NBA playoffs: Giannis Antetokounmpo's 'failure' rebuttal was right ... but not for the NBA

Giannis Antetokounmpo gave a postgame news conference answer Wednesday that should be required viewing for every youth, high school and even college athlete in this country (or at least their overly competitive coaches and parents).

When asked if the 2022-23 Milwaukee season was a “failure” because the Bucks went from the top seed in the Eastern Conference to a 4-1 first-round loser to the Miami Heat, Antetokounmpo gave an answer steeped in perspective and patience.

“It’s not a failure,” Antetokounmpo said, “it’s steps to success. There’s always steps to it. Michael Jordan played 15 years, won six championships, The other nine years [were] a failure? That’s what you’re telling me?

“... It’s the wrong question,” he continued. “There’s no failure in sports. There’s good days, bad days. Some days you’re successful. Some days you’re not. Some days it’s your turn. Some days it’s not your turn. And that’s what sports is about. You don’t always win. Sometimes other people win. And this year, somebody else is going to win, simple as that.”

Again, great stuff from a great player and, by all accounts, a better person. Who doesn’t love Giannis? Every young athlete should listen to him and embrace the message. The rulebook may say you can win them all, but in reality you won’t. Enjoy the journey and treat the destination as a bit of a bonus.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - APRIL 26: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks sits on the bench after losing Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs against the Miami Heat in overtime at Fiserv Forum on April 26, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Giannis Antetokounmpo sits on the bench after losing Game 5 of his Eastern Conference first-round series against the Miami Heat in overtime at Fiserv Forum on April 26, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Except … Antetokounmpo isn’t a youth, high school or even college athlete, the Bucks aren’t some local rec team, and the NBA playoffs aren’t a weekend tournament.

This is a professional athlete in a professional pursuit.

It is completely fair for the franchise itself, and the fans who fund it and devote their passion to supporting it, to expect more than just a, “Hey, good try,” when a once championship-caliber season goes up in smoke in just a handful of games.

Winning matters. Success matters.

Losing to the Heat did not make Antetokounmpo or any of his teammates “failures.” Far from it, they are succeeding just by reaching the highest level of their sport.

Nor does the early elimination mean that there weren't steps forward or positive moments or levels of growth across the lengthy season. To suggest that would be ridiculous. No matter what happened in the playoffs, Milwaukee provided months of excitement and entertainment for its fans.

It does make this Bucks season, however, at least somewhat of a failure by not coming even close to achieving the ultimate goal. They hand out a trophy at the end for a reason. You either win it, or you don’t.

While Dale Earnhardt’s famous “second place is just the first-place loser” or Nike’s old “you don’t win silver, you lose gold” marketing campaign is too arbitrary to be held as a universal truth, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to acknowledge that this is more than just a casual pursuit.

Use Antetokounmpo’s example of Michael Jordan. Were Jordan’s nine non-championship seasons “failures.” Of course not. They were, as Giannis noted, steps in the proper direction (or at least the Chicago ones, not the two in Washington at the end where he essentially just flew around and played poker).

However, there was no doubt MJ saw those non-title teams as failures. Yes, learning to get past Boston and Detroit back in the day was part of the Chicago Bulls' journey, but that doesn’t mean those losing seasons were just shrugged off. In fact, not shrugging them off was Jordan’s mantra. Losing crushed him.

Antetokounmpo isn’t Jordan. Almost no one ever has been — although Kobe, Magic, Bird, Isiah, KG and many, many others through the years were the same way as MJ.

Giannis doesn’t need to conform to some old-school, throwback-level of competitiveness. At just 28, he’s won two MVPs and in 2021 led Milwaukee to its first NBA title in four decades. No one is questioning his will to win. Had he been fully healthy in this series, things might have been different.

He is free, and encouraged, to be himself.

That said, Bucks fans have reason to be frustrated. It’s not just the money they invested in the team, it’s the time. Playing for the team is Antetokounmpo’s job, and he is, appropriately, well-compensated for it.

The fans have a choice with what to do with their free hours though, and when they invest months (or decades) of it following a team only to be dramatically disappointed in the end, then it's fair for them to wonder, and the media to ask, if this was a failure.

The question wasn’t the wrong question, at least not for a pro athlete. It would be at the end of a youth tournament or a high school season.

Giannis and the Bucks are far past that. So thank him for the overarching context and the life lessons of making too much out of a sporting result. Play it to every young athlete you know.

We need more of that in America.

Just not in the NBA.