By John Woodford / Ann Arbor, Mich.
Giannis makes waves with his postgame remarks after the Milwaukee Bucks are eliminated from the NBA playoffs
After his team was upset on April 26 in the opening round of this year’s NBA playoffs, a fate probably attributable to the back injury he had sustained in the series’ first game, Giannis Antetokounmpo showed up for the compulsory postgame news conference.
The Greco-Nigerian superstar of the Milwaukee Bucks could hardly conceal his exasperation, as a Milwaukee reporter asked him if he considered the year a “failure.” Mind you, in 2021 Antetokounmpo led the Bucks — long an undistinguished basketball team before his arrival in 2013 — to their first championship in 50 years, and the team reached the conference semifinals the next year.
This year, the Miami Heat knocked them out in five games, no doubt helped by the back contusion that kept Antetokounmpo out of three games.
And now, here was this reporter repeating a question he’d posed last year: Was the season a failure? The 28-year-old Antetokounmpo replied with an eloquence and insight that athletes and fans alike would do well to enshrine in their memories:
Do you get a promotion every year at your job? No, right? So every year, your work is a failure? No. Every year, you work towards something, which is a goal: It’s to get a promotion, to be able to take care of your family, provide a house for them, or take care of your parents. It’s not a failure, it’s steps to success. There’s always steps to it. Michael Jordan played for 15 years and won six championships. The other nine years were a failure? That’s what you’re telling me. There’s no failure in sports. There’s good days, bad days— some days you are able to be successful, some days you’re not, some days it’s your turn, some days it’s not your turn. That’s what sport’s about. You don't always win; some other people are going to win. And this year, someone else is going to win. Simple as that. So, 50 years from 1971 to 2021 that we didn’t win a championship, it was 50 years of failure? No, it was not, there were steps to it, and we were able to win one. Hopefully we can win another one.
That response should serve as the credo for all who are engaged in sports. But, alas, most sports talk show hosts and reporters I heard sneered at Antetokounmpo’s statement and encouraged their audience to dismiss it as the whining of a failure. We’re conditioned in our country to see athletic competition through the eyes of the late football coach Vince Lombardi: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
A notable exception to that attitude, however, was offered by Steve Kerr, coach of the reigning champion Golden State Warriors, who also got knocked out of this year’s playoffs. “He’s so right,” Kerr said of Antetokounmpo. Kerr said that although NBA owners and executives encourage the notion that there are 29 losers and only one winner every year, “it just can’t be a zero-sum game.”
“When you hear terms like ‘embarrassment’ or ‘ashamed,’” Kerr continued, “like, why should anybody on the Milwaukee [Bucks] be embarrassed? As long as they put in the work and put in the effort—which you know they did—this is sports at the highest level.”
As of this writing, Kerr still has his job. But Antetokounmpo’s coach, Mike Budenholzer, was fired a few days after the Bucks’ defeat. And two other highly successful coaches, Glenn “Doc” Rivers of the Philadelphia 76ers and Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns, soon followed him off the plank after their teams lost in the playoffs, even though injuries to key players hurt both teams’ chances, a circumstance that no coach can control.
Sports executives seem to need to behave as if they, themselves, never lose at anything and can prove their managerial mettle by firing coaches because, well, because they can. And fired coaches usually wind up moving along to another team for another round of musical chairs.
But the execs can’t fire players like Antetokounmpo, who signed a five-year $228 million contract last year. At 7’ tall and 243 pounds, power forward Antetokounmpo was immediately hailed as the “Greek Freak” when he joined the NBA in 2013, in recognition of his rare combination of size, agility and indomitability on both offense and defense. His parents, Charles and Veronica, moved from Nigeria to Greece before he was born, after his father retired from pro soccer. Their name is actually “Adétòkunbọ̀,” but it was transliterated in Greece to its present form, although it’s certainly a mouthful either way.
The family was hardly well-to-do. His parents didn’t have work permits or citizenship status, and Giannis himself did not receive Greek citizenship till he was 19, two years after he’d established himself as a basketball star in Europe. As a child he contributed to the family income by hawking watches, handbags and sunglasses in the streets of Athens.
Biographers quote Giannis as saying that when he was growing up, Greeks considered him not really Greek and his fellow Africans considered him not authentically African because he could speak neither the Yoruba language of his father nor the Igbo of his mother.
Chris Odoemelam, a Greco-Nigerian who grew up playing pick-up games with Antetokounmpo. told the New York Times, “He was just a guy you would see in the street, hungry and looking for food. He didn’t have anything. He had one pair of shoes that he had to share with his brothers. And now he’s a millionaire. It’s crazy.”
Antetokounmpo has begun to question the nickname that was hung on him. He acknowledges that the rhyme is good for recognition and marketing purposes but notes that it obscures his true heritage. Nevertheless, he is proud to have parlayed his renown into a huge endorsement deal for an undisclosed amount of money with the Nike shoe company, supplementing his league-leading salary.
His shoes carry his motto, “Family, Loyalty, Legacy.” (His family also includes his two brothers, Thanasis and Kostas, both also professional basketball players and both also members of NBA championship teams, making them the only trio of brothers with that distinction.)
“Obviously, a lot of people don’t know where I’m from,” he told a publication called the Undefeated. “A lot of people think my mom or my dad are from Greece, but no. Both of my parents are Nigerian, but no one calls me the Nigerian Freak.”
His father, Charles, died of a heart attack six years ago at the age of 54, too soon to see Giannis’s two children with his longtime girlfriend Mariah Riddlesprigger, 30, who grew up in Fresno, Calif. She is an alumna of Rice University, where she played volleyball. The couple recently announced that they are expecting a third child to join their two toddler sons.
“I love my kids to death,” Antetokounmpo told ESPN, “[and] would do anything for them, the way, you know, my dad did for me, and hopefully I can be as loving a father as my dad was to me.”
I think we can all use more poetry in our lives, I'm going to accompany my column with poems that rhyme in some way with my topic.
by D. H. Lawrence
Money is our madness, our vast collective madness.
And of course, if the multitude is mad
the individual carries his own grain of insanity around with him.
I doubt if any man living hands out a pound note without a pang;
and a real tremor, if he hands out a ten-pound note.
We quail, money makes us quail.
It has got us down, we grovel before it in strange terror.
And no wonder, for money has a fearful cruel power among men.
But it is not money we are so terrified of,
it is the collective money-madness of mankind.
For mankind says with one voice: How much is he worth?
Has he no money? Then let him eat dirt, and go cold.–
And if I have no money, they will give me a little bread
so I do not die,
but they will make me eat dirt with it.
I shall have to eat dirt, I shall have to eat dirt
if I have no money.
It is that that I am frightened of.
And that fear can become a delirium.
It is fear of my money-mad fellow-men.
We must have some money
to save us from eating dirt.
And this is all wrong.
Bread should be free,
shelter should be free,
fire should be free
to all and anybody, all and anybody, all over the world.
We must regain our sanity about money
before we start killing one another about it.
It’s one thing or the other.
John Woodford lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he retired after two decades as the executive editor of Michigan Today, a University of Michigan alumni/ae publication. His career in journalism includes editing and/or reporting duties for Ebony magazine, Muhammad Speaks newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New Haven Register, the New York Times and Ford Motor company publications.