Perhaps the very reason Milwaukee Bucks forward and NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing basketball today was because he watched another MVP, Kobe Bryant, apply his trade with the same fierceness and skill Antetokounmpo does today.
Antetokounmpo returned Monday to the basketball court for the first time since the death of Bryant and his daughter, along with seven others, in a helicopter crash in suburban Los Angeles, California – and he returned with the heaviest of hearts after the loss of the first basketball star who captured his attention.
“I grew up with Kobe. Kobe was my life. Looking up to him, one of the reasons why I started playing basketball, one of the reasons why I’m here today,” Antetokounmpo said with a sadness-laden voice Monday. He said Bryant played in the first basketball game Antetokounmpo ever watched.
“He was big, man. He was big. You could feel it. You can definitely feel it in the air from yesterday, what happened around the world, how many people reached out to (his) family, you realize how big he was.”
Bryant starred with the Los Angeles Lakers as the NBA and the Internet era merged to make basketball a worldwide sport. It reached Antetokounmpo a continent away in his home in Greece. He learned parts of his game from Bryant in person in one-on-one tutoring as well.
The men play somewhat similar styles of basketball, both entering the NBA from high school, and both with a similar level of intensity – one which Bryant nurtured into a will to win rarely seen on a basketball court. It led him to five NBA championships – the kind of legacy Antetokounmpo has dreamed of building while with the Bucks.
“I’m not close as a basketball player to Kobe’s level. Obviously, one day, I hope I can get to that level,” Antetokounmpo said.
“Kobe was one of the best players to ever play the game. He was put on this earth to be one of the best. When I’m gone, if I can impact people’s lives the way Kobe impacted mine, people’s lives around the world, that will be a blessing.”
“Giannis was able to study and be one-on-one with Kobe,” WTMJ Bucks insider and FSW TV analyst Steve Novak on WTMJ’s “Wisconsin’s Afternoon News.”
“Giannis was able to study and be one-on-one with Kobe. To know that Giannis really does carry forward a piece of Kobe, the way he taught the game to Giannis, that is special, the connection between those guys. To know you’re watching a little bit of Kobe when you watch Giannis, because he did look up to him, and he did teach Giannis, that really is special.”
“To know that Giannis really does carry forward a piece of Kobe, the way he taught the game to Giannis, that is special, the connection between those guys. To know you’re watching a little bit of Kobe when you watch Giannis, because he did look up to him, and he did teach Giannis, that really is special.”
It’s that singleness of purpose that perhaps was in the back of Antetokounmpo’s mind, and that led him to return to the court Monday. Still, he asked himself about the worthiness of such a step after losing a role model.
“I was thinking, ‘Hopefully it can make me feel better.’ It made me feel better when my dad passed away. But at the end of the day, (you ask) ‘Is this worth it?’ ” he discerned.
“Made me feel a little bit better. But him not being here, his daughter not being here, it’s kind of hard.”
That truth is affecting countless millions of basketball fans around the world today. Antetokounmpo hopes the lessons Kobe learned will be what remains with those fans in the future.
“Work hard. Be fearless,” Antetokounmpo said of the lessons of Bryant’s career.
“Don’t really care what people have to say about you, just go out there and do your job. Have a smile on your face. You’re going to have to sacrifice a lot, a lot of family time, to play this game, but your family knows why you’re put on this earth, why you play this game, to provide for them. That’s what you’re born to do.”
And as for life wisdom in general from this saddest of experiences for the young star, Giannis shared many well-reflected words.
“Life is short. Live your life to the fullest. To the best of your ability, go out there and do what you love. Keep a smile on your face,” he added.
“Be with people that love you. Make sure you tell your family, your kids, your mother, your (beloved), your friends that you love them.”