Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the most unlikely superstars in NBA history. The son of Nigerian immigrants who settled in Greece, Antetokounmpo and his brothers famously sold watches and sunglasses in the streets to help their parents make ends meet. Antetokounmpo started playing basketball around 13 years old and turned pro a few years later in the lower levels of the Greek league.
There wasn’t much footage of Antetokounmpo against high-level competition when he entered the 2013 NBA Draft, but the Milwaukee Bucks were still intrigued enough to take him No. 15 overall. Antetokounmpo only averaged six points per game as a rookie but improved rapidly each year. By his sixth NBA season, at 24 years old, he was named MVP and led the Bucks to the best record in the league during the regular season. He repeated both accomplishments again the next year, and also added a Defensive Player of the Year award to his mantle.
Playoff success was harder to come by for the Bucks. They reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019, but blew a 2-0 lead to the Toronto Raptors. During the 2020 playoffs in the bubble, the Bucks were upset by the Miami Heat in five games as Antetokounmpo exited the series with an injury in Game 4.
The Bucks are in the 2021 NBA Finals this year, where they have battled back from an 0-2 hole to tie their series against the Phoenix Suns. Ahead of a pivotal Game 5, Antetokounmpo was asked how he’s learned to keep his ego in check despite so many accomplishments at age-26. His answer was perfect.
“When you focus on the past, that’s your ego.” pic.twitter.com/XKiRMA8Ux2— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 17, 2021
Here’s a transcription of Giannis’ answer:
“I’ll say life,” Antetokounmpo started. “Usually when, from my experience, when I think about ‘oh yeah, I did this, I’m so great. I had 30. I had 25-10-10’ 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. As simple as that. Like the next few days you’re going to be terrible. I figured a mindset to have, 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. Like ‘yeah, next game, Game 5, I do this and this and this, I’m going to dominate.’ That’s your pride talking. It doesn’t happen. You’re right here. I kind of try to focus in the moment. In the present. That’s humility. That’s being humble. That’s setting no expectations, going out there and enjoying the game. Competing at a high level.
“I think I’ve had people throughout my life that’s helped me with that but that’s a skill that I’ve tried to like perfect it. And it’s been working so far, so I’m not going to stop.”
Antetokounmpo has faced plenty of criticism throughout his career despite his success. James Harden said he had no skill. The Bucks’ playoff failures were seen as a reflection of Giannis’ shortcomings. A certain section of the media almost seemed disappointed when he decided to sign a five-year contract extension with Milwaukee ahead of this season.
Antetokounmpo had to adjust to a new country from the moment he was drafted. At no point during his rookie year did it feel like he was preordained for massive success. Giannis went from a skinny teenager to a hulking physical presence through hard work in the gym. He greatly improved his ball handling ability and his footwork, and learned the finer points of the game defensively.
His play in the NBA Finals has been masterful despite suffering a scary leg injury that kept him out of the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals. With his status for the Finals in doubt, Giannis put up 40+ point double-doubles in Game 2 and Game 3, and then made a remarkable game-saving block in Game 4 as the highlight of another terrific performance. If the Bucks win the series, he’s a lock for Finals MVP.
Giannis and the Bucks are two wins away from an NBA championship. It’s going to be an uphill battle with two of the next three games in Phoenix. Whether Antetokounmpo ends this season with his first championship ring or not, it’s clear he has the right approach to the game.
Antetokounmpo is a shining example of what greatness in America looks like. While certain professional athletes are massive disappointments, Giannis has been a standup citizen off the court and a standout performer on the court. Regardless of how these Finals end, Antetokounmpo represents everything that makes sports worth investing in.