Giannis Antetokounmpo sat at the long table draped in black, against an NBA playoffs dropback. He had been there before, similar to the other greats like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan. But usually, it’s to celebrate his historic performance in a series-clinching game. This time, Antetokounmpo was asked about another player’s otherworldly performance that sent his Milwaukee Bucks home and ended their season.
Milwaukee Bucks beat reporter Eric Nehm asked Antetokounmpo if he viewed the season as a failure, the same question he asked Antetokounmpo at the end of last year’s season. An obviously frustrated and raw Antetokounmpo gave a thorough, thoughtful, emotional answer to the query. The viral response started a national discourse over the concepts of success and failure in the sports context.
Antetokounmpo’s point was that there is no failure in sports. Every step, even one fraught with disappointment, is one that ultimately leads to the accomplishment of goals. The thinking may be the reason that the Nigerian, Grecian-born immigrant who learned the game relatively late in life has had the motivation to become one of the league’s best players. Discouragement is harder when setbacks are seen as part of the journey.
In sports, the wins and losses are black and white. It’s obvious once the horn has sounded who prevailed and who was ineffective. The idea that failure isn’t as simple as looking at the scoreboard, or acknowledging a one-seed losing to an eight-seed runs counter to sports culture. Particularly in a sport that has praised ring culture over everything else.
“Michael Jordan played 15 years, won 6 championships. The other 9 years were a failure?”–Giannis Antetokounmpo
What is success for the Charlotte Hornets? How would Michael Jordan define it?
Analyzing Antetokounmpo’s success or failure from most fans’ perspectives is easy—anything short of an NBA title is a failure of a season. But what about other teams that don’t have one of the sport’s best players? Did the Charlotte Hornets fail because they didn’t hoist the trophy? Or does the goal-line move depend solely on fan expectations? Are fans the barometer for success and failure? Do the athletes have any say?
Most Hornets fans would take a postseason appearance next season as success. The team has the longest postseason drought in the league. And with draft help on the way, and potentially another back from suspension, next season may finally unlock that achievement. But Antetokounmpo’s reasonable approach to success and failure is likely a healthier way of looking at a life that will be filled with both.
Thinking of success and failure as binary leaves no room for incremental improvement, and no space for grace. Progress is very rarely as obvious and cut-and-dry as it is on the hardwood. When Charlotte Hornets’ franchise owner Jordan played for the Bulls, his progress as a playmaker and all-around player was obvious. It wasn’t just his statistics that improved, when he was able to topple the Detroit Pistons, it was clear that his game-and that of his teammates-was superior. Antetokounmpo even referenced Jordan in his postgame press conference, questioning if all the years Jordan didn’t win the title were a failure.
By changing what success and failure are, Antetokounmpo has toughened himself against obstacles and against outside criticism. An important defense mechanism to keep him protected and motivated. Perhaps everyone can take a note from the former MVP.