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Giannis Erupts On Reporter With Heated Display Of Nuanced Understanding Of The Ultimate Purpose Of Sport

The top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks were eliminated from the playoffs on Wednesday night, falling to the Miami Heat in overtime of Game 5, 128-126. This was the sixth time in NBA history that an eighth seed has eliminated a one seed in the first round. All five of those other top-seeded losers won at least two games in their series upsets. Milwaukee won once. There are a lot of things, few of them good, to say about that distinction. There are also a lot of ways to feel about it!

(Here it's probably worth noting that Miami is at least a little bit of a wolf in an eighth seed's clothing. Even leaving aside the roster's postseason pedigree—this core of players represented the East in the Finals in 2020—the Heat won their division this season and finished with the conference's seventh-best record; by rights and by the numbers they should have been the seventh seed in these playoffs. Only the absurdity of the play-in games, which by their nature treat a single weekend of games as somehow more relevant to playoff seeding than the previous six months, dropped Miami to eighth, one spot lower than the Atlanta Hawks, who won three fewer games in the regular season. But still!)

Given that the Bucks posted the league's best record this season; and given that they won a championship the season before last; and given that they almost certainly entered this season regarding a trip to the Finals as a reasonable goal; and given that, in Giannis Antetokounmpo, they feature by any sane reckoning one of the absolute very best players on the planet, and that any team with him on it likely will consider itself a serious championship contender for the next half-decade, you might wonder: How do the Bucks regard this past season, with this humiliation now added to its ledger? How do they think they'll look back on it, later on, when the sting wears off a little?

I don't know how deeply Eric Nehm, the Athletic's Bucks beat guy, was thinking about this stuff during Wednesday night's postgame press conference, when he asked a very grumpy Antetokounmpo whether he viewed this season as a failure. After all, this is not exactly a novel line of inquiry: I doubt very much that any NBA postseason in the past quarter-century has ended without at least one or two star players and/or coaches fielding some version of this question. Whether angled for insight or just for some quick dead-eyed boilerplate to plug into a gamer for the morning, it's just kinda one of those questions somebody always asks at these things.

In response, Giannis, who'd recorded 38 points and 20 rebounds but made only 10 of 23 free-throw attempts in the loss, took a deep theatrical sigh, and then went off on the guy, in the very most Giannis of ways:

A really fun pattern emerges here, a gentle emotional rollercoaster, that I can't help but attribute to Giannis being, essentially, a very sweet and good-natured guy. In case you can't watch the video, I'll try to render it as best I can.

Giannis starts out very pissed off and in poor Nehm's face:

Oh my God, uhhh. OK because I'm [indistinct], you asked me the same question last year, Eric, OK. Do you—do you get a promotion every year? On your job? No, right? So every year you work is a failure? Yes or no.

By the very forceful "yes or no," you could totally believe that Giannis wants to call Eric some very unkind names; that a "Yes" in response here could make things actually ugly. But then a kind of natural buoyancy seems to take over, carrying Giannis to a more conciliatory place:


It's not a failure, Eric! You've got to believe in yourself!

Every—every year you work, work towards something, towards a goal, try to—which is to get a promotion, to be able to, uh, take care of your family, to be able, I dunno, um, 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.

Giannis is almost complimenting poor Eric by this point: nodding in encouragement, reaching toward him welcomingly. I really admire how hard you work for your family and parents, Eric! Then he starts to get steamed...

If you've never—

...and immediately catches and admonishes himself.

—I don't want to, I don't want to make it personal.

Amazing! He's back in let's-understand-each-other mode within two seconds.

So. There's always steps to it. You know, um, Michael Jordan played 15 years.

Now Giannis is getting pissed again. Now the head-nods are not encouragement; suddenly they have the antsy let's-go energy of a guy who is ready to kick some ass.

Won six championships. The other nine years was a failure? That's what you're telling me.

This is close to as mad as he gets. On Michael Jordan's behalf. Nobody calls Michael a failure! Giannis unloads another sigh, paired with a big shrug. "No, I'm asking you a question," he insists. "Yes or no." Again forceful, interrogatory. He demands answers, dammit. But he can't stay in that mode; already he is bobbing back up toward common ground. Nehm mutters something in response, evidently to the effect that no, he does not consider Michael Jordan's career to have been nearly two-thirds failure. Wise choice, Eric.

OK. Exactly. So why you ask me that question?

Here is my favorite moment in this interaction: When Giannis seems to actually wait a moment, in case Nehm actually has a good answer, and then says—in precisely the exasperated-but-kind tone of voice and body language you use to tell your frustrated kid that they don't have to spend five minutes ramming their foot into their shoe by force, they can just loosen the laces first—"It's a wrong question."

There's no failure in sports. You know, there's good days, bad days; some 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 about. You don't always win. Some other—other people's gonna win, and this year somebody else is gonna win. Simple as that.

Pretty sure my kids' soccer coach gave them this exact speech like nine times (out of 10 games) last season. Giannis beats Coach for sincerity: He really means it! Or sure as hell seems to anyway. All the anger is gone by the time he gets to "Simple as that." He wants Eric Nehm to believe in this wholesome understanding of the nature of sports, to be freed from the constricting triumph-or-despair binary, if only so that he will stop asking whether Giannis considers various seasons to be failures. Then they can get along better!

We're gonna come back next year, try to be better, try to build good habits, try to um, play better, not have a 10-day stretch with ah, playing bad basketball, you know and hopefully we can win a championship.

Uh oh. He's starting to get steamed up again.

So, 50 years, from 1971 to 2021, we didn't win a championship, it was 50 years of failure?

This is the peak of Giannis's anger. The nods are full-body affairs now. He dares you to say yes, Eric. He fucking dares you.

No it was not. It was steps to it, you know?

Immediately reasonable again. Not just reasonable, but profoundly optimistic! Half a century of Bucks basketball, all of it legible as steady progress toward a championship. Just depends on how you look at it!

We were able to win one, hopefully we can win another one.

After all of that, Giannis lands two-footed on the most generic of athlete non-expressions—if I close my eyes I can both hear and see any number of other famous athletes saying exactly that sentence, with glazed indifferent eyes and a dead monotone, already dismissively glancing around to see where the next question will come from—having transformed it from meaningless cliché into punctuation on a sincere articulation of his perspective on the nature of sports. This season was not a failure, Eric! And neither, in the end, was the question. Bravo to both.

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