one is holding their breath to see if the lone figure on the Weber State Wildcats court will make his next shot.
But no one else matters. Damian Lillard catches the basketball off the shooting machine, raises up, swish.
Another ball hits his hands, he raises up, swish.
Again, and again and again the process repeats itself. When he’s finished he pulls out his phone to fire off a text.
“650 makes. My shoulder hurts.”
Then Wildcats’ assistant coach Phil Beckner smiles when he reads the message on his screen. For weeks, he’d opened the gym for Lillard on Sunday mornings. For weeks, Lillard had been relentless in his pursuit to prove something to Beckner.
“I would call him a 50/50 guy, and it used to really, really piss him off,” Beckner remembers more than a decade later while the Blazers and Nuggets are locked in their first round NBA Playoff series.
“I would say, ‘You work hard 50% of the time then you’re kind of just normal like everyone else the other 50% of the time.”
It was such a small comment — but the implication was too large and hit too close to home for Lillard to let it go.
“The way he broke it down to me, I just felt like he was saying that I wasn’t somebody that was willing to do it all the time even when I didn’t feel like doing it,” said Lillard. “So after that, I was like, ‘If this is what you think is gonna make me a pro or give me a better chance to get to where I want to get to then that’s what I’ll do.’ I was more offended that he thought that of me when he knew who I was.”
Lillard was someone who couldn’t remember a day in his life he didn’t compete. Growing up with a lot of cousins, all living in the same house in Oakland, someone was always taking someone else on.
“Every day I was in some type of competition,” Lillard said of his childhood. “Whether it was a video game or us playing baseball or tag, two-hand touch football in the streets or racing from light pole to light pole or basketball outside on the playground or in the gym — it was always a competition.
“Even though I was younger than everybody, that was what I was in every day. I was in the mix with that every single day.”
So Beckner telling Lillard he wasn’t willing to work hard enough or compete consistently enough to make it to the NBA pushed a button.
“When he said that I was like, ‘Man, I’ve experienced much worse things than having to work out every day and push myself training every day,'” Lillard said. “I’ve been involved in some crazy stuff and in some embarrassing stuff; getting clowned in front of people, where somebody’s roasting you and you gotta say something back.”
It wasn’t just words, either. If there were fights at the local recreation center, they brought out the gloves.
“They had gloves at the rec center to where you had to box,” Lillard explained. “If you had somebody you had an issue with, instead of them letting us fall out and families get involved it was like, ‘Alright y’all gotta box and then let it go.'”
So when Beckner made that comment about Lillard’s work ethic, the athlete told him that’s just not the way he was raised.
“Whether you felt like competing or playing today, even if a fight breaks out, you just don’t know what you’re going to be in the middle of — and that was my upbringing.”
Over the 37 days following Beckner’s first comment, Lillard was on a mission.
“I was just like, alright if I gotta work out every day then I’ll work out every day.”
First was the team workout. Then, he’d work out with Beckner. Then, he’d shoot extra on his own. And on the days the first two weren’t available, Lillard still couldn’t be kept out of the gym.
“He would want to go and shoot on Sundays,” Beckner, who still trains Lillard and other NBA players, recalled. “I told him I’m not going to waste my time, I’m not going to go up on a Sunday because you don’t want it that bad and he goes, ‘Alright, you gotta open the gym for me.'”
So Beckner did — for weeks in a row.
“That dude would shoot on the shooting machine,” Beckner remembers a decade later with a laugh in his voice. “I’d kind of hide and peek to see if he’d really do it or not and for about five Sundays in a row, I would text him and I would just say, ‘How’d it go?'”
The first text came in.
The next week, another text.
And finally, that last text.
“650 makes. My shoulder hurts.“
Beckner told him the next day, “Hey you’re not a 50/50 guy anymore. You need to take a day off.”
In his nine years in the NBA, “Dame Time” has become synonymous with moments when the game is on the line. Fans, coaches, opposing players and Lillard himself know it’s something as reliable as time itself.
But the thing about time is its consistency. It doesn’t just show up because you check your watch.
It keeps ticking.
When no one is looking, when there’s no buzzer that has people holding their breath, when it’s just a young player in an empty gym determined to prove he has what it takes — it keeps ticking.
“I take pride in still being present,” said Lillard. “And still being there for the fight and working my way to come out on top of whatever the situation is.”