|Lillard, now the nation's No. 1 scorer, was just a two-star recruit. (US Presswire)|
Damian Lillard just didn't have anywhere to shoot.
That was the problem.
The gym at Weber State was off-limits because -- like lots of gyms in the state of Utah on Sundays -- it was being rented out by Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses, and every other place Lillard knew about was also occupied. He was between his freshman and sophomore seasons at the time, and he was lost, with no idea what to do. So Lillard called one of his coaches, Weber State assistant Phil Beckner, and asked for a suggestion.
"I told him the only place open is the Ogden Athletic Club," Beckner recalled. "And I told him he'd have to pay $10 as a guest to work out there."
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"At first he told me he wasn't spending his money," Beckner said, at which point the coach turned the player's own words against him. Lillard, you see, was a lightly regarded prospect from Oakland coming out of high school -- just a two-star recruit, according to Scout.com. He grew up near the University of California but never received a scholarship offer from the Bears or any other nationally relevant program, and this placed a chip on his shoulder the size of a basketball. Lillard had spent more than a year telling his coaches about his dream to prove doubters wrong and that he planned to work hard to do it. It's one of the things the staff loved about him. They admired his fire.
And yet now he was balking?
"I said, 'Damian, the price of your dream has to be worth $10 of your own money,'" Beckner recalled. "And he was just quiet on the phone for a little while, but then he said, 'OK.' And that was a big turning point for him."
Go to the CBSSports.com college basketball page right now.
Click on Stats.
What you'll find is a picture of Damian Lillard -- a 6-foot-2 junior who is leading the nation in scoring. He's averaging 26.3 points per game after a 41-point performance in last weekend's win over San Jose State that led to Spartans coach George Nessman delivering the following to the Salt Lake Tribune: "I don't know if we'll face a scorer that good the rest of the season."
Odds are, they won't.
And they probably won't face a harder worker, either.
"I've been at the Division I level for 22 years, and I've never been around a kid who works like this," said Weber State coach Randy Rahe. "Damian just has an incredible work ethic. I mean, he scores 41 the other night and the next day he's in the gym [by himself] working on his ball-handling because it's not quite tight enough. And he works out so that we can win. Some kids work out so that they can put up numbers. But he works out so that our team has a better chance to win. That's what he's all about. He's just an incredible kid."
The stories about Lillard and his character and work ethic are easy to come by when talking to people around the Weber State program. They rave about how he treats his teammates and even the managers. They gush about the time he, unlike many college kids and most of his teammates, skipped the midnight showing of Twilight to get a late workout in. Just this week, Lillard had a final at 9 a.m. on Tuesday and practice scheduled at around noon. He finished the final by 10 and then ... took a little nap?
Played video games?
Lillard actually texted a coach and asked if he could get in an hour of shooting before the normal team practice. "He's just always working," Rahe said, which is why Weber State is 5-2 while Lillard is leading the nation in scoring, and that's why NBA scouts are starting to come through Ogden to evaluate the little guard who missed most of last season with a broken foot.
Bottom line, Lillard had a big dream years ago, and he never stopped dreaming it. And he never let anybody or anything crush it. Not the recruiting analysts who didn't rank him. Not the Cal staff that didn't offer him. Not the $10 of his own money that stood between him and an afternoon of offseason shooting a little more than two years ago. Not the broken foot that limited him to nine games last season.
He could've let that chip on his shoulder become a weight.
Instead, it became a motivator.
And now, Lillard hopes, it can be an inspiration to others overlooked.
"I would just tell them not to pout," he said. "Just keep working hard and getting better. It can pay off for you."