Originally published in SLAM 176

by Adam Figman / portraits by JUCO

It starts with the breathing. During tight games, immediately following the third quarter or in the midst of a timeout early in the fourth, Damian Lillard takes a seat on the Portland Trail Blazers’ bench. His routine has begun.

Ten or so deep breaths, in and out. Then the second-year point guard closes his eyes, concentrating all of his energy on his inner center—either down at his navel, or within his forehead, right between the eyes. Focus hard enough on a specific spot, he was taught, and you can block out all feelings of fatigue, gaining an obvious advantage on your wind-sucking opponents in the process.

“What he’s doing is calming himself down so he gets in a flow state by slowing his brain waves down,” says Anthony Eggleton, the Oakland-based trainer who imparted this technique. “The next thing is focusing on the center of will—what that does is drive chi through the body and change his whole Neural System.”

“It helps me,” Lillard says. No need to specialize in neuroscience to know what works and what doesn’t. “It’s a mental thing.”

Then come the final few minutes of the game, during which Lillard leans on his overdeveloped mental toughness to keep pushing through the final buzzer. And, not coincidentally, mere seconds before that buzzer rings off—whether in regulation or overtime, where he was an unbelievable 15-19 from the field in his career as this issue went to press—the 23-year-old shines. This season, as the clock expires, we’ve seen a gliding lay-up in November to beat the Suns; a mid-range fade-away in December to defeat the Pistons; and, just two nights later, a deep three to down Kyrie Irving and the helpless Cavs.

#LillardTime, they call it. It begins with the breathing. It ends with the scowl, a furious glare he gives after each and every game-winner, an intense, almost resentful stare that seems to hint at an internal desire to prove someone wrong—maybe some local kid who thought Dame wasn’t any good back in the day, maybe the coach at St. Joseph Notre Dame who refused to provide a 10th grade Dame with decent playing time, maybe the dozens of big-time college recruiters who refused so much as a glance his way, maybe the group of reporters who smirked when Dame, upon declaring for the NBA Draft, said he plans to be the next Rookie of the Year.

It’s confidence, anger, grit and fearlessness all mashed into one very specific, constantly reappearing look. “That’s the East Oakland in me,” Lillard says. “It’s like this kind of chip that you have on your shoulder that you carry with you, that underdog mentality. It’s always been where people didn’t believe in me or I didn’t have an opportunity, so I kind of have a me-against-the-world mentality. I feel like I still need to earn it.

“So when stuff like [game-winners] happens, that’s the expression of, now what?”

***

“A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.” —Bruce Lee

“This is the honest to God truth: I thought God put him on Earth just to play basketball. It might sound funny, but I used to tell his mother all the time, this boy was put on this Earth just to play basketball.” —Houston Lillard Sr, Damian’s father

We’re in a gymnasium at the Portland adidas headquarters for the photo shoot of the cover of SLAM 176 during a late January afternoon, and Dame is doing nothing to prove the words of his pops incorrect. The minute he arrives at the court, he finds a ball and starts launching up shots, continuing to practice quick dribbling moves in between flicks.

During a break in the shoot, he sits on a nearby bleacher talking about his journey to the League and where he hopes to go from here. Clad in a Blazers jersey, matching shorts and his special edition black-and-red adidas Crazy 8s, he seems relaxed, comfortable. Which makes sense, because, come on: things could be plenty worse. He could not be the starting point guard of a team positioned firmly in the upper echelon of the ultra-competitive Western Conference. He could not be the reigning Rookie of the Year, an up-and-comer about to make his first All-Star Game in a few weeks. Shit, he could have never made it out of East Oakland in the first place.

That’s where it all began, of course. The Lillards had a little kiddie court set up in their living room, and Houston Sr (Damian’s big brother is Houston Jr) would watch in amazement as a tiny Dame would sink bank shot after bank shot. A couple miles away, outside his grandmother’s house in the Oakland neighborhood of Brookfield Village, Damian and his older cousins would shoot through a curved tree branch that resembled a hoop. “It got to the point that they got older and weren’t shooting on the tree no more, and I was still out there like it was new,” he says. Later, his grandfather posted a milk crate to a telephone pole, which became the boys’ new basket, until they outgrew that, too.

Eventually Lillard began hooping at the Brookfield Rec, where his game was honed facing off against kids from around the way. Damian could play, but he wasn’t great, and he didn’t have the work ethic required to take his talent to the next level. Then his father introduced him to Raymond Young, the coach of the Oakland Rebels, a local AAU team, and that rapidly changed. “His work ethic just switched overnight,” Houston Sr says. “All of a sudden he just picked up that good work ethic.”

Dame and his AAU teammates earned money for AAU trips by selling magazine subscriptions, raffle tickets and AAU-branded gear on the street. “We were on 4th Street in Berkeley out there all day, just trying to make sure we could get enough money,” he says. “That’s how we learned how to hustle, how to make a way.” Years later, Dame would make sure an adidas sponsorship for the Rebels was written into his first sneaker deal.

Lillard didn’t break out until his junior year, when he averaged 19.4 points at Oakland High School, and though an improved work ethic did put him on the radar of some mid-major schools, none of the big programs (including UNC, his dream school) came calling. Weber State had gotten in early, and Lillard, ever loyal, decided to sign there.

Ogden, Utah was certainly no Oakland, but Damian enjoyed the newfound serenity. His first Friday night in Ogden, at around 11 p.m., he walked over to a local Burger King, thinking how impossible it’d be to roam the streets of East Oakland at such an hour without having to worry about winding up in the wrong place at the wrong time, as he once did after a high school practice when three men—one brandishing a gun—rolled up on him at the Eastmont bus station, demanding he empty his pockets and give up his backpack.

To hear those who were around him tell it, Dame hit Weber State with a relentless hunger to get better. “The hardest working kid I’ve been around in 22 years,” says Randy Rahe, the team’s head coach. “We’d give him the weaknesses he had to work on, and he’d live in the gym until they got better.” He improved each year at Weber State, entering the Draft in 2012 projected as a top-15 pick. The Blazers owned No. 6 and 11, and though they felt he may be available at 11, GM Neil Olshey avoided the risk by scooping Dame at 6.

The rookie-to-be’s first-year goal had already been set. “When he was here he did his press conference announcing he’s going to the Draft,” Weber State assistant Phil Beckner says. “The press were here, and they’re like, ‘Dame, what’s your next goal?’ He goes, ‘I wanna be Rookie of the Year.’ Right after that I told him, Dame, you can’t say that stuff! You’re crazy. He’s like, ‘Phil, I’m gonna be Rookie of the Year.’” Though the Blazers struggled—finishing a disappointing 33-49, missing the postseason—Lillard lived up to his personal expectations, averaging 19 ppg, 6.5 apg and 3.1 rpg and earning ROY just as he claimed he would.

“Right after he got [Rookie of the Year], they did a YouTube thing here with the school, and the first thing he said was, ‘I told Phil I’m gonna be Rookie of the Year and he didn’t believe me,’” Beckner laughs. “He will prove anybody wrong.”

The 6-3 Lillard demonstrated he had a real future in the NBA right off the bat, scoring 23 and dishing 11 against the Lakers on opening night, then putting in 37 against the Warriors in his first game back in Oakland. He sank a game-winner vs New Orleans in December, debuting the aforementioned Lillard Face. More than anything, though, it was the poise he performed with that distinguished him from the rest of his rookie class.

“He’s always calm and cool,” says Earl Watson, Portland’s veteran reserve point guard. “His emotions are only visible when he’s aggressive during a big moment—like a big play or big dunk—but you’re not gonna rattle him, you’re not gonna make him nervous, and you’re not gonna put him in a situation where he’s uncomfortable.”

As we went to press, Dame’s numbers were similar to last year’s—2 more ppg, 1 less apg—but with the insane clutch performances and the little fact that the Blazers are swiftly becoming a fully formed contender (evidenced by victories over just about everyone, save the Miami Heat, who beat them by a single point), Lillard’s selection to the ASG was a sure thing.

“It just seems like he’s one of those guys that practices every day, and some of those shots he makes when he attacks the basket are like…” Blazers guard Wesley Matthews says, unable to finish his sentence while smiling and shaking his head. “He’s coming into his own.”

Lillard also stays in touch with Eggleton throughout the season, receiving text messages from the trainer filled with notes about improving his mental toughness and overall mindset. In early January, Eggleton sent Dame a YouTube link to a video called “Power and Serenity of the Focused Mind,” a series of Bruce Lee highlights from Enter The Dragon spliced together as Lee, and then a separate narrator, describe how one can use mind control to defeat an opponent.

Sure, it’s difficult to imagine an NBA player finding much use in the material there. But then you think about two teams sitting on their respective benches during a timeout, two minutes left in a close game, everyone exhausted to the brim, 10 sets of lungs searching for air. And you think about Damian Lillard, closing his eyes, somehow (successfully) convincing his body that it isn’t tired, perhaps remembering one of those ridiculous but timeless Bruce Lee quotes, and you realize, clock ticking down, with just enough time remaining for one player to step up and close it out … who the hell could possibly be better prepared for the moment than this guy?

***

After the photo shoot, Dame and some adidas reps walk to the employee store for a meet-and-greet with fans to celebrate the release of Lillard’s Crazy 8 PE. The shop’s blaring hip-hop music is turned up so loud that it’s difficult to hear much of the conversation between the star and those here to grab an autograph or snap a quick picture, but it’s obvious Dame has come a long way in the past 14 months. All 120 pairs of the sneaker released on this day are sold out over an hour before Lillard even walks through the front door, with some customers spending hours outside in the cold waiting for their favorite player to arrive.

One lady strolls in holding a baby not yet old enough to stand up on its own, asking for a signature on a pair of child’s shoes and excitedly proclaiming, “It’s his first pair!” A preteen in a LILLARD jersey tells Dame he was in attendance at the Moda Center the night prior, and that he witnessed Dame’s “ferocious dunk!” in person. A middle-aged woman gets a pair signed for her son, telling Dame, “Your mom must be proud.”

The following night, the Blazers best the Timberwolves at home to improve to 33-12, Lillard going for a relatively quiet 14 points during a tilt headlined by a LaMarcus Aldridge-Kevin Love big man showdown. But sitting in the arena, as it was at the adidas emoployee store, it’s evident that Damian Lillard Fever is very real. Fans flood the Moda Center wearing red and black LILLARD unis, and Lillard-loving fan signage is abundant, with “LILLARD FOR PREZ” and “ALL I WANT FOR MY 13TH BIRTHDAY IS TO MEET LILLARD” headlining the lot.

He still has a long way to go, but with each accolade—each crazy buzzer-beater, All-Star Game appearance and whatever it is that may follow—Dame’s climb to the top gains a little more steam. And he knows it. “I think there are [point guards] that are on a higher level of me based on their body of work, just how they see games,” he says. “It slowed down for me from year one to two, so a guy in year five or six, it’s probably unbelievable for them. But I think I’m at the top—not saying I’m the best, but I’m in the group of the better point guards in the League based off of what I bring to the table for my team every night.

“You’ve just got to want to prove it,” he continues, confidence oozing. “You’ve got to want to do it for the right reasons. I’m not here for the money or the fame or anything like that. I’m here to show who I am as a basketball player.”