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For most basketball players, a game-winning shot typically precedes a moment of immense joy. Forty-eight minutes of intense competition—and hours upon hours of laborious practice beforehand—have come down to a single jumper, and then that jumper finds the bottom of the net, and it was all worth it, and the genuine elation and joy that results is (and should be) palpable, unmistakable.
Let’s use some top-secret Internet technology to get a bit closer.
I noticed at some point during the past few months that Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard seems to react differently than most, though. After his last-second buckets, of which there have already been asmallhandful during his one-and-a-half years in the L, the Oakland native scrunches up his face as if he just smelled something horrible, stares daggers at nothing in particular, and juts his jaw a la late-career Kobe Bryant. Check out the below photo, snapped immediately after Lillard buried the New Orleans Hornets less than two months into his rookie campaign:
There it is. That look has fascinated me since Lillard first began draining clutch shots during the winter of 2012—not only that he has an amazing method of demonstrating all-out excitement, but that he completely skipped the requisite “Woooooo this is really happening!”-type emotion that most rookies exhibit after hitting their first huge shots and jumped directly to, “Yeah, I just did that”-styled confidence. Transitions are overrated, anyway.
When I sat down with Dame in late January, this subject was one of the first things we discussed. Here he is on the matter: “That’s the East Oakland in me. 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 fun answer, especially because now, at the onset of the second week of February, 2014, we know exactly what “what” is: A starring role in the upcoming All-Star Weekend, during which the 23-year-old will be participating in the Rising Stars Challenge, the Skills Challenge, the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, the Three-Point Shootout and the actual All-Star Game—the first player to ever hit all five events. He also remains the starting point guard of the feisty Portland Trail Blazers, a group off to an excellent 36-15 start and one that could absolutely (and somewhat shockingly) come out of the West this season.
And, of course, that “what” includes the reason we’re here now: his first SLAM cover. Dynamic photography duo JUCO shot Dame on the adidas campus a few weeks ago, and along with attending the shoot, I spent a half a week in Portland, caught a pair of Blazers games and held a lengthy interview with Dame for the cover story. You’ll need to pick up the issue to read that piece in full (though it’ll creep online in a couple weeks), but here are some quotes from our conversation in the meantime:
On maintaining the hard-nosed edge he had when he first entered the League:
DL: Over the summer, I was scared. I woke up nervous a lot of times. In the morning, it’d be 9 o’clock, and I’d get up nervous, because I was so busy with stuff I had to do like Rookie of the Year appearances, and business stuff, that I didn’t have the time right away to start working out, and that’s all I was used to doing. So when I wasn’t able to do that I feared I wouldn’t be better than I was last year. So that type of edge, it’s not something that I force myself to think about, but it bothers me. Having that type of thought process and edge is what allows me to keep wanting to get better and keep expecting more.
On how he matches up against the NBA’s best point guards:
DL: I think I’m up there. I think there are guys that are on a higher level of me based on their body of work, just how they see games—it slowed down for me from year one to two, so a guy in year five or six, it’s probably unbelievable for them. 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.
On which PGs he enjoys facing the most:
DL: Russell Westbrook. Chris Paul, too. Chris Paul, just because he’s the consensus best point guard in the League to a lot of people. But Russell Westbrook because he’s a killer. He’s always in attack mode—he wants to outplay you. That matchup for me is like, if I can get the best of him, then I’m moving up. He’s in attack mode when he has the ball, and he’s gonna attack you on defense. He plays both sides, and he’s one of the guys I have respect for. That’s probably the matchup I look forward to the most.
On his unrelenting will to keep getting better:
DL: You’ve just got to want to prove it. 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.
There’s plenty more in the story, including quotes from Dame’s father, teammates, coaches, and his trainer, Anthony Eggleton, who breaks down the awesomely bizarre “high-level martial arts” lessons he regularly instills in our cover star. (If you’re wondering how and why Dame, who’s averaging 19.0 ppg and 6.5 apg at the moment, is so good with the game on the line, some of that might explain it.)
Plus, we’ve got a bunch of non-Lillard reasons to pick up this issue, including great features on up-and-coming stars like Klay Thompson, Jeff Teague and Gordon Hayward, a look at the careers and current lives of ex-NBA greats Adrian Dantley and Marques Johnson, a candid conversation with the one and only Yao Ming, and lots more.
It’ll be available in New York City this week and on newsstands nationwide early next week. Read it with your best post-buzzer-beater expression on full display. Or don’t. Either way, enjoy!
Read more at http://www.slamonline.com/the-magazine/toc/damian-lillard-slam-magazine-cover/#X70eLefrL5UybGHm.99
Trail Blazers Star Damian Lillard’s Psychological Secret Weapon
How the fourth-quarter hero stays calm under pressure (hint: it involves a "mental coach").
Damian Lillard is ice cold under pressure. Which is good, because there’s a lot of it these days.
On a Monday at the Trail Blazers’ practice facility in Tualatin, a scrum of reporters surrounds the six-foot, three-inch point guard. The day before, Lillard’s first Super Bowl commercial aired. His new Adidas signature shoe is plastered all over social media. And even a snub from the 2015 All-Star team the week prior, thanks to the resulting media uproar, proved a kind of validation. (He was later named to the team after all.) As far as Lillard—a 24-year-old from Oakland who played college ball at backwater Weber State, conference rival to Portland State—is concerned, this is all part of the plan.
“The way I see it,” he says after the media pack dissipates, “a lot of the things I work for are paying off. People start to expect more from you as far as performances, what you do for your team, how far your team goes. Off the floor, it just gives me a larger crowd to reach out to. I come from a tough neighborhood. It’s big for me to be able to be a presence for kids.”
Lillard’s nerve-defying cool under pressure often comes out with games on the line, as when he nailed an instantly legendary last-second shot against the Houston Rockets in last year’s playoffs. This year, he’s hovered at or near the top of the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring and ESPN’s Bill Simmons rhapsodized that Lillard is a “world-class, biggest-shot-of-the-game kind of guy.”
“I’m absolutely blank. Blanked out,” he says. “I’m on the bench, I do my breathing techniques. I put myself into a space where I can just lock into that moment.”
“He’s turning off the parts of your brain that tell you you’re fatigued, and that you’re going to miss the shot,” explains Anthony Eggleton, 55, a performance trainer in Oakland who started working with Lillard when he was in middle school. Lillard calls Eggleton his “mental coach.”
“Everyone thinks everything is physical,” Eggleton says, “but you can control the secretion of hormones.”
While he doesn’t take credit for anyone’s natural talent or athleticism—which in Lillard’s case Eggleton says was evident from the moment he saw him—Eggleton helps basketball players, swimmers, gymnasts, and runners take their skills “to the next level.” He’s trained former Blazer Patty Mills and the Houston Rockets’ Nick Johnson, as well as middleweight boxing champion Andre Ward. Part neuroscience, part martial arts, Eggleton’s system involves a wide array of techniques, from painting the gym blue and orange (colors that, he says, enhance concentration and calm, respectively) to identifying and concentrating on nerve centers in the body responsible for improved athleticism. There is a spot on the navel, for instance, that he says controls fine motor skills.
“What we do is build up the energy in this center by placing hands on it, breathing and concentrating on it,” says Eggleton. “And over time, this energy center, it grows. Then we’ll begin to go into different areas.
“Dame was really, really receptive,” Eggleton adds. “I think that’s why he’s achieved so much. He has a really open mind. He trusted me.”
Advanced meditation on the Trail Blazers bench? In mindful Portland, perhaps it’s not all that surprising. “Some people might think that’s crazy,” says Lillard. “But I believe in it. I clear my mind.”
Dame, it’s only crazy if it doesn’t work.