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Left by Teammates, Overlooked by Fans, Damian Lillard Finds Anger Is an Energy

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterMay 6, 2016

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 9:  Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers looks on during the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on April 9, 2016 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images)
Cameron Browne/Getty Images

It's the kind of question that normally takes a moment to consider: When was the first time someone underestimated you?

But the answer comes quickly for Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard. "I was eight years old," he said without hesitation, as if it had happened yesterday. "It wasn't basketball. I was a 'six-plays player' in peewee football. Everybody has to play at least six plays—and that's all I played."

When he quit after one season, Houston Lillard Jr., his older brother by almost four years and a future pro indoor football quarterback, taunted him. "You're scared," he said.

Everybody has been told that at some point. Some will admit to it. Others will ignore it. Lillard? He concedes he was scared. He wasn't built as stocky as his 6'0", 215-pound brother, or their father, Houston Sr., who early on were men among boys, physically. Getting hit hurt.

The fear of being another kid who couldn't make it out of Oakland—a place where Lillard a few years later would be robbed at gunpoint at a bus stop—outweighed the fear of physical pain. Once you accept someone's estimation that you can't do something, where does it end?

"I think that is one of his biggest fears," Weber State coach Randy Rahe said.

So began a lifetime of being told he was one thing and wanting to prove he was another. Sixteen years later, nothing has changed. The boos Lillard hears in Oakland's Oracle Arena whenever he and the Blazers face the No. 1-seeded Golden State Warriors, as they do now in the second round of the playoffs, are the latest affront.

"When they boo me, I figure that's people who are not from Oakland," he said before his Trail Blazers found themselves in an 0-2 hole heading into Game 3 at Portland on Saturday. "I doubt it's anybody I care about."

Damian Lillard's return to Oakland in these playoffs has not come with the reception he is accustomed to in his hometown.
Damian Lillard's return to Oakland in these playoffs has not come with the reception he is accustomed to in his hometown.Noah Graham/Getty Images

Quietly taking every slight personally is how a kid who, in the estimation of one Bay Area talent scout, was "a good but not great" high school player emerged from a self-funded AAU program and a mid-major college to be a lottery pick and the undisputed leader of an NBA playoff team.

"He's that kind of guy," Raymond Young, one of his first AAU coaches, said. "When he's doubted, there's some kind of fire or energy inside him thatI don't know how you describe it, because it's just him. When he's told, 'You can't do nothin,' or 'You won't win this game,' or 'You're not good enough,' or he feels you think he's not good enough, he's out to prove you wrong."

This season is the latest, greatest example of what that fire can forge. The Blazers dealt or said goodbye to five of their top six scorers from last year's 51-win team, including All-Star power forward and franchise cornerstone LaMarcus Aldridge. General manager Neil Olshey replaced them with a host of younger, less expensive, unproven players. The average years of experience among the rotation players shrunk from seven to three-and-a-half.

The holdover, of course, was Lillard. His presence wasn't enough for most media outlets to predict the Blazers would go .500, much less make the playoffs again. Another wave of doubters. Preceded by the ones who didn't anticipate him being the Rookie of the Year. Those preceded skeptics who second-guessed the Blazers for taking a less-than-blazing point guard, already 22, from Weber State.

In text messages and conversations with both friends and former coaches last summer, he vowed to prove the prognosticators wrong again, especially after meeting his new teammates in voluntary offseason workouts in San Diego, California. "We talked about the change coming this year right after that," Rahe said. "'I love my team,' he told me. 'They're hungry and motivated with something to prove. I can lead these guys because they're more like me.' He's the most mentally tough kid I've been around in 25 years of Division I basketball. When things get hardest, that's when he gets comfortable."

The result: The Blazers stunned the basketball world by not just making the playoffs but putting together the Western Conference's fifth-best record, a mere seven wins off last year's totalone game for every veteran free agent that went elsewhere (Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Arron Afflalo, Robin Lopez, Steve Blake, Alonzo Gee and Dorell Wright).   

Then they upset the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers to reach the second round. Some would say it doesn't qualify as an upset, since the Clippers lost their top two stars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, in the fourth game of their best-of-seven series. The Blazers will counter that they proved they could beat the Clippers at full strength in Game 3. Near the end of the regular season, several privately expressed to B/R confidence they could beat the Clippers if that's who they faced.

After starting the season 11-20, the Trail Blazers went 33-18 to reach the playoffs as the West's No. 5 seed.
After starting the season 11-20, the Trail Blazers went 33-18 to reach the playoffs as the West's No. 5 seed.Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

The seeds of that attitude, in part, were planted last summer by you-know-who.

"We talked about it in August," Damon Jones, one of Lillard's AAU coaches with the Oakland Rebels, said. "He said, 'We're going to be fine.' And I thought, 'How are you going to be fine?' But we both laughed about it just the other day. 'What are the doubters saying now?' he said. 'They're real quiet.'"

That Lillard considers this year's squad "more" like him than last year's team has to do with how the players are perceived more than their respective components. Both Portland rosters boast, or boasted, three undrafted players. Both have, or had, eight lottery picks.

Sources both inside and outside the team say the biggest change is the departure of Aldridge, who far and away had the longest tenure with the team but waffled on his allegiance as he approached free agency. He wanted to be treated as a leader but didn't communicate like one, the sources add, forcing Lillard to sublimate his role. The loss of experience and proven talent, then, was made up for in allowing Lillard greater influence.

"In some ways, I think this year might've been easier for him than last year," Matthews said. "Sharing the leadership duties was more of a learning curve. He's used to being the leader, and they did a good job of putting players together that are good for their best player."

Lillard readily acknowledges himself as the team's leader and welcomes the responsibility that comes with it, but he steers clear of any praise for what his leadership has wrought.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

"He doesn't put himself above anyone or anything," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "In good times and bad times, he's always there. His teammates know he's all about the right things."

Ed Davis is one of the eight lottery picks on the current roster still hungry to secure his place in the league, the Blazers being his fourth stop since the Raptors drafted him 13th in 2010. The stars and team leaders he'd previously played with range from DeMar DeRozan to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to Kobe Bryant; Lillard stands apart from all of them because he's never invoked his star privilege to distance himself from his teammates. 

"Some stars just do their thing. They don't really talk to anybody. Damian doesn't hold himself apart like that. He talks to everybody."

The character and consideration for others, which has made him one of the league's most marketable players, has always been there, the product of parents who modeled it and a personal desire not to be another victim of a rough neighborhood. If Lillard is quick to point out when he believes he has not received proper accoladesAll-Star and national team snubs being two recent onesbut won't list his achievements to make a case, there are two reasons:

  • Those perceived slights are the indispensable fuel that has driven him.
  • That drive was not always readily apparent.

No one knows all of that better than Jones and Young, the coaches who run the same Oakland Rebels program now funded by Lillard and the maker of his signature shoe, Adidas. Neither fits the stereotype of AAU coachesi.e., fast-talking recruiters more interested in milking connections for profit than coaching. Young, now manager of the custodial staff at Berkeley (California) High, worked as a janitor down the block at the West Campus site of the school when he and Lillard first met. He didn't see the drive to be a college player, much less a pro. "He could always get 20 points," Young said. "Sixth grade, seventh grade, all the way through. Where he and I bumped heads was his defense and his work ethic.

"I had a friend who coached college ball and he'd always say, 'Damian has a pro pace.' I'd say, 'What do you mean, pro pace? S--t's too slow.' I want you to blaze past this cat. I thought he had a lazy bone."

Damon Jones
Damon JonesPhoto courtesy of Damon Jones

Jones, who first enlisted Young to help him coach the Rebels, is also an East Oakland native and an anomaly. He played point guard at Eastern Montana University, intending to major in computer science. Instead, he wound up with a degree in clinical psychology and a master's in child welfare. He now works with at-risk kids in the Alameda County child welfare department. Jones played against Lillard's dad, Houston Sr., in high school, and his son and Damian were Rebels' teammates.

"I just wanted to show you could come from our neighborhood and it could be done," Jones said.

While Damian's physical attributes are subtlelong arms, big hands, quick and deadly shooting stroke, seemingly effortless acceleration with or without the ballhis dad physically overpowered opponents as a swingman at McClymonds High (in Oakland) alongside future NBA power forward Antonio Davis. "His dad was a freak of nature," Jones said. "Fully grown man in high school already. Could score but didn't shoot the ball well. Tremendously hard-nosed defensive guy."

Lillard's ease of movement on the court suggested to his AAU coach he wasn't trying hard, despite the fact he usually was in the right place at the right time.
Lillard's ease of movement on the court suggested to his AAU coach he wasn't trying hard, despite the fact he usually was in the right place at the right time.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Early on, his son had none of that. "He was just another kid on the team," Jones said. "Raymond wanted to cut Damian because of his motor."

But he didn't. However much Lillard might appear to coast at times, he kept showing up for the array of uniquely torturous training methods Young devised. Frustrated that his eighth-grade players weren't keeping their hands up on defense, Young found bricks outside the gym, wiped off the dirt and made the Rebels get in a defensive crouch and hold the bricks in their outstretched arms for minutes at a time. Pushing Young's SUV across the parking lot was another drill. Young saw it as a life lesson: teaching East Oakland kids to expand their limits on what they thought they could do.

"I always knew that if you were in the best shape and your mind was tougher than everybody, you always had a chance to be in the game," Young said. "I learned that at an early age playing football, and I took my football mentality over to basketball. It ain't rocket science."

Lillard (first row, second from left) poses with his AAU team.
Lillard (first row, second from left) poses with his AAU team.Photo courtesy of Davion Berry

Davion Berry, now with the Toronto Raptors' D-League team, lived within walking distance of Lillard's house and followed him to Weber State. He was a year behind him in the Rebels' program and heard about the workouts before he actually experienced one.

"I'm not going to lie, I was scared," Berry said. "I'd be surprised if guys from other places would be able to finish one."

The bond among the Rebels went beyond clutching dirty bricks and pushing SUVs and running line drills in Oakland's summer heat. They promised each other they were all going to get a college degree.

This year, the last of the group is scheduled to do just that.

Not all played collegiately, but Lillard underscored the importance of graduating for Thomas "Mook" Torres. A 13th man as a Rebel, he still earned a degree in graphics design at Cal State Northridge. When Adidas asked Lillard if he needed anything special, he asked that they give Torres an interview.

Lillard used his connections at Adidas to get one of his former AAU teammates an interview for a job with the company.
Lillard used his connections at Adidas to get one of his former AAU teammates an interview for a job with the company.David Becker/Getty Images

He now works for Adidas.

"We decided 'We're not going to be like everybody else,'" Lillard said.

He applied that on the court as well right before his junior year at Oakland High. Young was steaming after the Rebels' 10th-grade squad lost an end-of-the-summer tournament in Anaheim, California. On the ride back, he challenged the entire team to show up for a voluntary workout the next day. Lillard was the only one who did. Young worked him as hard as ever and finally began to soften when Lillard refused to quit.

"Around the 10th grade, I could tell I had to let him play the way he wanted," Young said. "I started paying attention and realized he always gets to his spots. While I thought he wasn't playing hard enough, he was playing reads and what he sees. That's what my friend meant by 'pro pace.' Defensively, I'm always going to get after you. But offensively, I had to let him pick his spots."

Young's playing career ended in high school, but when he committed himself to coaching, he sent himself to college, talking his way in to observe the local college teams practice. He particularly admired the motion offense and defensive discipline of the late Rick Majerus, five-time Western Athletic Conference Coach of the Year at the University of Utah, so he bought a ticket and a hotel room and spent a weekend watching some of the Utes' early-season practices.

"People thought I was crazy," Young said. "I thought Majerus was a fundamentals coach, and he was really hard on his players. I took a lot of his ideas and the way he taught things and brought them backeven the way he talked to them."

Salt Lake City became a regular pilgrimage. He met Rahe on one of those trips, paving the way for Lillard to wind up on the Weber State campus in Ogden, Utah, 40 minutes north of the Utes' campus in Salt Lake City.

Living in Utah might've been too much of a culture shock for a kid from Oakland, but Young having the keys to the West Campus gym meant the Rebels could practice there. Which meant Lillard and the rest of the Rebels were exposed to the cultural diversity of a college town. When it came to selling raffle tickets and beef jerky and candy bars to pay for tournament travel and expenses, Young stationed the kids in front of a local REI store both for fund raising and life lessons.

"It taught them to talk to people and interact with another race because normally they wouldn't have to do that," Young said. "And it taught them to deal with rejection because some people would be, like, 'I don't want to deal with you.' You walk up to six people and you can't get them to talk to you. But you got to keep pushing. Because we have to get [enough money to get] on this airplane to Las Vegas."

Lillard's experience with his AAU team helped him make the transition from Oakland to the quieter atmosphere he found at Weber State.
Lillard's experience with his AAU team helped him make the transition from Oakland to the quieter atmosphere he found at Weber State.Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

It didn't hurt Lillard's transition that Young already had been to Utah several times as well.

"If you wake up to sirens and gunshots every day and you go experience this surreal place," Young said, "mountains, snow, you barely see a policeman, you're like, 'I can roll with this.' But everybody can't do that."

The Weber State coaches quickly caught on to Lillard's appetite for challenges. As a freshman, if he were facing another first-year point guard, they'd make a point of describing that guard as the "best freshman point guard in the conference" because they knew Lillard would be determined to prove otherwise.

Phil Beckner, now an assistant coach at Boise State, was in his second year on the Weber State staff when Lillard arrived. Beckner drew a paradoxical first impression: "A little too cool, a little too casual, but super competitive." Beckner was already in bed one night early in Lillard's sophomore year when he received an unexpected phone call. "What do I have to do to make the NBA?" Lillard asked.

"You have to outwork everyone in the country," Beckner said.

"All right, I'm going to do it," Lillard said.

Beckner remained skeptical. He'd constantly tell Lillard he was "a 50-50 guy," as in a player who might work hard every other day, or Monday through Friday and then take weekends off, but not one who was willing to commit himself 100 percent to being as good as he could be.

Lillard finally decided to shut him up by practicing every single day. He made sure Beckner knew it, too, asking if he'd shoot with him at the gym Sunday morning at 8:30, a subtle way of suggesting he wouldn't be partying Saturday night. Beckner said no and then sneaked by the gym to see if Lillard showed up, anyway. He did.

According to those who know him, Lillard is sensitive to criticism of his defense, an aspect of his game he has tried to improve.
According to those who know him, Lillard is sensitive to criticism of his defense, an aspect of his game he has tried to improve.Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Not just that Sunday, either. Beckner, even though he'd often swing by for a peek, asked Lillard each week how many shots he'd made that Sunday. The number kept rising. Three hundred. Four hundred. Five hundred and twenty-five. Six hundred and seventy-five. "And my shoulder hurts," Lillard reported following the last one.

After 37 consecutive days, Lillard had vanquished another doubter. "Dame, take a day off," Beckner said. "You proved you're not a 50-50 guy."

Fast-forward to this summer. Lillard brought Beckner along to train him on an Adidas promotional tour of Japan, China and France. They always had a couple of basketballs within arm's reach. After a red-eye from Beijing to Paris, Beckner reminded Lillard to grab the balls out of the overhead compartment, only to find himself being the one challenged now.

"When are we working out?" Lillard asked.

"Dame, it's 7:00 a.m.," Beckner said. "We just landed. Take a day off."

Lillard refused. They checked into their hotel, ate breakfast and then worked out for an hour. Beckner said Adidas officials claim Lillard is the first athlete they've had who asked to have a gym available every single day of a tour. Over the two weeks, Lillard took one day off on the China leg when Beckner threatened to fly home if he didn't.

"He watched Michael Jordan's retirement speech, where he talks about all the people that put wood on his fire," Beckner said. "That's where his tweets with the [phrase] wood on the fire come from. Damian Lillard ruined me as a coach, because you want every kid to be like that. I expect everyone to have that drive."

Damian Lillard @Dame_Lillard

This guy continues to doubt me lol... Wood on the fire ...#We'llTakeIt

There remains a smoothness and ease to Lillard's way of attacking, and perhaps that's why All-Star recognition and general acclaim as one of the top point guards continues to elude him. Young can only tell when the storm is approaching from years of watching him.

"When you see his shoulders hunch up, he's setting you up," Young said. "It's a funny look in his shoulders. That means: something's coming at you. Something is going to happen. Those shoulders raise up, it's coming."

A lack of respect for his defense has undoubtedly held him back as well. Rahe, Young, Beckner and Jones all insist that he works at it. "I know he cares about it," Beckner said. "We've watched film."

Young adds: "He doesn't want to be talked about. He'll learn the angles. Every year he'll get better because I know how he is."

Opposing NBA teams already view him as elite, as much for his leadership as anything. "There are point guards in the league today that are forces of nature," one rival assistant GM said. "He's not that. He doesn't have top speed, top jumping or defensive ability. But what he does do is give you a calming influence. His teammates know, 'If we need a bucket, he can go get it.' He can knock down a three from deep, he can get by you and finish and he'll find guys. He's not [Stephen] Curry, but he's pretty close."

That's a hefty compliment. Lillard, of course, bluntly rejected that comparison already. Hardly a surprise for someone only interested in more wood. What if, though, Lillard does finally receive his share of accolades? What then?

Roy Burton, a sportswriter at the Deseret News who covered Lillard at Weber State, asked him that well before he was Rookie of the Year or landed a signature shoe or the Blazers made him a franchise cornerstone.

"If people didn't doubt me," Lillard said, "I'd tell myself that they did."

As for Houston Jr.'s challenge to his little brother 16 years ago, well, Lillard rejoined the San Leandro Crusaders and played both linebacker and safety. After being voted the team's defensive MVP, he quit again, this time for good. Point proven, doubter dismissed.

And, as is clear now, a formula for success discovered.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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