Giannis Antetokounmpo’s rejection of ‘failure’ was a W for the game
Milwaukee Bucks star brought a reality check to a sports culture convinced that winning is the only thing that matters
Giannis Antetokounmpo said the unthinkable after his Milwaukee Bucks succumbed to the Miami Heat in an epic flameout: There’s so much more to sports than winning.
That’s the essence of Antetokounmpo’s extraordinary statement after the Bucks’ collapse in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. It also grinds the teeth of fans, players and coaches who believe that the only reason to play is to win. But what Antetokounmpo said touches on the highest purpose of sports: The reasons basketball is worth the immense passion, energy and money we pour into it, and why throwing a ball through a hoop can – and should – be more than a game.
The Bucks surrendered late leads in their last two games and, playing at home to save their season, couldn’t stop 33-year-old forward Jimmy Butler from looking like the answer to “What if Michael Jordan and Sheryl Swoopes had a baby?”
As the shock settled in and Antetokounmpo took the postgame podium, Eric Nehm, who covers the Bucks for The Athletic, asked, “Do you view this season as a failure?”
It was a fair and reasonable question. The Bucks had the NBA’s best record in the regular season and were a favorite to win the title. Down three games to one in the first round, to an eighth-seeded Miami team that had squeaked through the play-in tournament, they gave up a 16-point fourth-quarter lead. Antetokounmpo shot 10-for-23 from the foul line. Guard Jrue Holiday missed a crucial free throw with two seconds left in regulation, then let Butler shove him off for an alley-oop with less than a second left to force overtime. At the end of the game, coach Mike Budenholzer didn’t call a timeout to advance the ball with the Bucks down two.
The ball and the season ended up in the hands not of Antetokounmpo (38 points and 20 rebounds), or forward Khris Middleton (33 points), or Brook Lopez (18), but fifth option Grayson Allen (8). He didn’t take an open floater, the buzzer sounded, and then he missed a layup.
This butt-fumble of a series was the definition of failure, right?
Hold up. Giannis may be ugly from the free throw line, but his Eurostep around Nehm’s question was a work of art:
“It’s not a failure; it’s steps to success,” he said. “There’s always steps to it. Michael Jordan played 15 years, won six championships. The other nine years was a failure? That’s what you’re telling me?
“It’s a wrong question; there’s no failure in sports.”
This quote touched the hooper in me who once burned so hot for winning, I broke my nose in a New York City rec league and came back after halftime to drop 44 – and still lost. I’ve played in championship games against doctor’s orders and lost; threw chairs over bad calls and lost. I’ve supported my athlete children through crushing defeats in high school and college. After an undefeated season ended with a loss in a championship game, one of our sons threw his second-place medal to the floor at center court of the arena. I wasn’t mad at him.
Antetokounmpo is the antidote to my kind of psychosis. But judging by the reactions of some of my favorite sports folks, you would have thought he said there’s no good beer in Milwaukee. His quote went against the popular imagination about the samurai nobility of refusal to accept defeat. It spit in the face of the six-ringed Jordan (“There’s no “I” in team,” MJ said, “but there’s an ‘I’ in win”) and all the coaches who have proclaimed, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” And since the Bucks were humiliated by the Heat, of course I’ll quote Miami’s nine-time champion president, Pat Riley: “There’s winning, and there’s misery.”
Antetokounmpo should have been miserable. Inconsolable. Angry. Out for redemption.
Not thoughtful. Not philosophical. Not so infuriatingly chill about missing 13 free throws in a must-win game he lost by two.
“There’s good days, bad days,” he said. “Some days you’re 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. Sometimes other people win. And this year somebody else is going to win, simple as that.”
It was a much-needed reality check in a sports world that tolerates cheaters winning championships at the highest level, while among us regular folk, not even church is safe from parental athletic violence. We throw kids into competition at ever-younger ages and push them past the point of fun or injury. All from an obsession with winning, and what we think it brings.
Antetokounmpo showed us another way to live.
Some of y’all are thinking that he’s a pro athlete paid $45 million per year to win championships – or at least not get embarrassed in the first round – which is much different from a young person playing for love of the game and maybe some name, image and likeness money if she’s lucky. Nah. Millions of young athletes look to the pros for inspiration and a template of how to approach the game. Social media is swimming in clips of Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant explaining his Mamba Mentality, or Jordan in tears because he was so desperate to win.
What young athletes don’t see is the cost these obsessed greats paid with their humanity – the parts of their lives unfulfilled, the relationships ruined, all in pursuit of impossible perfection. Failure is not an option – it’s inevitable. How people deal with failure determines victory or defeat in the game of life.
If we value sports for glory, the Bucks’ season was a failure. But if we recognize the higher ideals of these games we love – enjoying humanity’s physical gifts, developing character, rewarding unselfishness, submitting to forces larger than ourselves (that, in this instance, might be named Jimmy Butler) – then Antetokounmpo was right.
There is no failure in sports. Only the opportunity for growth, if we can see it.