Eric Nehm covers the Milwaukee Bucks for ESPN 540 WAUK.
MILWAUKEE -- It was late January and the Milwaukee Bucks had just lost for the eighth time in nine games. This loss, though, was especially grating for forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. For 45 minutes, he did all that he could against a physical Boston Celtics team -- tallying 21 points, seven rebounds, six assists and a block -- but it wasn’t enough. The Bucks lost 112-108 in overtime at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Over the final three minutes of regulation, the Celtics managed to keep the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands. Two Bucks turnovers in that stretch sent the game to overtime. Down 110-108 with 18 seconds left in the extra period, Matthew Dellavedova tossed the ball to Antetokounmpo on the right block. He dribbled across the lane and attempted a short fadeaway jumper. It came up short.
After the game, Antetokounmpo sat at his locker and mumbled to Bucks shooting guard Tony Snell sitting at the locker to his right. His voice was barely audible. Snell’s voice, though, could be heard clearly for one of the first times since joining the roster three months earlier.
“No,” Snell said. “We don’t talk like that. We’re positive in this locker room. We’re not going to talk like that in here.”
It was a strange role reversal for the typically demure Snell to speak so forcefully to the chatty Antetokounmpo. Most scenes of the locker room neighbors had included a good bit of joking from the joyous youngster. Snell would typically say few words and often respond with a simple head nod or smile.
“I actually do remember that,” Snell said last week. “In that locker room, we can’t focus on the negativity. We always have to stay positive. Keep adding positivity to your life and positive things will happen. I was just trying to put that in his mind.”
Despite Snell’s positive prodding, Antetokounmpo continued to talk about the failings of the night and the team’s struggles throughout the month in the middle of last season. Snell then tried to attack a larger issue: the intense pressure Antetokounmpo puts on himself.
Before the Bucks moved into their brand new training facility across the street from the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the Bucks star forward had been known to regularly drive six miles to the Cousins Center in his game jersey. Once there, he would drill the mistakes he had made in that night’s loss until he got it right, even if it meant staying until 3 a.m. Those trips became so regular that when the team moved to their new facility, Antetokounmpo asked the organization if he could buy the Cousins Center in order to have his own private gym.
While the stories of late-night trips to the team’s training facility are already the stuff of NBA legend, they also reinforce the level to which Antetokounmpo makes himself personally accountable for his team’s mistakes.
With three days off before the Bucks’ next game, Snell suggested Antetokounmpo find something that helped clear his mind -- something that could take his mind off basketball for even just an hour. He told Antetokounmpo about his love for dominoes and how he could play for hours without once thinking about basketball.
“I just knew that he’s always determined to make things better, but sometimes you can overwork yourself,” Snell said. “Sometimes, you need to slow him down, get him to step back, and take a couple deep breaths.”
Less than a year later, the Bucks again lost to the Celtics. This time, it was a 96-89 defeat in the team’s much-hyped “Return to the MECCA” game last week. Antetokounmpo again led the way, but his 28 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and one block were not enough.
After the game, the young superstar sat slumped deep in a chair at his locker with his head buried in his phone and his feet in an ice bucket. His teammates had already started to return from the showers in the cramped locker room of the nearly 70-year-old arena, but he was unmoved.
Though Antetokounmpo didn’t appear particularly happy, he sounded more hopeful his postgame media availability than his comments the previous year. Instead of shoulder-shrugging “I don’t knows,” he made reference to watching “some clips” after the game to figure out how to improve going forward.
“I think he’s finding it a little bit,” Snell said of Antetokounmpo’s obsessiveness. “He’s found more of a better balance, which is really important.”
“It’s your job. And you’re doing your job all the time, but if you’re outside your job, you have to do something completely different and keep your mind off work.”
Snell’s optimism paired well with Antetokounmpo’s demeanor the next day. After a typical post-practice session with Thon Maker and Bucks assistant coach Sean Sweeney, the Bucks’ MVP candidate approached media members with a smile on his face and a basketball under his arm.
He described what he saw on film and how the Bucks could improve going forward. Level-headed and logical, Antetokounmpo answered a number of questions before being asked about the postgame discussion with Snell. He didn’t remember the specific pep talk, but said he might not be able to recall that moment because Snell had been such a positive influence since coming to Milwaukee, that instance just might not have stuck out.
But did he follow Snell’s advice from last season? Had he found a way to take his mind of basketball?
“Nope,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’m still the same way. I can’t take my mind off basketball.”
Nothing? Not even something for just an hour?
“Nah,” he said.
It’s always in your head? No matter what?
“When I spend time with my family, that’s it ... but even then, I still keep thinking about basketball,” he said.
Antetokounmpo began to retreat to the players lounge in the Bucks’ new training facility. After a few steps though, he turned back around as though struck by something he needed to say.
“So, I play chess now, right,” he says. And at this moment, Antetokounmpo begins to use the wall he was standing up against to pantomime a game of chess.
“When I’m making a move ... when I play chess,” Antetokounmpo explains, as he pretends to grab a piece and move it. “In my head, you know what I’m saying?”
“I’m like, ‘The only reason I’m playing chess right now is to get my mind off basketball.’ So, I’m still thinking about basketball! So, I’m getting ready to make a move and I’m like, ‘Ahhh, s---! I’m thinking about basketball again.’”
He goes on to explain that he started playing chess for the exact reason Snell described last season -- he was looking for a way to challenge his mind and take his thoughts away from the game of basketball. He has largely failed.
One thing is clear: Antetokounmpo is obsessed with basketball.
It’s clear when he asks Bucks television broadcaster Jim Paschke to change seats with him on the team plane so he can watch more video clips with the coaching staff on the way to Boston. It’s clear on the postgame drives to the training facility. It’s clear when he describes plays from the night before in startlingly specific detail. It’s clear when he’s talking about what he does to quell his obsession. It’s clear that he can’t escape the game of basketball for a single moment, and honestly might not be all that interested in escaping it, even if he could.