For Giannis Antetokounmpo, leaving behind his family — including his infant son, Liam — for the NBA restart in Orlando will be no easy task, but those irregular circumstances will put this year’s NBA champion in a class of its own.
“I feel like a lot of people say that there’s gonna be a star next to this championship,” Antetokounmpo said. “I feel like, at the end of the day, this is gonna be the toughest championship you could ever win — because the circumstances are really, really tough right now. So, whoever wants it more is going to be able to go out there and take it.”
Throughout the pandemic, Antetokounmpo has shared numerous social media posts of him bonding with family, including a workout video in which he kissed his baby boy while going down for every push-up. Liam was born in February ahead of NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago.
Like several other NBA players, Antetokounmpo has concerns about health and safety, but he puts his trust in the league’s protocol once the action resumes and refuses to make excuses.
“Everybody has concerns about their health. Nobody wants to put themselves in risk out there, but at the end of the day, that’s what the NBA chose, and we’re gonna resume the games, and we’ve all gotta do our job,” Antetokounmpo said. “And my job is to play basketball and go out there and support my teammates, and represent the city. But for sure, I think me, my teammates, my family — especially my mom — everybody has concerns about our health, and my health.”
Ahead of the NBA suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic, Milwaukee (53-12) held the league’s best record. Coach Mike Budenholzer says he fully expects all of the players to join the team for the restart but will support anyone who changes their mind throughout the process.
Budenholzer agrees with Antetokounmpo that this title will be as tough as any other one in league history because of challenges of the pandemic, status of African Americans in the country and the ability to focus in the Orlando bubble.
“I feel like the champion from this experience from this season, I think is going to be more worthy and probably more special than any champion,” Budenholzer said.
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra shared a similar mindset on how difficult this year’s title run will be. “I think this might be certainly the most worthy of all world championships in the NBA because of all the things that every team is going to have to navigate and overcome to be able to be crowned a champion,” Spoelstra said Wednesday. Spoelstra added that the Heat will be able to lean on leadership from Jimmy Butler, Udonis Haslem and Goran Dragic to get through these unusual circumstances.
Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles was one of the players who also admitted to being uncomfortable early on with the bubble concept. However, he found comfort from his wife, Renae, and through informative meetings with the league. His teammates Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell were the first NBA players to test positive for coronavirus in March, which ultimately halted all action, but he’s now ready to support his team under these new conditions.
“At the start, I said I wasn’t comfortable at all and obviously not knowing anything about it. We really didn’t know anything,” Ingles said. “It was a pretty new thing and obviously for me, which I couldn’t say back then as well, but with Renae being pregnant and with my son, Jacob, with the autism and his immune system being kind of compromised. It was just a scary time I think for everybody and adding those things on top of that, there was no way at that point I would have. If they said we were coming back in two weeks time, there would’ve been no way I would’ve gone.”
Antetokounmpo was putting up career-best numbers of 29.6 points per game, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists before the break, and he was in the race to win back-to-back MVPs. He knows his leadership will be tested throughout this new normal setting, but he’s ready for the sacrifice to attempt to bring home Milwaukee’s first championship trophy since 1971.
“I feel like, as I said before, this is the toughest title. Obviously, you go somewhere without your family for four months, three months, and you haven’t played basketball for three-and-a-half, four months. Obviously, whoever team wants it more, has gotta be mentally prepared for all the situations and gotta go out there and execute,” Antetokounmpo said.
“Whoever plays the best-because at the end of the day, teams gotta be in shape. So whoever is in the best shape and took care of themselves for these three-and-a-half months, four months that we wasn’t able to play, is gonna be in a better position than the other teams. “I want to be one of the best players to ever play the game,” he added. “I did the best job I could do trying to stay ready and trying have my team ready for this journey that we’re about to go on to leave and play games. But as I said, whoever wants it more, whoever is mentally prepared for all this, what’s going on in Orlando, that’s the team that’s gonna come out on top.”