Finally, a hoop player who has a message worth hearing?
Pretty bomber off-the-cuff response. Gold star in my book.
Why the Giannis Antetokounmpo ‘Failure’ Speech Is a Viral Phenomenon
The Milwaukee superstar suffered a brutal basketball loss—then offered a precise bit of perspective
Giannis Antetokounmpo spoke after the Bucks were eliminated from the NBA playoffs.
Jason Gay, WSJ
Updated April 27, 2023 3:08 pm ET
The underdog Miami Heat pulled off the upset of the NBA basketball season Wednesday, bouncing the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks from the playoffs in a stunning five-game romp. Playoff tornado Jimmy Butler will now pivot to rowdy Madison Square Garden to face off with another unexpected surprise, the Cleveland-thumping New York Knicks.
But hours afterward, it feels like the entire planet–or at least the online portion of the planet–is still obsessing about Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the topic of failure.
Specifically, they’re talking about the Milwaukee superstar’s lengthy answer when asked after the game if he considered this Bucks season to be a “failure.”
Watch it if you can, it’s hard to do the full moment justice in print.
“Do you get a promotion every year, in your job?” Antetokounmpo answered, after a long pause in which he placed his head in his hands. “No, right? So every year you work is a failure? Yes or no. No? Every year you work, you work towards something, towards a goal, which is to get a promotion, to be able to take care of your family, provide a house for them, or take care of your parents. You work towards a goal – it’s not a failure. It’s steps to success.”
“There’s always steps to it,” Antetokounmpo continued. “Michael Jordan played 15 years, won six championships. The other nine years [were] a failure? That’s what you’re telling me…why do you ask me that question? It’s the wrong question.”
“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. And that’s what sports is about. You don’t always win. Some other people are going to win. And this year, somebody else is going to win. We’re going to come back next year and try to be better.”
A few quick thoughts on this response, which quickly became a viral sensation:
I’ve seen some renderings in which Giannis’s comments are characterized as a “rant.” Meh. I don’t think it’s a rant. He’s answering the question respectfully, trying to relate the situation to a trusted reporter he knows. This is not anywhere close to a dismissive or curt reply. He’s taking it head on, barely minutes after devastating loss.
He’s not taking the easy answer out. The easy way for Giannis to feed the beast would be to say, Yes, absolutely the 2022-23 season was a failure. That’s what our best professional athletes and teams are conditioned and expected to do–accept the terms of a false binary and declare anything short of a season-ending trophy hoist to be an unmitigated disaster.
Life doesn’t work this way, of course, and Antetokounmpo is wise to point that out. Failures can be abrupt and sudden, but successes are incremental, their gestation and development often hidden from sight. As a zillion self-help books have lectured us, success is often born from our lowest moments, so the idea that an experience can be brightly labeled and tossed away is absurd.
Giannis’s answer isn’t “weak.” He’s not trying to duck responsibility for a loss that followed a night in which he logged 38 points and 20 rebounds but also missed 13 of 23 free throws and failed to convert several late-game opportunities. It is the sworn and serious duty of older generations to condemn the newer generations, but I don’t see his answer as a symptom of the softening of the culture or anything like that. Please. You and I should stand underneath the hoop as Giannis is rushing toward us with the ball. We will find out who’s soft.
Refusing to accept a false binary also means you can believe all the things Giannis said and also believe that he and Milwaukee really blew it! The two-time MVP missed close to three games in the best-of-seven series after sustaining a lower back injury early in Game 1, but the Bucks had more than enough firepower to repel the Heat, who barely squeaked into the playoffs. There are legit questions about Milwaukee’s strategic approach–including a mind-bendingly bad choice to not call timeout in regulation to give themselves a chance to win Game 5–and there will likely be repercussions with personnel. But just because Giannis isn’t taking out a spray paint can and writing F-A-I-L-U-R-E in the locker room doesn’t soft-pedal the disappointment. I mean, look at Giannis. He’s crushed.
If you know anything about the life story and career of Antetokounmpo, you know this is who he is. The Greek-born basketball sensation comes from thoroughly humble roots and was considered a very unfinished unknown when he arrived in the NBA. It’s hard to think of an athlete who has worked harder to build his talent and lift a team. (He led the Bucks to the title in the 2020-2021 season, the franchise’s first in 50 years.) Throughout his rise he’s maintained both humor and humility in his interactions with the media and fans; he’s made tens of millions but has also chosen to stay with the city that took a chance on him. Do not pity or worry for Giannis. He is a killer who has repeatedly played through injuries, and it surely drives him bonkers to lose this series. If there’s a player you don’t have to worry about motivating, it’s him.
Hold on. I need to climb up onto my high horse for this last point. Neiighhhh! Hold on, high horsey!
In some of the criticism of Giannis’s response, it’s easy to detect a broader societal trend, which is that we’re turning into a world in which a textured response to a question–that is, any response that is longer than six words, doesn’t scream and doesn’t take a side–no longer tracks. Nuance doesn’t track on social media, it increasingly doesn’t track in social media-chasing legacy media, and it’s long gone from politics, where officials just choose sides and start chucking tweets at each other.
Again, it would have been easy for Antetokounmpo to say “Yes, I am a big sad failure, just call me Giannis the failure” and all of today’s theatrical tough talkers would have nodded solemnly and said, Wow, he gets it. But that’s not how life is. Life is more complicated and textured. So is success. There’s always steps to it. Kudos to Giannis Antetokounmpo for pointing it out.