The Player Whisperer: Lillard, other NBA stars flock to work with trainer Phil Beckner

The Player Whisperer: Lillard, other NBA stars flock to work with trainer Phil Beckner

Phil Beckner, left, attracts many top NBA players, including Portland’s Damian Lillard, right, who said Beckner is “one of the best trainers out there, if not the best.” (Photo by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

Phil Beckner, left, attracts many top NBA players, including Portland’s Damian Lillard, right, who said Beckner is “one of the best trainers out there, if not the best.” (Photo by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Just as Devin Booker sank a 3-pointer in Game 2 of the 2021 NBA Finals, giving the Phoenix Suns a 10-point lead and prompting a roar from the crowd, Phil Beckner’s phone pinged.

It was a text from the Philadelphia 76ers.

The organization was offering the player development coach, who was cheering on clients Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson at the time, a job: consultant to the coaching staff, which would allow him to develop and coach players on his terms.

“I used to pray to God like, ‘Please make me 6-6 so I can play in the NBA,’” Beckner said, chuckling. “And it’s crazy how it all works out because I was looking at that text like, ‘Oh, this is cool.’”


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Who is Phil Beckner?

If you ask Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, Beckner is a “firecracker” who played a role in helping Lillard become the man he is and even a more prominent role in the player he is today.

“He is one of the best trainers out there, if not the best trainer out there,” Lillard said recent from The Phhacility basketball training center.

If you ask NBA free agent Tim Frazier, Beckner is a trainer and mentor, on and off the court.

“He truly wants to impact the next guy,” Frazier said. “He doesn’t want fame and stays out of the light. He just wants to be able to say, ‘I keep impacting others.’”

If you ask Philadelphia 76ers guard/forward Matisse Thybulle, Beckner is a “control freak” who holds himself and everyone to a higher standard, and the “proof is in the pudding.”

“I don’t want anyone to know about Phil,” Thybulle said. “I want him all to myself, and if more knew (of him), then I may get less (time with him to train).”

However, if you ask Beckner who he is, he’ll tell you, “I am nobody.”

Beckner is someone NBA players will follow across the country to work out with, whether in Vegas or Philadelphia. Some even move to Beckner’s home state of Arizona to train with him.

NBA players including Darius Bazley of the Thunder, left, will travel across the country to train with Beckner. (Photo by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

Although Beckner believes in tough love and holds everyone to a higher standard, his behavior is tailored to each player.

Lillard used to stay on campus during the summers at Weber State and would wake up at 6 a.m. every day to train with Beckner. (Photos by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

Left: Although Beckner believes in tough love and holds everyone to a higher standard, his behavior is tailored to each player. Right: Lillard used to stay on campus during the summers at Weber State and would wake up at 6 a.m. every day to train with Beckner. (Photos by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

The early years

It was 1993, and Beckner, 10, had already seen his father imprisoned three times before he later died by suicide ahead of Beckner’s sophomore year of high school.

He had several stepdads in his life, and consistency was the furthest thing from his life except when it came to basketball.

He would always be in the park, and when he wasn’t playing basketball, he would be at home cheering on his favorite team, the Phoenix Suns.

Other times, he was praying to be taller so he could play in NBA. Unknowingly, basketball became his escape and a constant variable in his life.

Beckner went on to play for four years at Kansas Wesleyan University, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Physical Education (2005). He then proceeded to various coaching positions at Weber State University (2008-14), the NBA D-League affiliate Oklahoma City Blue (2014-15) and Boise State (2016-17) until he finally decided to retire from coaching and move back to Arizona to “train and impact players.”

“That’s when I knew people would find out about Phil,” Lillard said. “(After he retired from coaching) I knew that nobody could do it the way he does because nobody’s heart and intentions are like his.”

Lillard met Beckner at Weber State when Lillard was 17 and a two-star recruit who wasn’t ranked nationally.

(Photo and audio by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

Firecracker

It was Weber State in 2008 where an important relationship formed that helped shape the direction of his career.

Beckner, 25, was in his second year as a “volunteer” director of basketball operations.

Volunteer translates to Weber State not having the funds to support the position, so Beckner worked for free from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during his first two years.

To make money, he would work the night shift at Costco. He could be found in the walk-in deep freezer stocking chicken nuggets from 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. in his oversized Weber State hoodie and gloves.

“I just really wanted to get into college basketball,” Beckner said. “And it’s crazy because then, my second year at Weber, this newly recruited 17-year-old kid walks into the gym.”

That kid was Lillard.

At the time, Lillard was a two-star recruit who wasn’t ranked nationally.

“I just wasn’t good enough in his eyes,” Lillard said. “He asked me if I wanted to work out with him, and that’s where it all started. I was the lab rat.”

Lillard used to stay on campus during the summers and woke up at 6 a.m. every day to train with Beckner.

“He held me to a higher standard,” Lillard said. “I was never late to class or a workout, and it got to the point where I was on time to everything.”

One morning Lillard was struggling.

Although Beckner believes in tough love and holds everyone to a higher standard, his behavior is tailored to each player. (Photo by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

Shoots – missed. Shoots – missed. Shoots – missed.

Lillard’s shots kept falling short and hitting the front of the rim.

“How many times are you going to miss!” Beckner yelled. “You keep having the same result over and over! Get the ball over the rim!”

Shoots – missed.

This time Beckner caught Lillard’s rebound and torpedoed a one-handed bullet pass at Lillard in frustration.

Lillard caught the ball and threw it back at him.

Beckner wasn’t expecting the return and turned to the side where the ball contacted his leg. Before Beckner could react, Lillard was already walking out of the gym, which led to a heated debate in the locker room.

Lillard didn’t finish the workout and went home.

“I pride myself on rising above situations, and I didn’t that time,” Lillard said. “I shouldn’t have walked out on the workout and shouldn’t have let the situation get the best of me.”

Just as Lillard was about to text Beckner to apologize, Beckner texted him: “Dame, like no matter how much I’m getting on you or what happened, you have to be able to respond … ”

Beckner ended the text exchange by taking accountability for his actions, apologizing and correcting Lillard on what he expected of him.

“That’s when I knew,” Lillard said, “He’s not doing anything then or now for gain. There was nothing for him there.

“I was at Weber State, and nobody knew who I was, but he was all about me and me getting the message: to know that he just wants the best for me and wants me to make it no matter what.”

Mattise Thybullle muses that Beckner is a “control freak” who holds himself and everyone to a higher standard. But he also acknowledged that trait is an important part of Beckner’s success.

(Photo and audio by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

Impacting others

Without any firecrackers, there would be no fireworks, and that’s what happened with Frazier and Beckner.

“He broke me,” Frazier said.

A few years ago, during a workout in Portland, Beckner had Frazier participate in a drill where he had to shoot a certain number of 3-pointers in a set amount of time.

Frazier was going as hard as he could, but the fatigue settled in, and Frazier could go no longer.

“Do you want to be in the NBA, or do you want to be something special?” Beckner would say.

Frazier and Beckner continued the workouts with little success.

“I just couldn’t beat the workout,” Frazier said, “But the thing with Phil is you’re always going to know why you missed the shot. It’s not like, ‘Oh, you missed.’

Players have teamed with Beckner to support his foundation “Be Better. Be Different.” He calls its vision “giving others the guidance needed to take that next step in their life.” (Photo by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

“It’s, ‘This is why you missed, and this is how you’ll make it next time.’”

Habits and responses are two essential separators that Beckner uses to distinguish whether a player is worth investing in, and Frazier was.

Habit: If a player goes out and gets drunk one weekend, is he going to do that every weekend? Response: If a coach is demanding on a player, will the player quit or take the coaching?

“You have to bump heads with someone to see their true self,” Frazier said. “I saw how much he cared about me as a man first and then as a player.”

Now the Houston native spends his off-seasons in Arizona to train with Beckner.

Beckner’s intent is what moved Frazier and Lillard to partner with Beckner’s nonprofit Be Better. Be Different, a foundation providing resources, mentors and guidance to those in need to improve their life.

In the past, the foundation has sent NBA players and personnel as guest speakers to schools, as well as supplied resources such as shoes and shirts to the students.

“(Phil) will always ask me, ‘Who did you impact today?’” Frazier said. “He just wants to pour into the next person because he truly believes that person will pour into the next and so on.”

NBA free agent Tim Frazier, left, said Beckner is a talented trainer, but he also values how much of a mentor Beckner is as well.

(Photo and audio by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

Control freak

Beckner is as stern as they come because he expects so much of himself. He wants to provide the absolute best for his clients – and that also starts with his staff.

The staff is mandated to wear a watch at all times.

One day, a staff member arrived to work without a watch. Boom. The staff member was kicked out of the gym. Nobody is safe.

“To Phil, it’s not acceptable,” Thybulle said. “Some may let them off the hook, but to Phil, it’s like, ‘You’re taking away from the player’s opportunity to get better.’”

Although Beckner believes in tough love and holds everyone to a higher standard, his behavior is tailored to each player, so the reactions Lillard may receive from Beckner vary from what Thybulle may receive.

“I’m somewhat fragile,” Thybulle joked. “And neurotic. But Phil just thinks I’m a weirdo. So, Phil has a way of understanding what a player needs and communicates it in a concise way that’s easily understood.”

There are moments when Thybulle gets into his own head and spirals, and people struggle to communicate with him. Beckner can.

“He can see when it’s happening,” Thybulle said, “And he can snap me out of it better than anyone. It’s another testament to his intelligence of basketball and his feel(ing) of people.”

However, Thybulle still gets kicked out of the gym at times, but he’s been in Beckner’s “good graces” for quite some time now.

NBA players including Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards, left, will travel across the country to train with Beckner. (Photo by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

Beckner is known for pushing players hard during workouts because he is determined to bring out the best in them. (Photo by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

Beckner, right, said he is fueled by his challenging upbringing to make life better for others. (Photo by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

Beckner, left, said, “We all need people to pick us up and pour into us. …. The best thing I can do is pay it forward by pouring into everyone around me.” (Photo by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

Players who work with Beckner not only get the benefit of training with a high-level coach but of competing against other top athletes. (Photo by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

Players have teamed with Beckner to support his foundation “Be Better. Be Different.” He calls its vision “giving others the guidance needed to take that next step in their life.” (Photo by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

Lillard used to stay on campus during the summers at Weber State and would wake up at 6 a.m. every day to train with Beckner. (Photo by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

Philadelphia 76ers guard/forward Matisse Thybulle joked that he doesn’t want anybody to know about Beckner because “I want him all to myself.” (Photo by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

John 3:30

Beckner’s journey has transformed him into the person and trainer he is today, whether that’s training some of the greatest talents in the NBA, adopting a 17-year-old boy from a group home who is making a successful transition to independent living this year, inviting players to church, starting a nonprofit to serve the community or letting players stay with him while they train.

“We all need people to pick us up and pour into us,” Beckner said. “I came from a very broken home and childhood, and if people hadn’t poured into me, then none of this would be (possible).

“The best thing I can do is pay it forward by pouring into everyone around me.”

One scripture Beckner holds dearly is John 3:30: “He must become greater; I must become less.”

Beckner believes a person is a result of others contributing to their life or a gift from God, which is essentially why he considers himself a “nobody.”

He credits his success to his players and God, which is why he holds everyone and himself to a higher standard.

“There will never be a point where I feel like I’ve become the man or I’ve made it,” Beckner critically said, “Because I have to keep getting better, so I don’t let the guys down.

“It’s constant growth. I’m not the smartest or the most talented, but I can show up every day because if I see my players fail on the court, I feel like I let them down.”

Ruby Arora

Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Ruby Arora is working on a second master’s degree in sports journalism. Arora has interned under NBA managers and NFL affiliates, most recently Pacers Sports & Entertainment. Her first master’s degree is in sports management; she also has a business marketing degree. Arora has a graduate assistantship at the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at ASU.

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