PORTLAND, Ore. — The journey for one of the NBA's 75 greatest basketball players runs through a barbecue restaurant in Utah.
"Every Sunday we would go eat at Famous Dave's when I was in college," said Portland Trail Blazers star guard Damian Lillard. "There wasn’t a Sunday we didn’t go to Famous Dave's."
Those weekly dinners with Phil Beckner set the foundation for a bond that runs deeper than basketball.
"We would talk about what was going on with my family in Oakland, my mom is about to lose her job, one of my cousins went to prison, this person is sick," Lillard said. "It was like I never had to question where he actually stood, so I trusted everything that he was pushing me to do more and that relationship has just evolved more."
Beckner was one of Lillard's coaches at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah and now is the Blazers star's long-time trainer. Beckner has helped Lillard become a six-time All-Star and one of the greatest Trail Blazers of all-time. It's a relationship that's persisted for 14 years and counting.
"Some of the former Trail Blazers staff used to give us crap all the time," Beckner said. "You guys have lasted longer than some marriages. We always get into it so much."
They often bumped heads, especially when Lillard first arrived at Weber State as a 17-year-old.
"I was like the best recruit they had in a long time," Lillard said. "Everybody was welcoming me, excited to have me. I literally remember, to this day, our coaches used to watch us in the tunnels [at the arena], and Phil would always be in the background just looking, like he seemed upset. He would always tell me, 'You’re not that good' and 'I don’t know who you think you are, just because you’re from Oakland don’t make you tough.' He was just always on me about something."
Lillard said his first class of the day at Weber State started at 8 a.m. and every day, Beckner would be standing outside his class, waiting to see if he would be late. He said he couldn't get a moment of peace without hearing from Beckner about something.
"Blowing my phone up," Lillard said. "'Did you take an ice bath?' 'How many shots did you shoot?' 'What time did you go to sleep?' 'You chasing girls around campus?' He was just on my case about every little thing to the point where I was calling my dad saying, 'This dude is crazy.'"
Beckner was persistent in challenging Lillard and his message started to break through. "Eventually it 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 a willingness. Something we've been talking about a lot this offseason with him and praising him on is the willingness he has to do anything from his coach," Beckner said. "Just for him to have that discipline, even as a young dude in college and to see it grow now has been really impressive. He's not afraid of road blocks. He's not afraid of things that might get in his way. He's going to attack them head on."
The coaching didn’t stop once Lillard declared for the NBA draft. In an interview before the draft, Lillard said he wanted to be rookie of the year.
"As soon as I got done with that interview, he lost it," Lillard said, smiling. "'Why do you think you’re going to be rookie of the year? Why are you saying stuff like that? You aren’t even that good.' He was on my case.
"We had a big blowup 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 accountability and a lot of challenges, but on the back side of that, 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 are like family.
"Being in the NBA now, outside 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 do too much to maybe feel like they're going to make me mad or something. Phil is like the complete opposite. It's been great for me even as a professional to have somebody that will say whatever he wants because he knows his intentions are right and he knows he's really on my side. That's how our relationship has been."
That bond is one piece of the formula that's made Lillard the man he is today. It inspired his Formula Zero basketball camp, where he relishes sharing those lessons of basketball and life with the next generation.
Lillard said he would go back to Weber State during the offseason and work out. He'd be joined by younger 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's learned during his decade in the league — "casual conversations," he'd call them. Lillard shared things he was taught by veteran teammates when he was young, players like Earl Watson and Mo Williams.
Beckner noticed the connection Lillard was making with the younger players.
"It got to the point where Phil would be like, 'You gotta share more. You don't say a lot but you gotta start sharing more of what you know, your experience, what people put into you and what makes you, you,'" Lillard said.
The rest is history. Lillard invited some of the top high school and college prospects in the country to Beaverton for his first Formula Zero camp. Some of Lillard's messages about humility and entitlement have been viewed thousands of times across social media, creating a conversation around culture and the state of basketball.
"All of these people wanting this and kissing their ass, putting them in a position where they feel entitled," Lillard said, talking about how he feels elite young basketball players are handled today. "Their mentality is messed up about what it's going to be, having to earn stuff, having to work, taking criticism, listening and being 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 can't get them through.
"You gotta be stable and strong mentally. You gotta be sturdy and have something you can stand on because it gets tough for all of us," he said. "That’s something that has been put into me my whole life that people encouraged."
Lillard said he learned those lessons from people who care about him, including Beckner. Those meetups 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, worked with NBA guys now. There’s not too many people you find such a deep connection with. He was a big WWF fan, I was a big WWF fan. He was an ultra-competitive guy, I was an ultra-competitive guy. I think what those dinners did was keep 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 even after 15 years, Lillard still amazes him.
"The level of work that dude puts in, I’ll be honest, it's brought me to tears some times," he said. "There's been workouts where I'm watching him and it's moving me to an emotion because of how hard he tries, how much he wants to win a championship, how much he truly cares about others."