The NBA’s “player empowerment” era has been a positive development in certain respects—pioneers like LeBron James have used their platform to bridge the gap between owners and individual players while shining a light on a flawed system, assigning incoming rookies to teams and cities they never would have chosen on their own. However, it’s also birthed its share of negative consequences with disgruntled superstars holding teams hostage and displaying general “diva” tendencies, routinely throwing coaches and teammates under the bus in pursuit of their own self-interests. The Brooklyn Nets “super team” featuring the high-maintenance likes of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden has been a fascinating case study to follow, balancing the egos and personalities of three ball-dominant megastars in their athletic primes, all unfolding in the country’s largest and, by extension, most demanding media market.
But one player who has largely eschewed that narrative is two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose immaculate Finals performance (on a hyperextended knee, no less) has warranted flattering comparisons to Lakers-Era Shaquille O’Neal. The 26-year-old’s heroic block of Suns seven-footer DeAndre Ayton in the waning moments of Wednesday night’s Game 4 could go down as one of the great defensive stops in Finals history, rivaling a play by then-Cavaliers superstar LeBron James, denying Andre Iguodala at the rim with an epic chase-down block in 2016.
Giannis, who, rather than flocking to a star-laden super team in a major media market, committed to the Bucks long-term by agreeing to a five-year max extension, now has Milwaukee on the cusp of its first title since Lew Alcindor (later rebranded as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) led them to championship glory in 1971. Throughout his meteoric rise from scrawny overseas experiment (the Bucks, in what will go down as one of the greatest coups in draft history, selected him 15th overall in 2013) to a global phenomenon and future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, Antetokounmpo has managed to avoid many of the pitfalls that have plagued athletes of similar superstar stature, keeping a level head while preaching the virtues of hard work and accountability.
Prompted by a question posed by Sam Amick of The Athletic, Antetokounmpo spoke with unusual candor during Friday’s media availability, warning of the dangers players face when confronted by pride and ego. “From my experience, like when I think about, ‘Yeah, I did this. I’m so great. I had 30, I had 25, 10 and 10,’ or whatever the case might be, because you’re going to think about that. ‘Oh, we won this and that.’ Usually the next day, you’re going to suck,” said the 6’11” forward from Greece. “Like the next few days, you’re going to be terrible.”
“When you focus on the past, that’s your ego. ‘I did this. We were able to beat this team 4-0. I did this in the past. I won that in the past.’ And when I focus on the future, it’s my pride. ‘Yeah, next game, Game 5, I do this and this and this. I’m going to dominate.’ That’s your pride talking,” expressed Giannis ahead of Saturday’s Game 5 in Phoenix. “I try to focus in the moment, in the present. And that’s humility. That’s being humble. That’s not setting expectations. That’s going out there and enjoying the game.”
Clearly, Antetokounmpo has given this subject much thought, preferring to focus on the here and now instead of getting swept away in worrying about the future or coasting off past accomplishments. Giannis, perhaps to his own detriment, has been extremely transparent in his media dealings this postseason, admitting it will be the “toughest day” of his career when Khris Middleton retires while also acknowledging hearing fans heckle him at the free-throw line (“Of course I notice”). Though many have dismissed the 2021 Finals as vanilla and watered-down, lamenting its lack of star power relative to past years, there’s still plenty at stake with Antetokounmpo’s legacy among the series’ most compelling plotlines.