A year before Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to its first NBA title since 1971, he was apparently considering calling it a career.
“In 2020, I was … ready to walk away from the game,” the two-time MVP told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The star’s almost-retirement came a week before the season began after Antetokounmpo had just signed a five-year, $228 million extension. At the time, it was the largest contract in NBA history.
“Everybody — no matter where I am — everybody is watching me,” he said.
Antetokounmpo recalled walking through a hotel in Orlando and overhearing a woman’s comments. “That’s the best player in the world,” Antetokounmpo explained she told what appeared to be her grandchildren.
“Yeah, it’s good to hear that, but that’s a lot of pressure. Going through that … in order for you to be the best, you have to play like the best. You have to practice like the best. You got to carry yourself like the best. Which is not easy,” he said.“As much as people say I’m handling it well, because that’s my personality…it’s hard”
The pressure Antetokounmpo mentioned came on the heels of a second consecutive playoff defeat as 2020 presented two types of global health crises.
In 2019, the Bucks fell to the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals after having a 2-0 lead. Looking even stronger in 2020, the team was forced into the NBA bubble after COVID-19 halted the season, which presented brand-new struggles. The Bucks were eliminated by the Miami Heat in the second round, but not before participating in social justice demonstrations relating to issues in Milwaukee.
Recognized by many as a bubbly, dad joke-telling phenom, Antetokounmpo said that his mental health was struggling as he tried to prepare for another season.
“I feel like a lot of people deal with it, but they’re not willing to talk about it,” he said. “They’re not willing to improve, because this stigma is behind it. ‘You talk about it, then you’re soft, you’re weak; this is a sport, you’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to fight through everything.’
Eventually, his state of mind became impossible to ignore.
“I can’t leave my family,” he said. “I need to talk to somebody.”
Now a father to two sons, Antetokounmpo was once just a child of Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo, who emigrated from Nigeria to Greece for a better life. Still poor in the new country, he remembers experiencing the struggle to maintain food and housing with his brothers. Antetokounmpo’s father died unexpectedly in 2017.
Finally giving himself time and space to acknowledge the impact of all of that in therapy, Antetokounmpo experienced a shift that allowed him to continue dominating the game despite the pressure.
“Somebody helped put me in a place, again, to appreciate all of the things that I have, that comes with being who I am,” he said. “ To be OK with myself. To — no matter what the outcome is of the game — understand that I can’t control that. I can only control my effort. How hard I work. How I make people feel around me. How I try to, hopefully, inspire people from what I do.”
For those who somehow can’t find inspiration in Antetokounmpo’s MVP-caliber efforts on the court, he is also pouring into the Charles Antetokounmpo Family Foundation, which aims to help widows, refugees, disaster victims and the oppressed all over the world.