For several years, Giannis Antetokounmpo was unassailable in the public realm. Still, he mostly is. How can you not love him? That’s a question easily asked about the Greek-Nigerian star for the Milwaukee Bucks; two-time MVP, one-time NBA champion, small market hero, consummate sunshine smiler and small-pleasure goofball. Just the other day, he went viral for participating in a home game stadium tradition, snapping a picture of a jumbotron QR code to get a free fast food giveaway along with the fans. Hilarious!
In recent days, though, more skeptical remarks about Giannis have grown in volume. Newly 29 years old and into his 11th season, Antetokounmpo is entering the winter of his career. Few stars, even if they are committed midwestern idols with a demonstrated delight for the milquetoast, make it this far without various doubts proliferating about them. In his case, the previous summer’s makeover of his beleaguered squad has prompted cause for revisionism.
The Bucks’ earth-shaking trade for Damian Lillard came after they excused long-time leader Mike Budenholzer from their head coaching job, replacing him with first-timer Adrian Griffin. The Griffin/Lillard Bucks had a new characteristic: they’re bad at defense. Very, very bad, and in a way that Budenholzer, and his defense with the now-Celtic Jrue Holiday at its head, would simply never accept. The Bucks win anyway—they’re currently 32-15, good for third-best record in the league—but it looks sloppy enough that Griffin is already gone, now replaced by Doc Rivers.
Looming over all of this, in the fan’s imagination, is Giannis. While he isn’t the team’s general manager and his own defensive performance remains stalwart, the truism about the modern NBA persists: superstars at his level are culture-makers, whether they like it or not, and the Bucks’ change in character is necessarily a reflection of his own. You don’t, they say, trade a touchstone player like Holiday without Giannis’ go-ahead, or replace a widely celebrated head coach unless he wants you to. And the Bucks have done both.
World-class competitors are, of course, never just the good-times guys they usually present themselves as. In 2024 we know that Michael Jordan was a vengeance-fueled dino-shark, but when he was ascendant in the 1980’s, all he was to anyone was a chipper corporate mascot with the best highlight package you’d ever seen. There’s no Last Dance for Giannis, but surely one would show him to us in many unflattering ways, whether he gambles desperately in back rooms with stadium employees or not.
One absurd preview of a less cheery version of Giannis is already behind us, but is worth recontextualizing in light of the Neo-Bucks’ dark night of the soul. In November 2022, he sparked a discursive frenzy when, following a road loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, Antetokounmpo went back out onto the floor for extra free throw practice. It didn’t go well. A team worker needed to do routine maintenance on the rim Giannis was shooting into, and he aggressively shoved the employee’s ladder away from him.
A full-on hater might say that this episode revealed his true nature. This isn’t true, or a claim made by this column, because everyone’s nature is too complex to summarize in one scene. But certainly Antetokounmpo’s spiritual makeup is more unnervingly driven and dangerously prickly than conventional knowledge has heretofore suggested. One part of more people realizing this has been increased mentions of his organization holding a roster spot for his athletically incompetent crony brother Thanasis—a sign of privilege overindulged, surely—and more and more noticing, as well, his frequently unstrategic preference for aesthetically ambitious three-pointers that pretty much always hurt the team. And like every other big man star this side of Dwight Howard, he’s been selfishly reluctant to play off the ball as a pick-and-roll play finisher, and into the strengths of Lillard and other ball-handlers. It might be the best thing for the team, but it wouldn't look very cool for him, personally, and he's had enough success to dictate X's and O's (or the lack of them) according to what he wants his highlights to look like.
All of this is to say that Giannis is, ultimately, more like other stars than previously imagined, and less the exception to their characteristic profile than assumed. Naturally motivated to dominate, he is even more so under the influence of tier-one wealth and fame. Fans will continue to project moral qualities onto him that he maybe only sort of has—like most people—but is easier to associate with, because of the geocultural nature of the city of the team that drafted him, and because of how convincingly he smirks when he talks about Chick-fil-A. Love him all you want. I certainly do. But we’re too deep into his saga to ignore the other things, and to leave them out of our love.