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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Barry Glendenning

Antetokounmpo’s dismissal of Bucks’ failure offers healthy dose of perspective

Almost certainly fed up while facing the press in the media centre of Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum last Wednesday night, Giannis Antetokounmpo made no attempt to disguise his utter contempt for the query he had just been asked to field. The Bucks basketball legend had fronted up before the ladies and gentlemen of the fourth estate after his team’s elimination by the lowly ranked Miami Heat after a five-game series, arguably one of the most seismic upsets in NBA playoff history. Antetokounmpo’s gaze was caught by Eric Nehm, the man from the Athletic on the Bucks beat, who kept his question fairly short and to the point. He had already asked it of Antetokounmpo’s coach and now wished to hear the player’s considered opinion. “Do you view this season as a failure?”

A protracted sigh from the top table was followed by an audible groan of “Oh my God”, as Antetokounmpo wearily rubbed his hands up his face and through his hair, in the manner of a man who can’t quite believe the absolute inanity of the question he’s just been asked. Countering with several of his own, rhetorical questions regarding the successes or failures his inquisitor might have enjoyed or endured in his professional life over the past 12 months, he proceeded to expound on his own idea of what constitutes failure, or if there’s even any such thing. “Michael Jordan played 15 years,” he said. “Won six championships. The other nine years was a failure? That’s what you’re telling me? I’m asking you a question, yes or no?”

No, said the man from the Athletic, although it took him a while to get there. “Exactly,” said Giannis. “So, why 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 are not. Some days it is your turn, some days it’s not. That’s what sports is about. You don’t always win.”

Clipped for social media, the exchange quickly went viral and not just because there are few scenarios sports fans enjoy seeing more than some broadsheet or tabloid johnny wriggling in discomfort under the counter-scrutiny of a coach or athlete they’re trying to pin down in a post-match debrief. Closer to home, Jürgen Klopp is one manager who has often been lauded for his spikiness in the face of questions he deems impertinent or rude. Schadenfreude aside, Antetokounmpo seemed to strike a chord among viewers surprised to hear the star athlete on a team that had just endured what seemed to be a protracted humiliation lace his post-match analysis with a healthy dose of the kind of perspective you don’t find much of in the discourse surrounding elite professional sports these days.

This was no cop-out by an athlete adopting the role of wilful contrarian. A two-time Most Valuable Player in the NBA, playing for a team that won the championship in 2021, got eliminated in the Conference semi‑finals last year and was then bounced out of this season’s first round by the lowest-ranked team in the Eastern Conference, Antetokounmpo does not take lightly his sport, his talent or the responsibilities he feels come with it.

A ferocious competitor who has in the past described himself as “desperate”, “obsessed” and “scared to lose what God has gave me and the life that I’ve provided for my kids and my brothers and for my mom”, his commitment to the cause has never been called into question. “I fucking work as hard as I can, because I don’t want to lose this shit,” he has said in the past. “And it’s not gonna stop until I’m out of this league.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo sits down
Antetokounmpo was unimpressed with the journalist’s question following the Bucks’ defeat. Photograph: Michael McLoone/USA Today Sports

In an era where public player mea culpas have become de rigueur and half-baked apologies hastily cobbled together by social media svengalis on behalf of underperforming sports stars have become so common as to be meaningless, it was rather heartwarming to hear an elite athlete point out that despite his team’s lofty standing and best attempts to succeed, there is always a possibility they might lose, and that defeat does not necessarily amount to failure.

Rather than grovel apologetically, mutter bashfully about a collective lack of responsibility and offer Bucks fans refunds for their tickets, Antetokounmpo suggested that, rather than be seen as a failure, his side’s defeats at the hands of Miami Heat should be viewed as “steps to success”. It was a unique, bold take and one that is almost certain not to have gone down particularly well with a fan base who viewed their star man as one of the main instigators of a collective choke in which his lack of accuracy from the free-throw line was one of the main reasons for his side’s elimination.

Put in a more parochial context, one could only imagine the tsunami of mouth-foaming rage that would wash over Stamford Bridge, the airwaves and social media if, in the buildup to Chelsea’s match against Arsenal on Tuesday, Frank Lampard told reporters that the five consecutive defeats he has overseen since becoming interim manager were in fact “steps to success” rather than a series of increasingly worrying failures. One suspects Harry Kane might also have struggled to convince sceptical fans that, rather than being indicative of dismal failure, each of those five goals Newcastle scored against Tottenham inside 21 minutes actually constituted one mini-Spurs triumph after another.

In stark contrast, at the World Snooker Championship the Chinese player Si Jiahui came through the qualifiers from almost total obscurity to reach the semi-finals, where he opened an apparently unassailable 14-5 lead against Luca Brecel while playing some of the most nerveless snooker ever seen at the Crucible Theatre. With his progress to the final apparently a formality, a record-breaking comeback by his Belgian opponent meant the 20-year-old novice was somehow beaten 17-15, despite doing very little wrong.

People who saw only the result will view Si’s defeat as an embarrassing failure, while those of us who watched every minute of arguably the greatest championship semi-final in history will be astonished if it turns out to have been anything other than a massive step towards future success. Antetokounmpo may not have been totally right in his assessment of his team’s NBA humbling, but it is difficult to argue he was totally wrong.

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