I spent most of last night writing a piece loosely about the now-dismissed rape case involving Florida State’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston. It turned out alright (depending on who you ask), but having to dig through my own conflicting emotions about sports' elite status in our society left me feeling drained.
As I age, I’m finding it harder and harder to ignore some of the indefensible aspects of it all, especially because I’ve begun to realize just how young these star athletes really are. It’s like a less funny version of Matthew McConaughey’s infamous line in Dazed and Confused about why he likes high school girls.
But these children — let’s not kid ourselves and call them adults (pun!) — are given exorbitant amounts of money and priceless amounts of fame at a younger and younger age, which is almost always a recipe for trouble.
It’s what leads to assholes like Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. It’s what leads to diva rookies thinking they’re bigger than the game. It's what we have come to expect.
But it’s also what makes Giannis Antetokounmpo so freaking refreshing.
Giannis, whose last name I will never attempt to type again, is a rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, and is only 19 years old. Born in Athens and of Nigeran descent, he grew up in Greece playing in a variety of teen and men’s leagues before being drafted with the 15th overall pick in last year's NBA draft.
This first year has definitely been a learning experience for Giannis, who at 6’11 has grown a whole inch since he was drafted last spring, but nearing the halfway mark of the season, he’s starting to finally look comfortable on an NBA court. Endearingly nicknamed "The Greek Freak", it is not just his play that has NBA fans lining up behind him though, but the air of excitement and hopeful naivety that surrounds him.
In fact, recently a couple of blog posts he wrote for the Greek sports site Sport 24 were translated and made their way around the interweb, and they read like journal of an anxious, excited teenager -- which is exactly what they are.
Giannis has no problem admitting his nervousness before playing LeBron James in Miami or his amazement at seeing his idol Kevin Durant during a pre-game shoot around. But he is also grounded enough to follow those admissions by saying, “When the game started, I told myself: Υou are just 18 years old and playing in the NBA. Υou are living the dream. Enjoy it.”
Seriously, how often do you hear athletes marvel at the very surreal situation they find themselves in daily?
The rest of that blog post from early December sounds like a letter sent from summer camp: I’m having a good time, I’m making new friends, the weather is fine, and I’m doing my best to make you proud of me; all of it written in the voice of a young foreigner with a positive attitude who is just happy to be doing what he’s doing.
However, it’s his latest entry from earlier this month that will really bring a smile to your face.
It’s worth reading in its entirety, so enjoy the transcript posted below and have some of your faith in sports renewed:
I wish you a good year with health and all your dreams coming true. If you will something in your mind you can accomplish it. Just like in my case. Did anyone expect I would be here? To be in the starting five of an NBA team? Everyone thought, or almost everyone, that in my first season in the NBA I would be the towel-water-and-ice boy. I accepted the situation knowing, however, that there is meritocracy and that with a lot of hard work, which started in September, only good things could happen.
I wondered: am I ready to contribute?
I slowly started to gain respect in the team and one fine morning Coach Larry Drew informed me that I will be in the starting five. I felt strange. Beautiful. Different. I cannot explain exactly what I felt, to be honest. I started wondering: "Am I ready to be in the starting five? Will I play well? Will I help the team?" However, my beginning in Filathlitikos was very similar. I was in the teenage team and I had to earn my time with hard work in the men's team. I had to earn everyone's respect. Which is normal. Respect is not something that is given, but earned with a lot of hard work.
It does help me though that the Coach talks to me every day. All the rookies see him on a daily basis, in private, for about ten minutes. He asks us how we feel in the team, what we don't like and how we think we will improve. These meetings are very fruitful, a place where you can open up and speak freely.
It is a beautiful feeling to enjoy the trust of Coach Drew. I see in his eyes, when he talks to me, how much he trusts me. Everyone in the team trusts me and want me to improve, game by game. I feel I am improving, I have to be more consistent. I try, through the games and the practices, to improve. I realize that game after game my contribution in the team becomes more versatile. I try to do all I can on the floor. Play defense for me and my teammates. Close holes and gaps and, at the same time, to get into plays with determination. I am interested in growing up, game by game, and to continuously learn something new. Learn from my mistakes, but also from the mistakes of others. I feel I am improving, but I have to be more consistent in my production.
Against the Nets I had the first double double of my career, with 16 points and 10 rebounds, and I was very happy about it. I want to continue like that. Of course, I don't like at all that our losses are much more than our wins. But I am selfish and I want to win. We had a lot of injuries, which disorganized us.
My gift is the NBA. It's amazing what I am experiencing.
The last few days have been kind of awkward for me. I mean Christmas days. For the first time in my life I was not with my family. The happy news was that my brother Thanasis came to Milwaukee for five days, and so the loneliness was interrupted, even for a bit. We chilled in the house, ate some good food, saw movies, listened to music, rode around in the car (since I have my license now); it was a nice break in general. I wanted to send gifts to my little brothers in Greece, Kostas and Aleksandros, but it would take three weeks for them to arrive, so instead I sent them money to buy what they wanted.
For me the best gift is the NBA. What I am going through is amazing. Even now, when I am stepping on the floor, I think it's not real. Until seven months ago I was playing in ESKA and A2 [read: Greek lower divisions] and now I am in the NBA. If this isn't a gift, then what is?
Sanders is..spoiling me.
I did, however, receive an expensive gift from my teammate Larry Sanders, who gave me a pair of Gucci shoes. I told him that he shouldn't have given me such an expensive gift. He said: "You are my rookie and I have to take care of you." Maybe he is spoiling me so that I will throw him more lobs!
All the veterans in the team have embraced me. Me and all the other rookies. We are like a family and I like that. I admit that I am twice as happy, since I found myself in the right team at the right moment and was given the chance to compete. I think it would have been torture not playing, with such a high rate of games and trips. In practice you do the basics, so if you do not compete you stay behind. But, thankfully, I even have the luxury of playing a lot, and I can improve through the games.
I have Kobe Bryant's look! Kidding!
One very beautiful moment for me was when we traveled to L.A. to play against the Lakers. Unfortunately, Kobe did not play since he was injured again. From the second I set foot in Staples Center I was looking for him. I wanted to see how he looks like from up close. How tall is he, how he moves. We are talking about one of the best players of all time. When the game started, in a timeout, I saw him on the bench. He had that killer
look, even though he was in his 'civilian' clothes on the bench. I also have that look! Nah, kidding!
I did not have time to see someone famous on the side court, but I was almost seriously injured. Not long before the game was over, and when I was in the air for a rebound, Williams footstooled me [Greek expression, you get the point]. I fell on the floor very hard. Everyone was asking me if I was OK. It hurt a lot and I tried not to show it. On the bench, Coach Drew came and asked me: "Are you going to shoot the free throws
or should I send someone else?" I told him: "Of course I am, who else?"
I like to wander around while on the road.
I liked L.A. in general. It was a break from the heavy winter in Milwaukee. We stayed in a hotel on Marina Del Rey, outside L.A. I was constantly wearing a t-shirt and cruised around with a bike that I rented. Sanders was going to come with me as well but he was busy, after all, since his family was with him. I generally enjoy to go out in each city we visit, get out of the hotel and just walk around. With no particular destination in mind. I know that anytime I want I can call a cab to bring me back to the hotel. I like to wander around, because the day doesn't go by without it when we are on the road. After the morning practice, I have a whole day on my own. Some times Nate comes with me, the other rookie, with whom I spent a lot of time with. We also usually sit side by side on the plane, in the back seats.
I am impressed by all the fuss around my name in Greece. I did not expect it. I watch, through NBA Greece, all that is written for me, and I also read the comments and messages on my Facebook profile. I feel very nice but also quite uncomfortable, since I am not used to drawing attention. I hope my presence here will motivate more Greek players to come to the NBA. I hope that the next one will be my brother Thanasis and then my younger brothers, Kostas and Aleksandros! It will be fun. I do believe there are youngsters that can play here, like Haralampopoulos. I do believe it.
I can't wait for the All Star Weekend.
I really can't wait for February, to play in the rookie Challenge. To be the first Greek player ever to play in the NBA's All Star Weekend. As far as I know I will be in the game. I hope I start. I also hope Nate is there.
The cold here is unbearable. I never walk around on foot. I will freeze. So much snow!
Again, I wish everyone a happy new year!
Be well and watch the Bucks!