When Damian Lillard accepted his Rookie of the Year award last week, he gave a five-minute speech. The Portland Trail Blazers point guard made sure to mention the naysayers that fueled him, bringing up all the things he heard a year prior: he didn't face the best competition at Weber State, he stayed in college for four years and he supposedly wasn't very athletic.
"It's almost as if he needed haters to propel him into his destiny," said Chris Farr.
Farr is an assistant coach at Loyola Marymount University. Last summer, he worked with Lillard to get him ready to show NBA scouts and executives what he could do. Farr remembers Lillard telling him about prospects from bigger schools snubbing him at team workouts, brushing him off. He remembers, years before that, Lillard not receiving an invite to a camp for the top local high school players.
Lillard didn't talk much about it. He just went to work. He'd show them.
Farr remembers the process, the preparation that went into his rise up the draft boards. He remembers Lillard drenched in sweat at the end of a session, saying it wasn't enough, saying he needed a little more.
"It just blew me out the water ‘cause I gave him everything I had," Farr said.
All of Lillard's workouts were at game speed, so nothing his potential employers put him through would tire him out.
Indiana Pacers assistant coach Brian Shaw counts Farr as his best friend. Shaw spent some time in the gym with them, coming away impressed with Lillard's basketball IQ, his shooting and -- most of all -- his ability to keep going and going.
Lillard played all 82 games in his first professional season, one that saw him become the eighth player in NBA history to sweep Rookie of the Month honors and the fourth to win Rookie of the Year unanimously. In addition to easily leading his class in points (19.0) and assists (6.5) per game, he led the entire league in total minutes played. You could quibble with his defense, but he was as equipped for the NBA as any rookie in recent memory.
"He's one of the best conditioned athletes in our league," Shaw said. "And most people don't know that."
When Lillard accepted his award, he made sure to mention the draft combine in Chicago. He played both days with a purpose; he wanted to prove he wasn't scared.
"He wanted to be on the floor, dominate the drill, but not only dominate the drill," said Jay Williams, formerly a star point guard at Duke and currently a college basketball analyst for ESPN and ESPNU. "[He wanted to] look into his opponent's eyes and [make] them understand that he dominated the drill."
At the combine, Williams saw Lillard's moxie, "myopic vision" and a mentality unmatched by his peers.
Before that, Williams shared the critics' common concerns and voiced them. He liked Lillard's game, but didn't know how his Big Sky Conference numbers would translate to the next level.
Those doubts started to disappear when watching the guards shoot around before their workout in Chicago. Williams anticipated Lillard would be slightly shorter and he thought his frame would be slightly smaller. His demeanor was more important than that, though. While most of the other guards were lollygagging before things got started, Lillard was locked in.
"I was like, ‘OK, I guess my overall assessment of Damian Lillard before I saw him was a little bit off,'" Williams said. "This was a different cat."
When Lillard accepted his award, he made sure to mention his hometown of Oakland. That's the place that taught him to be gritty, how to respond to adversity, how to handle himself.
"If you're truly, truly from Oakland, you're not really backing down from nobody," said Farr, who grew up an Oakland point guard like Lillard, Shaw, Gary Payton and Jason Kidd.
You could see that fearlessness on the floor. There were no signs of nerves with pressure-filled shots or situations. Lillard scored 37 points in his first game at Oakland's Oracle Arena, with hundreds of friends and family in attendance. The first time he played under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, he hit a stepback three-pointer to seal a win over the Knicks.
Those who know Lillard away from the game describe him as easy-going, funny and family-first. In interviews, he's always poised, polite and patient. But none of this takes away from his Oakland-style toughness. Farr calls him an assassin.
"He's the opposite of [Payton], he's real quiet," Farr said. "He's a verb, he's an action word. He gets it done by his actions."
When Lillard accepted his award, he made sure to mention his expectations of himself. The accomplishment didn't surprise him -- he knew he put in the work to earn it. He made it a goal when he declared for the draft.
Believing in yourself isn't usually enough, though. Ups and downs are inevitable for just about everyone coming into the league. The rookie wall is as much mental as it is physical. The schedule is the most obvious factor, but there isn't an aspect of life that stays the same. Even the most thoroughly-prepared players take time to adjust.
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer, USA TODAY Sports
Lillard stood out because his transition appeared smooth, almost seamless. He dealt with the increased expectations that came with his early success, he dealt with defenses designed to stop him. He didn't appear to change despite all of the off-court things that did.
"You go from never really having any money to all of a sudden being an instant millionaire," said Williams, picked second overall by Chicago a decade before Lillard's draft.
Out of college, Williams' skills were spectacular, but he still struggled throughout the Bulls' 30-52 campaign. He detailed those difficulties in a piece in New York Times earlier this year.
"It's easy to lose yourself because it's a different world that is very based off material things, and sometimes basketball becomes secondary to the lifestyle," Williams said, recalling the newness of the private planes and the car services and the ability to do or buy whatever you want.
He warned of the people around you afraid to say no to anything and the "random women who know who you are."
Portland finished just 33-49 this year, but Lillard never let any resulting frustration derail him. His effort stayed the same as his team lost its last 13 games, even with several starters out of the lineup with injuries. As much as Lillard's work ethic and competitiveness made noise leading up to the draft, his ability to stay grounded and consistent during the season spoke volumes.
"Even with the accolades now, he is so humble," Farr said. "Like a Derrick Rose humble, it really truly is. That's what's important to me, to see him like that after all this."
After Lillard's acceptance speech, he took questions from the assembled media. The final question was a simple one: How does he top this?
He said he needed to let it go the next day and focus on what's next. Lillard wanted to look forward to possible All-Star appearances, MVP awards and championships, not back at what he had already accomplished.
"He's serious," Farr said, speaking from experience.
Shortly after Lillard's last regular season game, he asked Farr if they could get started on a workout schedule. "Not now, Dame," Farr said he told him. Farr urged Lillard to take a month to get some rest before worrying about improving his game.
"That's the kind of kid he is," said Farr with a laugh. "He's like, ‘Farr, but I want to get back at it.'"
It's fortunate Lillard's so self-motivated. It can't be all about proving detractors wrong once you've turned them into believers.