Giannis Antetokounmpo: NBA stardom without the ego

Spiritual lessons from the NBA Finals' MVP.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) celebrates with the MVP trophy, as teammates hold the championship trophy, after defeating the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals, July 20, 2021, in Milwaukee. The Bucks won 105-98. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

(RNS) — An NBA champion, league championship MVP and a defensive player of the year, 26-year-old Greek-born Giannis Antetokounmpo has become — improbably — a household name. 

But Antetokounmpo’s list of his accomplishments is a different one. While speaking to reporters in Athens last week, he said in Greek: “I don’t care about being the face of the NBA. … I want to be with my kids and my family. I want to win and enjoy the game. I want to be Giannis the hard worker.”

In a game (and a society) obsessed with branding and followers, there’s something refreshing about someone who resists the temptations of our world and remains focused on what really matters: family, joy and living in the present.

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At a news conference during July’s NBA Finals, a prominent sportswriter asked the Milwaukee Bucks star how he has learned to manage his ego. Here’s how Antetokounmpo responded:

“When you focus on the past, that’s your ego. ‘I did this. I won that.’ … When I focus on the future, that’s my pride. ‘I’m going to dominate.’ That’s your pride talking. … I try to focus on the moment. In the present. That’s humility. That’s being humble. … That’s a skill I’m trying to master. And it’s been working so far. So I’m not going to stop.”

Antetokounmpo’s response promptly went viral. It was as much the wisdom of his comment as it was how it overcame our deep-seated stereotypes. Americans don’t expect to hear sagacity from young Black men or professional athletes. When they do speak out, we discount their thinking. Just over a year ago, when Lebron James spoke to ESPN reporter Cari Champion about racism, Donald Trump and more, Laura Ingraham started a national firestorm by telling James to “Shut up and dribble.”

Whatever the reason for their resonance, Antetokounmpo’s words had an outsized impact on fans and commentators (I’m unabashedly in the former category). They sounded less like what one might hear in an NBA press conference and more like what one might read from an ancient wisdom tradition.

They echo, for instance, what spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle offers in his longtime bestseller, “The Power of Now“: “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life.”

“Life is now,” Tolle writes. “There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be.”

And, perhaps most appropriately for sports: “The present moment is the field on which the game of life happens.”

For Tolle, as with Antetokounmpo, the goal is to live in the present; the greatest obstacle to realizing that goal is the human ego.

In the words of Guru Nanak, “To conquer our mind is to conquer the world.”

Guru Nanak’s words are at the core of Sikh teachings, and Tolle’s wisdom draw from multiple spiritual traditions, including Zen Buddhism, Sufism, Hinduism and the Bible. But while Antetokounmpo’s response echoes these views, he appears to be drawing less from ancient wisdom traditions and more from his life experiences.

According to Mirin Fader, author of the new book that chronicles Antetokounmpo’s life journey, “Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP,” the Greek Orthodox Church played an important role in his upbringing. Less a spiritual refuge than a physical one, the church provided Giannis and his four brothers with food and social support.

Giannis’ parents were undocumented Nigerian migrants who settled in Greece, and although Giannis and three of his brothers were born there, they did not receive automatic Greek citizenship. Being undocumented meant that Greek authorities could send them out of the country at any time. Being stateless meant that they could not travel outside the country.

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His parents struggled to make ends meet, and Giannis and his brothers sold goods on the street — watches, DVDs, CDs — to help his family survive. It was in reflecting on this experience that Antetokounmpo said, “Just growing up and going through life and how tough life was for me and my family, I’m always going to stay humble.”

Fader believes that it’s experiences like these that keep Antetokounmpo grounded in his humility and rooted in the present moment.

“Giannis knows how hard life can be, so he has this overwhelming sense of gratitude that keeps him focused in the present. It’s like a superpower that helps him not dwell in the past and not worry about the future. He’s just thankful for all that he has.”   

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