The hidden side of politics

The Bucks are counting on Giannis to take them to new heights

Reported by ESPN:

Giannis Antetokounmpo has a vision.

He looks into his future and sees his jersey being raised to the rafters, ideally next to a new championship banner or two, after an entire career spent playing for the Milwaukee Bucks.

“Definitely. That’s one of my goals,” Antetokounmpo told ESPN recently. “Kobe [Bryant] did it. Tim Duncan did it. Dirk Nowitzki did it. I just want to be one of those guys … that stays for the city, play for the city for 20 years.”

The Bucks have a vision, too. Not only does it include Antetokounmpo spending his entire career in Milwaukee, but it puts him at the center of everything they’re planning for the future.

“We know this is the unicorn,” team president Peter Feigin said of the team’s 23-year-old star.

They not only hope to one day hang his jersey at the Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center — a sparkling new arena that cost more than a half-billion dollars to construct and is set to become the Bucks’ new home starting in 2018-19 — but they’ve made Antetokounmpo the centerpiece of almost every major decision the organization makes, as the Bucks look to make a splash on a worldwide scale.

“What we call ‘The Giannis Effect’ really kind of took place 18 months ago, maybe two years ago, where you had this guy who had a skill set that was unlike anything ever,” Feigin said. “Now it’s really kind of grasping it and leveraging it and marketing it [in] a big, strong way, and marketing it to the world, which is different because he’s really attractive to the world.”

While Feigin calls Antetokounmpo “the unicorn,” that term has become almost generic in NBA circles these days. Even among the elite players who’ve earned the label, the Bucks’ star stands alone.

“It’s funny, Giannis is probably just a Giannis,” LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I still think the thing I’m most impressed with him is he’s serious about the game. He plays hard, he competes — that’s the intangibles that to me will make him a great, great player. Because I do believe there’s guys maybe as long, maybe that even have the talent, but I think it’s his ticker that makes him different.”

Antetokounmpo just completed his fifth NBA season, averaging career highs of 26.9 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. He was nearly the leading vote-getter for the All-Star Game in February, and he is expected to be a first-team selection when the All-NBA teams are announced. He was the subject of a recent “60 Minutes” profile and is the face of the Bucks. And he simultaneously has become one of the league’s most productive and most popular players.

“It’s nice,” Antetokounmpo said, after getting cheers recently during a game in Los Angeles. “I always hear, ‘That’s the ’60 Minutes’ guy!’ I heard that like five times all game, but it’s fun. It’s fun, just Milwaukee getting love on the road.”

That love is nothing compared to what he experiences in Milwaukee, a city that has embraced him ever since he was drafted No. 15 overall in 2013. But Bucks fans are equally nervous that Antetokounmpo might leave the city when his four-year, $100 million contract extension is up at the end of the 2020-21 season — or even sooner if the team doesn’t show improvement. The Bucks have made three playoff appearances in the past five seasons but have yet to make it out of the first round.

“I can see the love from people in Milwaukee,” Antetokounmpo said. “I can see that the city wants me to be there for a long time. Some days I get the tweets — there was a guy that said I posted a tweet that I’ve got loyalty in my DNA a couple months ago, so he said he looks at this tweet and he can sleep better at night. So that’s funny, man. But as I said, it’s just fun. I know people want me to be part of their organization, and Milwaukee wants me to be here, play for Milwaukee the rest of my career.”

“He plays hard, he competes — that’s the intangibles that to me will make him a great, great player.”

Doc Rivers on Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Bucks’ hope is that they can contend for a championship in the years to come in a new arena that will be a centerpiece for the region. But that growth is all contingent on Antetokounmpo staying in Milwaukee and becoming that “great, great player” Rivers speaks of.

“I think all of us feel like extremely lucky and have a big responsibility to do fantastic things for him, for the team, for the league,” Feigin said. “So we spend a lot of time and just being as innovative as we can and [discussing] how do we really take his likability and just blow it out of the sky.”

The idea of pinning not only the Bucks’ on-court success but their off-court growth on Antetokounmpo is a fairly new one in Milwaukee.

“People are delusional if they think four years ago Giannis was in effect,” said Feigin, who, like so many others in the Bucks organization, is a Giannis acolyte.

Feigin believes in Antetokounmpo both as a man and a player, and that makes it even easier to see the star’s image as the Bucks try to grow on the fly.

“We’ve got this distinct advantage,” he said. “When you’re a marketer, you always worry about the product. Do you have [it]? Does it come up to snuff? So we’ve got this kid that the world doesn’t even know yet. So he’s almost a better person than he is a basketball player. He is more likable than you could ever imagine. He’s got the charismatic way of him off and on the [court]. So really thinking about how he evolves has not been hard.”

What makes Antetokounmpo’s situation unique is his status as an international superstar, one who has become the basketball-playing face of his native Greece. That status, Feigin explains, completely flipped the Bucks’ marketing strategy.

“We were all about, ‘Hey, we’ve got to really focus on Milwaukee, we’ve got to focus on the state of Wisconsin. We’ve got to focus on the region of the Midwest. Then we’re going to become the national team, and then international,'” he said. “Well, overnight we became one of the top international kind of teams on every metric: on games viewed, on digital views, on video views. So how do you leverage that and take that great awareness and excitement and now funnel it down to the local level?”

The Bucks know Antetokounmpo’s popularity can serve as a bridge to not only get current fans in the door to the new arena but also to grow an entirely new fan base.

“Now that we’re building this audience, it’s giving us an opportunity to tell stories about the wider organization, really turn them into, as much as we want everybody to be Giannis fans, we want all those Giannis fans to be Bucks fans, too, and continue for decades on,” Bucks chief marketing officer Dustin Godsey said.

So far, it’s working. Antetokounmpo’s jersey was the fourth-highest seller during the regular season, and the Bucks as a team ranked sixth in total merchandise sales via the NBA’s online store. That speaks to the success of Milwaukee’s plan to expand its fan base outside of its local market.

As part of that plan, the Bucks will aggressively market in the Chicago area, especially the northern suburbs in close proximity to Milwaukee, as part of a broader business plan. That proximity was what made the Bucks an appealing destination to Chicago native Jabari Parker when he was drafted by the team, back when they hoped he — and not Antetokounmpo — would be their entryway into attracting those fans. While league rules prevent the Bucks from directly marketing the team in what would be considered Chicago Bulls territory, they can market major entertainment events they continue to line up in advance of the opening of the 30-acre district around the new arena this year.

“We build this arena, we build our entire district, and we want to be the world’s greatest sports and entertainment company in the world,” Feigin said. “So what that really means is creating a destination that people come to and want to come back to and back to again. So not just a Bucks game — we have events in the plaza, we have retail experiences outside, we’ve got a lineup of concerts that are equal to or greater than any big city to get to and this is more accessible, this is easier to reach. And if you can use this arena as that magnet to kind of bring them, we think that’s a big jolt for the city.”

No matter how many top-level shows, concerts and events may roll through the complex over the coming years, the biggest magnet of all is Antetokounmpo. He has the star power to open doors the Bucks have never been able to before.

“Giannis has been an accelerant to what we’ve been building,” Feigin said. “Essential. Kind of an excitement in sales and everything — that’s a big part of The Giannis Effect to really get in. What it does for us on the basketball side, which is always important when you’re running a team, it takes the casual fan or the not-so-engaged fan and creates an interest. So all of a sudden you’ve got this bed of fandom that was never there before, and their catalyst is a particular player. You could never underestimate what a superstar does, and Giannis is a superstar.”

Kevin Durant understands exactly what Antetokounmpo is going through. As he listens to what Antetokounmpo said about wanting to stay in Milwaukee throughout his entire career, Durant reflects back to an earlier time in his career — because he knows there was a time he said exactly the same thing about staying in Oklahoma City.

“I was at that point,” Durant told ESPN. “I wanted the same things. I felt like that’s what I …”

Then there’s a pause. Before Durant won a championship last season with the Golden State Warriors, he carried the mantle of being the top star on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant stunned the basketball world, and saddened the Oklahoma City community, in the summer of 2016 by deciding to leave the Thunder for the Warriors in free agency. He seems happy in his new surroundings, but he knows what he went through after deciding to leave the only franchise he ever knew — and he knows Antetokounmpo could face a similar difficult decision in the near future.

“What I would say to him, I would tell him to play for himself,” Durant said. “Because he’s the one out there putting in the work, he’s the one out there getting up in the morning staying committed to the game. Obviously [the comments about staying put] sounds good to the fans in Milwaukee and to the ownership, because he cares so much about wanting to please them and play well for them, and I get it. But his career is about him; it’s about whatever he wants to do and however he feels is right for him. And what type of basketball does he want to play? He’s not going to stay in Milwaukee if he’s not having fun playing the game.”

For now, Antetokounmpo appears to be having fun, as the Bucks are making back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time since 2003 and 2004. And his fun-loving personality and on-court ability have made him a fan favorite in Milwaukee.

“Everybody loves this kid,” Feigin said. “If somebody said something bad about Giannis, you’d question the person who said it because you knew it wouldn’t be right.”

The same, however, could have been said about Durant in Oklahoma City prior to 2016. The Warriors star cautions against Antetokounmpo getting too caught up in his status in both the community and the Bucks’ plans for him beyond the basketball court.

“I’m sure he has nothing but love and respect for everybody that helped him out in Milwaukee and all the fans that cheered for him, but his career is not about them. It’s about himself,” Durant said. “And I learned that because I said the same things, I lived the same things. I wanted the same things. But it came from a place where I was just so excited about the love I was getting from everybody else. And when I said that, I wanted people to feel good about themselves, I wanted people to feel good about our team and I wanted my organization to feel like I was there for them, I was loyal to them every single day, because I was. But at the same time, it’s about you. It’s about going out there and being the best player you can be every single day, working hard every single day, enjoying the game. That’s your only job, is to do those things. It’s not to fill people up in the seats or [fill] a new arena — it’s not your job. So I would tell him to live and play his career out for himself.”

As he watches from a distance, former Bucks center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sees the possibilities in Antetokounmpo’s future. The Hall of Famer remembers how passionate the city’s fan base was about the team when he played, and he can see the excitement surrounding Antetokounmpo’s growth.

“It’s quite a responsibility,” said Abdul-Jabbar, who ended up leaving for Los Angeles after six seasons of being the face of Milwaukee. “You’ve really got to mind your P’s and Q’s and do the right thing at the right time because you have that type of responsibility. But the support you get from the fans and the people that live here in Wisconsin more than makes up for it. They’re pretty amazing.”

Durant, like the rest of the basketball world, has no idea where Antetokounmpo will end up after his current deal runs out. He just hopes Antetokounmpo will be happy with whatever decision he makes.

“I wish people would have told me I didn’t have to carry that burden mentally,” Durant said while discussing what it’s like to be the face of a small-market team. “Because I really wasn’t carrying it physically. It was all up here [points at head]. It was all like I felt like I had to do that, but I had great teammates, I had great coaches, I had good ownership that was taking care of all this. I didn’t have to make sure they were building businesses in downtown Oklahoma City, or make sure fans came to the games or buy the merchandise — that wasn’t my job, that wasn’t my burden. But I was taking it all up here mentally, and it was taking away from what’s really important, which is that basketball court.”

While the business aspect of Antetokounmpo’s potential future in Milwaukee is staggering, all parties involved know the key to keeping him happy in the coming years is making the Bucks as good as they can possibly be on the court. That’s what makes this summer as important as any in recent memory for the organization. They have to decide which coach will replace interim head coach Joe Prunty, who took over for Jason Kidd earlier this season. They have to decide what they want to do with Parker, a restricted free agent who is still making his way back from two ACL injuries in his left knee. They have to do all of this while not having much cap space, though they caught a break by losing a tiebreaking draw for the 16th pick in the draft, allowing them to keep a pick they otherwise would have had to send to the Phoenix Suns as part of a deal for Eric Bledsoe.

The Bucks’ precarious roster composition, and need for a new coach, remains one of the most intriguing topics in league circles because of Antetokounmpo’s rapidly improving stature in the league. Will he still show the same loyalty toward his adopted town and team if the Bucks don’t show more improvement on the floor? It’s the question that looms over everything the Bucks do on a daily basis, even though he can’t become a free agent until 2021.

“To be honest with you, I really do not even think about it,” Antetokounmpo said. “Of course, it’s a compliment, all these fans from other teams. The [opposing] city wants you to play for their city. But I really do not think about it or pay attention to it.”

As the All-Star big man continues to improve his game, and his team, he is trying to enjoy the moment with a sense of humor in the process.

“They might change their mind,” he joked. “It might be next year, ‘We don’t want Giannis to play for us no more.'”

“I’m sure he has nothing but love and respect for everybody that helped him out in Milwaukee and all the fans that cheered for him, but his career is not about them. It’s about himself. And I learned that because I said the same things, I lived the same things.”

Kevin Durant on Giannis Antetokounmpo

Feigin and his colleagues know that will never be the case. As the Bucks continue their plans for the future, they know they must do everything in their power to make sure their young star stays happy. But as they embark on a new business era and get set to open a sparkling new arena, they remain confident that Antetokounmpo will stay true to his word and stick with the team for years to come.

“At the end of the day, if Giannis or any superstar doesn’t feel that the team has created an environment around him to win, they’re not going to be satisfied,” Feigin said. “Mentally, that’s all they want to do is win. For us, we’re on the exact same page with Giannis. We’ve got time, we’ve got to have a core, we’ve got to have expectations to be one of the best in the Eastern Conference. We’ve got to in the next two years start competing for a championship. We’ve been very transparent in saying those are the goals, which is great, and he gets it.”