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.