In Defense of 'What a Pro Wants' Ad With NBA Stars

Perhaps the ad, which has run on an endless loop since the start of March Madness, just irks you. Maybe at this point it’s haunting your dreams, your soul, every freaking fiber of your DNA.

If you’ve watched an iota of sports on television over the past few months, you know the spot in question: two stylish guys wearing dark jackets, who it turns out are young Oklahoma City Thunder star basketball players Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chet Holmgren—though you might not know that if you aren’t a hoophead—walking out of a hotel, to the team bus, while singing a takeoff of the 1999 Christina Aguilera hit “What a Girl Wants.” In the ad, Holmgren tells Gilgeous-Alexander—often referred to simply as SGA—that AT&T “just sent me a heads-up on the best plan for me.” After SGA approves, Holmgren says, “They know what a pro wants.” SGA responds, “What a pro needs.” Then the singing. And, for the viewers, the cringing.

Or crying. Or screaming.

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The line of irritating advertisements that have roiled sports fans over the years is longer than Holmgren’s wingspan. From the Budweiser Wassup Guys to the Coors Light “Here’s to Football” anthem—“with the twiiiiins,” egads—to various auto and fast-food spots, everyone has a most-hated list.

But the vitriol directed at “What a Pro Wants” stands out.

“I’m ready to call it,” David Ubben, a national college-football writer at The Athletic, wrote on X. “Aided in part by being forcefed to hoops fans for months, the Chet/SGA ‘What a pro wants’ is the worst commercial in history.” Dan Wolken, national sports columnist for USA Today, wrote: “It’s the one issue uniting all Americans at the moment. The commercial is an abomination and I increasingly recoil every time I’m forced to watch it.” In response to the spot Ashley Nicole Moss, a CBS Sports host, tweeted out a GIF of Jim Carrey pulling his hair and going mad in the movie Liar Liar. 

It’s not just sports-media types ripping the commercial. An NHL fan wrote on Reddit that “I’ve seen this at least 30 times [during] the first week of the playoffs. Going to be a long two months.” (An AT&T spokesperson confirms that the commercial is scheduled to run through the NBA Finals, which usually end around the same time, in mid-June or so, as the Stanley Cup Finals.) “Congress needs to step in,” wrote another X user. Memes used to represent disgust include someone throwing a flat screen off a terrace, Homer Simpson’s face melting, various forms of screaming and sobbing and worse.

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“I don't know about you, but me and my bros, we constantly are just having duets together, just singing on the way to the team bus,” says Ubben, who notes that friends have started actively rooting against the Thunder because of the commercial. “I think that happens all the time. There's nothing about it that makes sense or that I like. And we’ve had to watch it 9,000 times. I can't take it anymore.”

I can’t recall a sports ad generating this much negative noise. And normally, I’d be all too ready to pile on. Pooping on ubiquitous corporate advertising is a national pastime.

But here, the hate seems misplaced.

I get it—the ad is everywhere. These guys can’t sing. And even somewhat-charming-at-first commercials grow old.

But when I first saw the AT&T spot during March Madness, I was delighted. Not because of the creative concept but because of who was in it. SGA and Chet might not be as familiar to general audiences as, say, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Some of the online criticisms hit on this–who the hell are these guys making me suffer through an off-key earworm? But both SGA and Holmgren are brilliant young players for an exciting, relatively undercovered team on the rise. SGA, 25, is a bona fide MVP candidate who has an uncanny ability to slither through defenses designed to stop him, changing speeds and creating separation from opponents that allows him to score at will. He averaged 30.1 points per game for the small-market Thunder, the team that earned the top seed in the Western Conference and just finished a first-round sweep of the New Orleans Pelicans. The Thunder play team ball and defend. SGA takes his fair share of shots but was an efficient 54% from the field this season, finished top 20 in assists, and was tied for the league lead in steals per game. No player in the OKC lineup is over 25, and the team shares a youthful carefree camaraderie, as evidenced by its tradition of gathering around the star of the game during his post-game interview and barking.

Holmgren, meanwhile, would have won Rookie of the Year in most seasons; he’ll likely finish second to another long-limbed unicorn, 7 ft., 4 in. Victor Wembanyama of the San Antonio Spurs. But Holmgren, who is 7 ft., 1 in. and spent a season playing for Gonzaga, flashes guard skills reminiscent of another tall, rail-thin star who once shined in OKC—Durant—while also protecting the rim. Holmgren, 22, finished second in the NBA in total blocks. He appeared in all 82 regular season games.

I followed the Thunder all season, in the wilderness of NBA League Pass. (Thunder-Hornets on Channel 273 tonight? I’m there.) So the commercial gave me an odd sense of pride. Aww, my guys are getting their due. After the 300th viewing, I’m not as enthusiastic about it. At this point I ignore it. The spot certainly doesn’t bug me nearly as much as it seems to bother the rest of the universe.

From a sports-marketing perspective, sure, first impressions matter. If you’re repping SGA and Chet, maybe it’s not ideal to introduce your clients to a mass audience in an ad that’s driving many people crazy? On the flip side, their faces and names are now very, very familiar to the public at large. “It’s building exposure and stickiness,” says Jason Goldstein, a marketing agent at WME Sports, which represents Holmgren. “It was an opportunity, with his teammate, to continue to display who he is off the court.”

As in a Christina Aguilera fan? Not necessarily: Holmgren, who was born more than two years after “What a Girl Wants” came out, told PEOPLE in March, “to say I had ever sung that song or listened to it in the car, I'd be lying. I didn't know the words before the set day."

“We focus on creating work that cannot be ignored,” Marc Burns, VP of Advertising and Social Media at AT&T, writes in an email. “We look for talent who have credibility with the audience, whose story aligns with our core message, and are willing to do unexpected things that will capture attention and ultimately drive memorability for the work.”

Gilgeous-Alexander and Holmgren declined to comment on the ad.

For better or worse, “What a Pro Wants” isn’t exiting the airways anytime soon. But knock it at your own peril. Back in March, the Milwaukee Bucks trolled SGA and Holmgren after a win over OKC: the team’s X account posted the final score–Bucks 118, Thunder 93–along with the message “What a pro wants, what a pro needs. /Whatever makes us happy sets you free” and the hashtag “FearTheDeer.”

Milwaukee’s two future Hall of Famers, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard, have since been sidelined with injuries. The team’s one loss away from elimination.

The dudes in the duet play on.

Correction, May 2

The original version of this story misspelled the name of Athletic national college-football writer David Ubben on second reference. It's Ubben, not Udden.

Write to Sean Gregory at