'We All Want this Light-Switch Moment With Those We Lead'
The Daily Coach recently caught up with Phil Beckner to discuss how he navigated childhood hardship, why he refuses to put a ceiling on development, and why leaders need to pay it forward.
It was 10:30 p.m. — and the freshman was standing in a hotel hallway lamenting his poor performance in his team's collapse.
“Man, I gotta be better,” he told his assistant coach.
“Yeah, you need to work harder to be better,” the coach shot back. “You don’t stay after practice. You’re always one of the first guys to leave.”
The next day, the freshman did stay. And the day after that. And the day after that.
Then, near the end of one workout in particular, he flashed a smile — and uttered seven words that still give the coach goosebumps more than a decade later.
“I think you like working with me.”
The player was Damian Lillard — who was last year named one of the NBA's 75 greatest ever — and the coach was Phil Beckner, now among the most highly-regarded basketball trainers in the world.
The Daily Coach recently caught up with Beckner to discuss how he navigated childhood hardship, why he refuses to put a ceiling on development, and why he feels it’s so important for leaders to pay it forward.
This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity.
Coach, thanks a lot for doing this. Tell us a little about your childhood and some lessons from it.
I had a tough childhood, some would call it traumatic. I grew up in Buckeye, Ariz., a town of 9,000, in a broken home. My dad was a big drug dealer, went to prison three different times, and ended up committing suicide before my sophomore year of high school. I don’t mind talking about it and sharing that, because I really hope my story can help impact others.
The people who mentored me and invested in me were huge. A lot of people didn’t know what I was going through because of how I carried myself. The biggest thing I learned now looking back in middle school, junior high and high school is there are a lot of good people in the world who care about mentoring and leading and impacting others. A lot of people outside my family took time to show me a better way, and without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I learned there are plenty of kids out there in classrooms who just need some attention and affirmation and acceptance from those people outside their family.
You’re 15 or 16 years old when your dad takes his life. How did you continue on and make sense of everything around you?
We all need an escape, a release, and mine was basketball. I loved the game, watching and playing, and always had dreams of making it to the NBA. I really wanted to play in college and prove people wrong that I could get out of a small town and play basketball and overcome some obstacles.
I tried to be really good in school, get good grades. I wasn’t a great player. I played NAIA, small college, but I think that’s what most people struggle with today. They either go down the same path that they’ve seen or they go down a completely different one. That’s what I tried to do. I saw the stuff that hurt families, that hurt futures, and I tried to go the opposite way.
You played at Kansas Wesleyan for four years. How did you end up getting onto the coaching staff at Weber State?
I decided to go from Kansas Wesleyan back to my alma mater, Buckeye High School, where I was a JV coach and varsity assistant, then I went to Apollo High School in Glendale, Ariz. I was extremely passionate and extremely clueless. I didn’t know what plays to run or what drills to do. Back then, you just thought if you yelled at a kid or ran him a lot, you were a good coach.
Randy Rahe (then the head coach at Weber State) called me one day and was like, “I know you said you wanted to coach college. We’ll hire you. Let me know when you come up. We’ll put your picture on the website. There’s only one bad part of it: We have no money. We can’t pay you.”
Well, I had been preparing and saved up quite a bit and wanted to do whatever to make it work. I was a director of basketball operations, a graduate assistant, a video guy, filled up the water. You name it. I was working a night shift at Costco a little bit as well during the off-season. I’d go 8:30 to 5:30 at Weber State, then would drive to Costco and work four or five hours a night.
You learn two things in doing all of that. One: How bad you really want it. Everyone says they want something until it gets really, really tough. When you’re eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for six months and are exhausted, and they don’t get to take you on every road trip, it’s like, “Do you really want to do this?”
The second thing I learned is there are certain things you can do to separate yourself, and if you’re willing to do them at an extremely high and consistent level, you will.
What do you remember about early Damian Lillard and why do you think you two clicked?
The first month or two we had him on campus for summer and fall workouts, we didn’t know if he was going to make it or not. We thought we were going to have to send him home. He didn’t play hard enough, he didn’t work hard enough, he wasn’t tough enough.
We’d be in a workout playing five-on-five and he could almost throw this Kevin Love-type outlet pass, and then he would walk up the court and not play after that, just as slow as could be. We’d be yelling, “Run! Go play!”
A lot of people give me credit for his development, but there are a lot of other people along the way who really prepared him. His AAU coach, Raymond Young, is a great guy who laid such a tremendous foundation with the kid. He told him the truth, challenged him, kicked his a-- all the time.
That night his freshman year in the hotel hallway, Dame looked at me and said, “It’s so hard because I used to have a guy who challenged me and worked me out. Here, I don’t have that.” I said tomorrow we’d stay after practice and shoot. We did that, then again the next day. After that, every day he was doing something with me.
I think this might be valuable for any coach or leader reading this. We all want this light-switch moment with those we lead or are mentoring. But I don’t always think there’s a light switch. There are pillars along the way, though, where people continue to take step after step, and Dame’s the best example. He started working harder, he started doing better, but he didn’t just become this absolute killer and assassin. There were pillars where his back was against the wall and I was challenging him extremely hard, and he had to make a decision.
At that point, you can go one way or another. He made the correct decision, and it was a pillar in his career. As coaches, it’s our job to coach with the end in mind and be patient in that process. Sometimes, we have to appreciate and celebrate the pillars along the way.
You have some interesting thoughts on defining reality but not putting a ceiling on anyone’s development.
Dame still tells people I said he was going to be in the G-League and maybe a late first-round pick. That’s what I thought. But that’s why I now challenge coaches and players to never put a ceiling on anyone’s development.
You have to define reality for a player, how hard it is to make it, what the requirements are going to be. But don’t put a ceiling on their goals or dreams. That’s not up to us to do.
I say this all the time. The greatest way for a coach or leader to be successful is to just make the m----------r in front of you better. Whoever’s in front of you, just show up and continue to make them better. Challenge them, give them the truth, put your arm around them when they don’t deserve it sometimes. If you can make the person in front of you better, great things are going to happen for them and great things are going to happen for you.
You both recently started Formula Zero, a personal development program for high school and college players. Why is helping others and paying it forward still such a major priority for you both?
I was speaking at a clinic in Chicago seven or eight years ago and had three topics that day: player development, pick and roll, building a winning culture. I was in an Uber and texting with Dame telling him I was about to speak to 300 coaches, give me some advice. I thought he’d give me something great about change pace, change direction or playing pick and roll, but he sent three words: “Impact somebody else.”
I was just thinking, “Wow, we’ve come a long way.” For the last three or four years, we’ve seen so much wrong with our game and the next generation of players. Most people criticize, condemn and go after. To be a good leader and a special player like he is, we wanted to come up with a solution and teach kids our formula for how we train and build lives.
The formula comes down to three things: Character, work ethic, accountability. It’s gotten so much easier to make the NBA and so much harder to stay. We’ve hired a character coach. There were eight other NBA players working the camp pouring into these kids. We want it to be a life-changing experience, and we continue to mentor them once-a-month with me, Dame, our character coach, other coaches.
Damian Lillard ended camp for these 40 kids over the summer giving every single one his phone number saying, “Reach out to me. Don’t just hit me on Instagram.” I think that aligns pretty well with that text he sent me that day.