The calls started coming in over the past two springs as Giannis Antetokounmpo's talent began to come into focus. Trainers to some of the NBA's top-level superstars wanted Antetokounmpo to work out with their clients during the offseason. Among the suitors was LeBron James' camp -- the NBA's equivalent of being tapped for Skull and Bones, the society of the young NBA elite.
Members of the Milwaukee Bucks' front office and coaching staff encouraged Antetokounmpo to take LeBron up on the invitation. What better way to hone one's game than training with the best player in the world? But Antetokounmpo would have none of it. Though he has a baller's appreciation of James and his place in the game, the Bucks' franchise player has no interest in following LeBron around like a puppy. Besides, why would he want to give his fiercest Eastern Conference rival a free look at his tendencies, vulnerabilities and anything he might be working on for the upcoming season?
Summer was for the Greek national team, for family and for grinding at the Bucks' training facility or wherever business took him. For Antetokounmpo, Bucks assistant Sean Sweeney -- and not LeBron or Kevin Durant or anyone else -- would be his preferred workout partner.
Antetokounmpo's thanks-but-no-thanks provides a small window into what kind of superstar he might be as he takes up residency in the NBA's pantheon. His response wasn't so much a tacit rejection of the NBA brotherhood, as James likes to call it, as it was a strong signal from Antetokounmpo that he plans to craft a superstar persona that's decidedly less social, less entrepreneurial and more introverted than the prevailing trends of the LeBron era.
Antetokounmpo recently read "More Than A Hero: Muhammad Ali's Life Lessons Presented Through His Daughter's Eyes" by Hana Ali. The book was part of an exchange with Antetokounmpo's girlfriend, whom he gifted "Me Before You," a love story by British novelist Jojo Moyes. ("So far it's working," Antetokounmpo says of the transaction.) What struck Antetokounmpo most profoundly was Ali's admission that his mental and spiritual lives weren't truly fulfilled until his retirement.
This detail inspired Antetokounmpo to take inventory of his own life, as he entered his fifth season in the league. When he gets out of bed in the morning, he said, the focus is entirely on basketball, on getting his joints loose, on drawing up a to-do list in his head for what's in store when he gets to the Bucks' gleaming new facility in downtown Milwaukee. Whatever is left over goes to his family.
"What Ali said is true," Antetokounmpo said.
Does it make him sad to believe that being his best basketball self and being his best spiritual self are incompatible?
"No, that's just the way it is," he said. "Now I have something to look forward to in 20 years."
Antetokounmpo's diagnosis of an NBA career as an all-encompassing one speaks to his outlook on stardom. Still only 22 years old, Antetokounmpo has revealed to the Bucks, the media, sponsors and the NBA fraternity a short priority list composed of basketball and family as interchangeable Nos. 1 and 2.
He has been the family's breadwinner and primary decision-maker for the past several years. Though that's not an atypical reality for an NBA player, few pro athletes maintain the kind of physical proximity Antetokounmpo has. Since arriving from Greece, Giannis' parents (his father, Charles, passed away just prior to the season) and his two younger brothers have lived in the same home, complex or apartment building. After games, Antetokounmpo doesn't frequent Milwaukee's growing collection of top-notch eateries, opting for a family dinner at either his or his mother's apartment.
"Living at the facility" is a popular label ascribed to NBA workaholics ("gym rat" is passé), but in the case of Antetokounmpo, it's barely an exaggeration. Weeks before the official start of training camp, Antetokounmpo can spend more than 10 hours at the Bucks' training center -- practice and drills in the morning, film and individual work at "night school" in the evening. This is where Antetokounmpo refines the qualities he wants to define his stardom -- meticulous preparation, killer mentality, the kind of intensity that strikes a visceral fear in the heart of his opponents.
This regimen, coupled with the absence of an active extracurricular life, prompts some of those close to Antetokounmpo to draw a parallel with the superstar persona crafted by Kobe Bryant. You won't find Antetokounmpo aboard a banana boat. Like Bryant, he has little interest in keeping company with fellow NBA players, though he has developed a close friendship with Thon Maker. When asked recently whether the Bucks routinely go out to dinner as a team, Antetokounmpo replied that on each occasion they had last season, they'd been blown out the next game. For Antetokounmpo, team-building occurs at the arena and at the facility, leading with his intensity and work ethic. He cited teammate Khris Middleton playing through a severe sickness in Game 6 of the Bucks' playoff series against Toronto last April as the sort of event that bonds a team far more than group dinners or goofing on the team plane.
Just as LeBron has been chasing Michael Jordan's ghost as the game's pre-eminent icon, Antetokounmpo is drawing comparisons to James -- on the court, at least. Though Antetokounmpo is starting to realize that his exceptional talent makes him a marketable product, his inclinations as a professional thus far bear little resemblance to LeBron Inc. Antetokounmpo will almost certainly be on a first-name basis with the public -- as much a function of syllables as stardom -- but there are few entrepreneurial ambitions. At a recent round of meetings with leading shoe companies, representatives pitched Antetokounmpo by citing their campaigns and brand-building for other NBA stars. Antetokounmpo, according to those with intimate knowledge of the meetings, found the approach perplexing. These stars were his competitors, and the notion of using their brands or personas as a template seemed backward.
Present-day superstars can't escape inquiries into their politics, questions Antetokounmpo will undoubtedly be asked to answer as his star rises. For those who squawk that athletes should just play the game and stay mum about hot-button cultural issues, Antetokounmpo might be the athlete they're pining for. Antetokounmpo has expressed little interest in American politics, whose issues are still foreign to him apart from a universal ecumenicism that calls for a general tolerance of difference. He recently started the Charles Antetokounmpo Family Foundation in honor of his father. While the foundation's emphases have yet to be named, Antetokounmpo has expressed interest in providing educational opportunities to youth in the developing world.
Teammate Malcolm Brogdon recently characterized Antetokounmpo as an introvert. Much of that can be attributed to his relative newness to the United States and the world of North American basketball. The cultural tropes and idioms of American life are still relatively unfamiliar. Unlike virtually every top-10 player in the NBA, Antetokounmpo didn't grow up on the AAU circuit and he never played in a McDonald's All-American Game. When he landed at JFK the night prior to being drafted by the Bucks, he'd never met any of his fellow 2013 classmates (he was introduced to Gorgui Dieng the following day). No college program recruited him and he'd literally never heard of the University of Kentucky.
Over time, Antetokounmpo will catch up with his generational counterparts as he hones his skill, develops habits, and carves his own path in the NBA. He'll be exposed to the temptations that accompany fame, and to material wealth incomprehensible to his adolescent self, who grew up in poverty. Dramatic change in a life so young can alter one's approach to life, and Antetokounmpo could transform into a brand of superstar far different than the projections. It's also possible that "Giannis" never grows into the household name "LeBron," "Steph" or "Kobe" became. If Antetokounmpo chooses to pursue the shy, understated route, that kind of superstardom comes with a prerequisite: an NBA championship.