The fear of stagnation is a potent deterrent that keeps us moving forward within a world of constant evolution. On your daily walk you may see new posters on billboards plastered over the week-old posters, new buildings standing erect like curious meerkats, or perhaps your very route can be impeded by cumbersome roadworks. There is a certain inevitability with change, where as it passes, it casts itself over our world like the 5pm shadows borne from the Sun’s descent.
Change carries itself with a force of absoluteness, fixed in its way just like the coded laws of nature. Yet, there seems to be one immovable rock in the path of change that cannot be budged; and that is tradition. Tradition has its own sense of absolution, where it neither bends nor breaks under the stiffest weights of pressure. The strength and resilience of tradition is something that has been cultivated through decades, passed along several hands in the assembly line that help fortify its longstanding existence. Tradition is a stubborn entity, impervious from not just change, but also reform, critique and judgement. Tradition is myopia and it lives very freely within the confines of tribalistic sports.
The NBA is a sport that is built off the backs of tradition, not just on the court, but off the court. Their rules and regulations often undergo changes as the sport strives towards self-betterment—whether it was the introduction of the 3-pt line, revising the way a player can legally play man-defence or tampering with the dials of the salary cap.
One popular tradition within the sport that remains a constant is its microscopic probing against its superstars. Throughout its existence, storylines have been weaved together to create a stream of archives that showcase moments captured through the lens of greatness. Take for example, the Michael Jordan shot over Craig Ehlo (fossilised into the annals of history as, “The Shot”), which is a moment worthy of greatness not because time was expiring, not because it was the last second shot, neither was it because the shot actually ended the series. The moment is constantly referenced and retold like folklore in a small rural town because it served as the watershed moment that began the legend of Jordan (some may argue that this moment happened at an earlier point, which is completely up for debate). Up until that point, Jordan and his Chicago Bulls had experienced heartbreak after heartbreak—with the mighty Boston Celtics and the heavy-handed Detroit Pistons playing the roles of the big older brothers effortlessly keeping their younger brother’s air-swinging punches at arm’s length.
Jordan’s rise in the playoffs, that inevitably led to six total championships, is a story that basketball fans fell in love with and will continually fall in love with, as if the feeling was a brand new, otherworldly type of love. It’s akin to the audience falling in love with the boy who gets the girl from next door. No matter how many iterations of rom-coms that hit the cinemas, we’re just wired to root for the underdog, I guess. It’s just a cosmic formula where one must suffer before one reaps the reward.
The path to greatness in the NBA is a well-told story soaked in the same waters as the American Dream. The parallels are so identical that it’s no surprise that the greatest American sports stories have the “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” mentality rooted into them. So it’s with this love story where America holds tightly against its bosom that we examine what it means today to be a superstar inside the NBA.
The archetypal superstar in today’s NBA is still marketed the same as it were 20-30 years ago, when Michael Jordan embodied the very nature of it. It’s with these Jordan-tinted glasses that the stars of today are looked upon. They’re prodded and probed in every available crevice, psychoanalysed with the discernment of a thousand therapists, and placed under the clearest microscope to ascertain whether or not they measure up to the Jordan standards. It’s just tradition—and we already know how defiant that can be.
Not very often, there comes along an outlier. A player who has all the intangibles of a superstar—an unstoppable dominance that very few have an answer for—yet doesn’t fit the usual superficial main protagonist profile. Giannis Antetokounmpo is that outlier, whose maturity and refreshingly candid nature serves as a threat towards the long-standing archetypal superstar. So much theatre goes into sports, that it’s so disarming when a player like Giannis refuses to play by the script. Respect it he may, but to abide by it he does not.
Earlier, in the first round of this year’s playoffs, the Milwuakee Bucks were again matched up with the Miami Heat—the same team that had broken Giannis on every conceivable level the season prior. It was as if the Heat had found the kill-switch on Giannis and pushed it while laughing maniacally. Still, as the two teams met again, Giannis was asked by reporters whether things were different from last year’s trouncing. The reporters waited with bated breaths, expecting the usual archetypal superstar answer that we are so accustomed to hearing. The usual, “of, course things are different. I’m hungrier, and I’m going to unfurl a retribution that burns with the heat of 10,00 suns” type of answer. But that’s not what they got. Instead, Giannis replied with an ambivalent, “I don’t know”.
Questions of Giannis’ mentality began to circle. The media sensed weakness with this superstar, naturally, a symbol that superstars are not suppose to show. His answer did not abide by the Jordan standards. Yet, Giannis, who may or may not have known that what he actually did was to shun the archetypal American story.
Giannis is only of a few heliocentric superstars littered sparsely around the league. There is only a few other players that commandeer that same enormous gravitational pull as he shows when he’s on the court. Away from the court, however, towering over the microphones and the recording instruments, Giannis is but a mere mortal being, who is at peace with his own mortality. With humble self-reflection he recognises that he does have all the answers. He did not know what difference was with this year’s series with the Miami Heat compared to last year’s, nor did he know for sure if his team could overcome them this time around. Instead of presenting the faux arrogance and bravado, Giannis chose to ignore the lines thrusted in front of him, and went off script. Giannis and the Bucks would go on to quietly dismantle the Heat in a 4-0 sweep, moving on to the next round—where he would go up against another heliocentric superstar, also cut from the same cloth, his idol, Kevin Durant.
Despite the Brooklyn Nets losing both stars in Kyrie Irving and James Harden, Durant was kernel in carrying his team to a 2-0 series lead over the Bucks. Once again, Giannis and the Bucks’ candidacy for an NBA championship were brought under scrutiny. That scrutiny turned into mass-panic after Durant’s game 5 playoff performance for the ages—where he tallied 49 points, 17 rebounds and ten assists. At that point, the Bucks were down 3-2 in the series, and facing elimination. The media went into post-mortem mode, surrounding Giannis as if he were on his deathbed, about to take his final breath. Again, with bated breath they waited for Giannis to answer the question of how he would be able to stop Durant. though again, Giannis chose to ignore his lines. He sent the media into a bigger frenzy with his candid admission of guilt, where he donned Durant with the moniker of “the best player in the world right now”. It was one of those moments that would cause the music to stop abruptly in any club, waves from oceans around the world to halt and the incessant global warming to slow its roll.
Comfortable with his own mortality, Giannis had unintentionally birthed a whole new precedent within the NBA’s discourse by exercising his retrospection in front of an audience rather than in solitude. He chose meekness in place of unwavering pride, he chose humbleness in place of arrogance, and he chose self-awareness in place of narcissism. Whilst the media mentally played with the idea of a superstar conceding that another superstar was the better player, Giannis put his head down and helped his Bucks team eke out a tightly-contested, energy sapping game-7 win over the Nets, averaging 31.9 ppg (points per game) in the series. Though what really stuck out most, was Giannis choosing to shirk away the Jordan standards placed upon him and take the unconventional, unusual path towards superstar greatness.
There is a great need for change and reform for how stars of the NBA are seen. The level of thinking needs to expand outside of its need to fit superstars into the archetypal box. The thinking must expand and outgrow outside this weird chasm, where instead of praising greatness there is rather a myopic focus to outline the things Giannis cannot do. He doesn’t have a mid-range game, he’s three throws take too long, and he’s a bad closer in the final 2-minutes of a game. Sure, he may not have any of those things, though essentially Giannis’ crime here is simply failing to not be perfect. Yet, he’s still very much a dominant force, who as of writing this, is one win away from adding a championship to his already impressive résumé, all before his 27th birthday. Giannis is a new breed of superstar that is choosing to forge their own path, and that should be ok.
Seriously, what fun would an action movie be if the hero never showed signs of struggle or weakness? I’ll sign off this piece with a Marvel reference. What made the Avengers: Endgame movie so poignant from the other Marvel movies before it, were the high stakes. The Avengers battled with their own individual shortcomings as they failed to prevent the “mad titan” Thanos from wiping out half the universe. The stakes were later doubled at the end of the movie when Tony Stark chose to sacrifice his own life to overwrite his initial mistake. The heroes ultimately win in the end, as they usually do in movies, but what makes it so compelling is that heroes can fall short, and that should also be ok.