The Milwaukee Bucks have—miraculously—won the NBA championship. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that would happen back in December 2019, when I pitched my upcoming book Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP. It’s set to come out August 10 from Hachette Books. You can preorder the book here.
Below is an excerpt from my book focusing on a time in Giannis’s life when a championship seemed firmly out of reach. The Bucks were coming off an awful 15-win season, the worst in franchise history. Everything had gone wrong, from injuries to player suspensions to a polar vortex that made Milwaukeeans risk frostbite by just walking outside. Amid all of the misery, the losses, Giannis shined in glimmers his rookie year. A wonderful chase-down block here. A powerful drive to the hoop there. But he was not the superstar he morphed into years later.
As the Bucks fired coach Larry Drew and brought in Jason Kidd as his replacement, Giannis was looking to take on a much more prominent role on the team his sophomore season. He was tired of being thought of as “adorable” or “lovable,” as he had turned into a baby-faced internet sensation, causing fans all over the country to fall in love with him. Giannis, still skinny and scrawny, wanted to look a little more intimidating, a little more menacing. More … mean. That’s the title of the chapter this excerpt is pulled from. In this section you can see the humble beginnings of his mean mug, and the intensity he now plays, and dominates, with, as just shown by his first NBA Finals triumph.
Giannis would stand in front of the mirror and practice his scowl. He’d squint his eyes, suck in his teeth. His nose would wrinkle; his forehead would tighten. His lips would curl, and then he’d let out a grunt.
He was trying to look more aggressive, less adorable; more intimidating, less innocent. He needed a new identity heading into his second NBA season—one vastly different from the goofy, endearing rookie discovering smoothies for the first time.
He needed to get mean.
“He had to practice it because he’s not that guy,” says Skip Robinson, then Bucks vice president of community relations and player development. “He’s a lovable guy. A nice gentleman.”
Giannis didn’t want to be seen as a nice gentleman on the court; he wanted to be seen as someone who would tear your heart out. He tried to pattern his scowl after Russell Westbrook’s scowl. Giannis loved Westbrook: his demeanor, his speed, but especially his scowl. Giannis came into practice once, scowling and grunting. “This is my new thing,” Giannis told his teammates.
They ignored him. Laughed a bit. But Giannis insisted on impressing them: He flexed his muscles after bench-pressing and flashed his scowl again, hoping his teammates would appreciate the intensity of his grunt. “Bro,” Brandon Knight told him, “you still don’t have any muscles. Relaaaaax.”
Giannis’s teammates found it hilarious when he’d attempt the scowl after a dunk, something he started doing toward the end of his rookie season. The first time he did it, against the Pistons, he ran back to the other end of the court with so much aggression even Caron Butler was surprised. “I didn’t know where the hell that came from,” Butler says, laughing.
Afterward, his teammates asked him, “What is that? Where’d you get that from?” They assumed he’d learned the scowl from YouTube—where he learned everything in those days.
Giannis laughed. “Oh,” Giannis said casually in a “this old thing?” kind of tone, “I took it from Westbrook.”
Giannis’s scowl seemed out of place. Manufactured. “We’d be like, ‘Oh, he must have practiced that at home today,’” Knight says. The scowl was coming along, but it still wasn’t loud enough, mean enough. Convincing enough. “You gotta work on your roar,” Knight would sarcastically advise Giannis. “You gotta work on your yell. We gotta get you right, man.”
On the first day of training camp to open the 2014-15 season, Giannis wouldn’t crack a smile. Not for a second. He couldn’t, since Jabari Parker was the new star; Giannis was still the curiosity. The two would eventually come to like each other, even become friends, but not at first. Giannis felt like the Bucks were supposed to be his team. He had earned that after the way he played his first season. And he was going to prove that he was the leader.
Some fantasized that the pair could become the Batman and Robin of a potential new era in Milwaukee, but Giannis didn’t want to be Robin. He needed to be Batman. “He wasn’t on the throne,” Bucks assistant coach Josh Oppenheimer says, “but the chair was empty. And he wasn’t going to help somebody get there when he thought he had the same amount of ability to get there.”
Giannis and Parker went at each other in every drill. Bucks coach Jason Kidd was happy about that; he demanded that competitiveness from everyone. He wasn’t going to accept another humiliating 15-win season.
Only about a year removed from his own playing career, Kidd was very much a player hiding in a coach’s suit. “Even on the sidelines you can just see the competitiveness bleeding out of his skin,” says Kerry Kittles, Kidd’s former Nets teammate. “You can see him trying to suppress it.”
Kidd huddled his new team at half court about midway through the first practice. “Who thinks we’re a playoff team?”
Players looked at each other, paused a second, recognizing there was only one right answer.
Everyone raised his hand.
“Good,” Kidd said. “We’re going to practice like it.”
Drills began, emphasizing physicality, driving to the hoop, taking contact. Kidd kept telling Giannis to drive to the basket: “Don’t settle for jump shots.” One play, Giannis drove coast-to-coast and took the ball strong to the hoop but got pummeled inside. The ball hit the backboard and bounced out of bounds.
“You know, a feather can blow him over,” Kidd said, turning to his assistants. They laughed. Kidd didn’t. He was dead serious. “A couple times up and down the court, you breathe on him, he’s falling over. We gotta get him stronger.”
Then players scrimmaged. One play, Giannis grabbed a rebound, dribbled in and out to beat his defender, and then dribbled the ball behind his back to fake out another defender, sprinting downcourt all the way to the cup for a dunk. It took him just four dribbles to get from one end to the other. Bucks forward Chris Wright and Oppenheimer looked at each other. “Yo,” they said at the same time. “Yo.”
Another play, Giannis received the ball at the top of the key. He stumbled, barely recovering his balance. He managed to dribble left, hard to the hoop, taking off for a windmill. Four players stood in his way, but Giannis rose over them and slammed the ball down.
Everyone in the gym stopped for a second. The dunk was surprising. Vicious. For the first time, Giannis looked really, really mean.
Kidd wanted Giannis to operate like an assassin on the court. A true killer. Meaning he needed to not only carry himself with a certain swagger, a certain meanness, but he needed his game to back up that kind of demeanor. Kidd saw star potential in Giannis and wanted him to maximize his gifts: his length, his athleticism in the open court.
Kidd and assistant coach Sean Sweeney would work out with Giannis multiple times a day. They’d teach him moves, challenge him out of his comfort zone. Kidd would make Giannis do a drill over and over until it was perfect, as he would with all his players.
Kidd was known for playing mind games. He wouldn’t yell; he wouldn’t act overly aggressive. Far from that. He was more delicate, soft-spoken, getting under someone’s skin, knowing the thing that made each player explode. He never gave players answers, wanting them to figure it out on their own.
His coaching style with the Nets, and then with the Bucks, was described as “psychological warfare” by one former player. When asked about Kidd, players and coaches often say, “On the record or off?” Kidd was loved, hated. His coaching style was described as follows:
“Jedi mind tricks,” Oppenheimer says.
“Mind fucks,” says one former teammate, a bit more bluntly.
“Machiavellian,” says a former Bucks staffer. “He kind of relished that combativeness in people.”
But also: “He’s a winner. Naturally a winner. He’s a competitive motherfucker,” says Chris Copeland, Bucks forward from 2015 to 2016. He played with Kidd on the Knicks in 2012-13.
“He’d just brutalize people,” says another ex-player. “There’s plenty of teammates that I had that didn’t like him, not even as a coach, like as a person. He’d pit people against each other.”
“I think he may have had rocky relationships with a lot of players,” says Johnny O’Bryant III, Bucks forward from 2014 to 2016. “But one thing he did was he laid the tradition of a winning team. Sometimes the way he went about it, being straightforward, he was just an asshole, but I think it paid off in the long run.”
“I’d never call Jason Kidd an asshole,” says Nicholas Turner, Kidd’s executive assistant from 2014 to 2018, “but he was a player too, so he also has an ego. ... There’s definitely some things that people misunderstand about J-Kidd. Ultimately he wants to win. He has good intentions.”
There was also a cerebral aspect to Kidd. “He was like a professor,” says Jason Terry, Bucks guard from 2016 to 2018, who also played for Kidd in Brooklyn in 2013-14. “Instead of telling you what to do, he engages you, empowers you, by asking, ‘What do you see?’”
“Jason had a brilliant mind,” says Nixon Dorvilien, Bucks assistant trainer from 2014 to 2016, “but he kind of made you uncomfortable around him.”
“When players go through it and it’s uncomfortable, they like to say, ‘He’s playing mind games with me,’ but it’s not that,” says Greg Foster, Bucks assistant coach from 2014 to 2018, now with the Pacers. “He’s trying to get you to do something you wouldn’t normally do. That’s coaching.”
Knight searches for the right words. “I don’t want to sound negative,” he says. Knight explains some of Kidd’s methods, such as how Kidd would embarrass the culprit of an error by making everyone but that person run sprints for his mistake. “He just had his way of getting his point across,” Knight says.
Little things were made to be a big deal: At one point center Thon Maker didn’t have an iPhone, messing up the team’s blue-bubble iPhone group chat. Kidd was upset about it and made the team run because Kidd felt that Maker not getting an iPhone was an example of the team not being united.
But there was another side to Kidd, one that held players accountable, gave them confidence, raised the level of play. If players were doing the drill wrong, Kidd would grab the ball and hop in the drill and show players how to do it perfectly. Kidd would sometimes dominate and say, “Guys, this isn’t that fucking hard!”
Kidd hated when players were not on time. Or when he had to go over something again. He was a perfectionist—and thought players should get it right the first time. He had this look, this death stare, that was piercing.
His mind was several steps ahead. The things he saw, few could. “It was like being around Einstein,” Oppenheimer says. “Giannis realized that and wanted information, and Jason found a way to feed him information.”
Kidd poured hours into helping Giannis but was less sympathetic with other players. “I don’t think he could identify with the average player,” says another ex-player. “There’s a reason Hall of Famers are Hall of Famers, especially point guards. You see things that no one else does. I think he would just take it out on players and just verbally go at them. Just make them feel like shit, that they couldn’t be as good as Jason Kidd, who could just step on the floor and do this fancy thing.”
Kidd would ask Giannis to explain what he did wrong during film sessions. There was no right answer, but a nod wasn’t acceptable. He had to say his mistake out loud. That was difficult for Giannis, who wasn’t a vocal player. Though gregarious off the court, he was still quiet on the court, still trying to fit in. He hated speaking up on the floor. He’d rather show leadership through action, through work ethic.
Kidd pulled Giannis out of his comfort zone by pointing out flaws verbally, seeing how Giannis would respond. It was part of Kidd’s plan to transform his new project into a point guard. For point guards, talking is like breathing—instinctive, necessary. Because in Kidd’s eyes, Giannis could be that point guard. He could become a superstar.
Kidd was sure that there was something special about Giannis. It was the way Giannis saw plays ahead of plays. The way he could push the ball up the floor like a natural ball handler. And given that he had miraculously sprouted two inches, to 6-foot-11, since arriving in the NBA, Giannis, Kidd felt, could morph into one of the most versatile players in the league.
Still, that was a ways away. “We knew at the time that Giannis had the ability to handle the ball,” says Joe Prunty, Bucks assistant coach from 2014 to 2018, “but being able to handle the ball and being able to run the team are different things.”
Kidd flirted with having Giannis at point guard beginning in 2014 summer league, though Giannis’s official position was listed as center in two of four of the games. Kidd knew Giannis could play all positions; he could become a hybrid point forward, like Scottie Pippen was. Privately, Kidd told his coaches that Giannis might never morph into a point guard, but he could turn into the next-generation big man, because, truly, what five-man could guard him?
Kidd told the press that he envisioned Giannis, at 19 years old, being like Magic Johnson, Grant Hill, and Pippen after Giannis played 32 minutes as the primary ball handler against the Jazz in summer league. “I remember writing the story,” says Charles F. Gardner, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Bucks beat writer at the time, “and thinking to myself, This is crazy.”
It was crazy. Giannis still, more than anything, resembled a toothpick. His body wasn’t developed enough, his skills weren’t honed enough, to merit a comparison to any of those legends, let alone all three. But he had a unique skill set, an intriguing build—one that people didn’t yet know how to define. He was, as Grantland put it, “a human wormhole—all infinite limbs and impossible strides, twisting our conception of space inside out.”
Giannis played well at the point in that Jazz game, dropping 15 points, five assists, four rebounds, and three steals despite committing four turnovers. He looked comfortable. “He viewed himself as a point guard,” Oppenheimer says. “He was one of those guys that was like, ‘It’s great if I score, but if I get an assist, I’m happy.’”
Still, Giannis didn’t quite know how to control the tempo of a game. He’d often dribble into double-teams, turning the ball over. Sometimes he was just going too fast. That became clear during a preseason game at Cleveland. Kidd started Giannis at point guard. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called the move “the Giannis Antetokounmpo experiment.”
Cleveland’s Matthew Dellavedova, known for full-court, suffocating defense, smothered Giannis. Giannis looked hesitant, timid. He went 0-for-5 for four points and zero assists in 23 minutes. He continued to struggle in the preseason finale against Minnesota, going 0-for- 7, turning the ball over a damning eight times.
The coaches realized Giannis would need to be brought along a bit more slowly. He needed more experience. He needed to learn to play under control. The coaches had given him too much, too soon. The experiment had to be reevaluated.
“It was a reminder,” says Sweeney, the assistant coach, “of, ‘Hey, we’ve got some of these skills, but we’re not quite ready for that responsibility.’”
As the season began, Giannis was mostly playing small forward and would excite with a play or two, a big rebound, a loose-ball dive, but his coaches wanted more. “His effort and hustle plays were always there,” says Josh Broghamer, Bucks assistant coach from 2017 to 2018 and video coordinator from 2014 to 2017, “but sometimes he would forget an assignment or be in the wrong spot on offense or make the wrong read.”
Giannis started to figure out how to use his quickness to get around guys who were much bigger than him. Kidd experimented with his position often, throwing him onto the court at power forward and even center at times.
Against the Grizzlies, Giannis targeted Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies’ 250-pound terror. Randolph’s body was like a concrete wall; just watching him yank a rebound out of the air made you flinch.
Not Giannis. Giannis had bulked up a bit but still looked flimsy, elbowing Randolph in the back, hitting him, shoving him. Randolph dominated him, which was Randolph’s plan all along. “I was trying to put him under the rim,” Randolph recalls. But Giannis kept fighting. “He had no quit in him.”
Giannis boxed out Randolph one play, managing to push the veteran out of the way. “Oh?” Randolph said out loud, surprised.
“Come on,” Giannis said, clutching the ball, swinging his elbows out.
“OK, OK, young fella.”
That’s when Randolph realized: “He got heart. The young fella wanted it.” Giannis, who scored a then career-high 18 points, 12 of which came in the fourth quarter, reminded Randolph of a young Pippen: long, athletic, all over the court, good knack for the ball. He just hadn’t put it all together yet.
Giannis was gaining more confidence. He could see over the defense, throw critical passes. Sometimes he’d sink a little hook shot. He looked much improved from his rookie season, though he was still playing too fast, too out of control, with too many turnovers.
He looked brilliant at times, as when he took off from the 3-point line and after one dribble softly laid in a finger roll against the Pistons. Or when he held his own against Serge Ibaka of the Thunder, no longer the punching bag he’d been his rookie season.
Giannis was honored with his own bobblehead by the end of November, against the Rockets. The first ten thousand fans received the smiling Giannis bobblehead. “It doesn’t look like me,” Giannis told reporters after the game. “I’m more handsome. But it’s a nice feeling.”
Ever since he saw the Bucks hand out Larry Sanders bobbleheads his rookie year, Giannis had dreamed of having his own bobblehead. When is it going to be my turn? he thought then. Now that he had his own, he stashed a few away to bring back to friends in Greece. “I didn’t think I was going to have one,” he said that night, smiling. “But I was always dreaming.”
The coaches wanted to tweak Giannis’s shooting form. He was never known as an outside shooter. It wasn’t necessarily discussed as a glaring weakness, as it would be in the coming years, but it just wasn’t something he needed to do much of throughout his youth. He was always so long and so athletic that he could just stretch his legs a couple of steps and be at the rim, so there was never a need to develop a jump shot.
He didn’t shoot poorly from the field as a rookie, by any means. He even looked comfortable letting a 3 or two fly, his footwork and follow-through somewhat fluid. But the coaches continued to work on his form. Oppenheimer spent time helping him release the ball higher. Giannis’s release was low, almost below his eyes and off his shoulder. They worked on his footwork, his base, slowing down the movement of catching the ball, gathering, and shooting.
Kidd, however, didn’t want Giannis to shoot from long distance much at all at first, especially 3s—or, according to several of his assistant coaches, he didn’t want Giannis to get consumed by, or obsessed with, shooting. Kidd had been a fast guard, a wizard who could make split-second decisions on the move. Kidd wanted Giannis to do just that: get out in front of the defense, push the ball, score inside. In Kidd’s eyes, why should Giannis surrender to the 3-point line when he had the size and mobility to quickly get to the rim?
Giannis, however, wanted to be an all-around player, wanted to incorporate that 15-foot jumper into his game. It was never one or the other for him—inside or outside—he just wanted to do everything. Be everywhere. He was learning to adapt, following his coach’s advice. He was getting to the free throw line frequently, from driving to the hoop aggressively.
But at one point that season, Kidd told Giannis not to shoot any more 3s. He was trying to give Giannis confidence in the best parts of his game, instilling a mentality in his young player: “They can’t guard you from driving.” Kidd assured Giannis that he would get his time to shoot, but he wasn’t ready yet. Not this season.
Initially Giannis was upset—he wanted to shoot 3s; how could he not shoot 3s? But Kidd would sub him out for launching an outside shot, later telling Jared Dudley, a veteran forward on the team, “I gotta put the mentality in Giannis when he’s younger, before he becomes a superstar.”
Frustration was building. Giannis didn’t like getting picked on during film sessions, didn’t like having to speak up. One practice, Giannis got a little animated. He wasn’t being disrespectful; he just wasn’t doing what Kidd wanted him to do. Kidd told him to leave: “You’re done for the day.”
That was what some of Kidd’s former players meant by “mind games.” Kidd continued to incorporate them, not playing Giannis (or Parker) in the fourth quarter early on because the team played better without them.
“That really burned Giannis up,” says Nicholas Turner, the executive assistant. “He always got better from that.”
Kidd’s tactics were working. Giannis was working harder than ever, coming back to the Cousins Center right after games upset at himself, working to correct his mistakes late into the night, at times cursing out loud for no one to hear.
“You’re not going to break this kid,” [then Bucks GM] John Hammond says. “Jason would challenge him, and Giannis would come right back at him for more. Look—Jason’s a tough guy. He’s a real tough guy. But so is Giannis.”
Once, during a closeout drill in practice, the defender couldn’t leave the floor until he stopped his man from scoring. Kidd made Giannis go 11 times in a row because Giannis couldn’t stop his man from scoring. Giannis had a big smile on his face: he was loving it. He wanted to keep going.
“Giannis was a guy that you had to put your arm around him perhaps at times,” Sweeney says, “but more than anything, you could go at him however you wanted because he had that innate toughness and that innate desire.”
Giannis would pepper Jared Dudley, the veteran teammate who was becoming a mentor to him, with questions on how he could improve. During timeouts, Dudley would in turn challenge Giannis with questions: “What do you see? What’s going on here?” Dudley would tell him how to handle a certain coverage or how better to attack the lane. Giannis never argued or talked back. He was grateful for the advice. Dudley morphed into a big brother. He set rules. “No partying,” Dudley told him.
Dudley became Giannis’s biggest advocate, telling Kidd to start Giannis over him, something few veterans would do. Giannis wasn’t even the best offensive player; Brandon Knight clearly was. But Giannis had the most potential. He’d make beautiful passes. He’d snatch the rebound and kick out the ball and run like someone was chasing him. “We all knew Giannis was going to be good,” Dudley says. “But I don’t think anyone knew he was going to be this good.”
Dudley loved that Giannis didn’t think he knew everything, as many young players do—and that Giannis was willing to make hustle plays, always sprinting back after a turnover even if there was a chance he’d get embarrassed.
“Unlike Americans, he had no ego,” Dudley says. “He was always that guy that didn’t care about getting dunked on. I respected him for that. I respected his hunger.”
That didn’t mean that Giannis didn’t still believe in himself. Know his worth. The following year, before tip-off at Charlotte, Giannis sat on the sideline with Oppenheimer. They watched Charlotte’s Nicolas Batum, a 6-foot-8 forward having an all-star kind of season, warm up.
“You see Batum?” Oppenheimer said to Giannis.
“Look at him,” Oppenheimer said. “Really look at him. He’s a really good player. If you work really hard, you might be able to be a Nic Batum type of player.”
Giannis stared at his coach for a second, not frowning but looking surprised. A bit offended. “Coach,” Giannis said, “if I become Nic Batum, I’m going back to Greece.”
The coaches told each player to keep a notebook to jot down information and plays, an idea that came from Sweeney’s former boss at Evansville, Marty Simmons, who now coaches at Clemson. “Most guys didn’t stick with it,” Sweeney says. Giannis became obsessed with it. He still carries the little black college-ruled, spiral-bound Mead notebook wherever he goes today—even if he’s nowhere near a basketball court.
“I’m not gonna lie—I don’t know what he writes in that notebook,” Giannis’s younger brother Kostas says. The two will be talking, and then Giannis will pull out the notebook, write something down. Kostas will look at him funny, ask him what he’s writing. “I’m just writing,” Giannis will say, his hand moving quickly. He’s deeply private, and he doesn’t show the notebook to anyone.
When Giannis first started using the notebook, he’d write before a game, after the game, even during the game. He’d write down the smallest of details: about angles, cuts. What he didn’t do well. What he wanted to do well. Then he’d reflect on bigger goals: his hopes, his dreams. Giannis wrote everything down not just for himself but for his brothers. He didn’t want to forget any detail that could potentially help them. “He learns something and writes it down so he can try to teach me and [youngest brother] Alex immediately,” Kostas says. “That’s the bigger purpose.”
By that point, Kostas, 16, was a junior at Dominican, and Alex, 13, was an eighth grader. Giannis was trying to help Kostas reach his goal of playing Division I college basketball and prepare Alex to play at the high school level. And when they would make a mistake, Giannis would correct them, as if they were his teammates.
Giannis started attending Alex’s rec-league games, sitting in the crowd, tracking every play like a hawk. He’d even come down to the court, give him feedback midgame. He could sense his little brother was nervous. “Try not to be stressed,” he said to Alex one game, placing his hand on Alex’s small orange jersey. “Look at me. Just play the game.” When Alex returned to the game, he looked much more relaxed. Giannis looked much more relaxed. “Bravo, Alex! Bravo!” Giannis screamed from the wooden bleachers.
Giannis felt like Milwaukee was home and staffers were like family. He developed a relationship with everyone in the organization. Mike Sergo, Bucks staffer of more than 25 years, taught him how to throw a football, making fun of how Giannis looked like a “Martian” for the first few weeks trying to grip the ball. When Giannis chose the number 34, Jay Namoc, the equipment manager, would say he had big shoes to fill and call him “Olajuwon.”
Giannis even made interns feel special; when athletic training interns would tape his ankles, he’d shout them out by name before thanking them.
Giannis was still goofy, still kid-like. Sometimes he would pretend he was the coach, call Sweeney over, grab the clipboard, and draw a play. “This play will work for me!” Giannis would say, breaking into a big smile. The play was pretty much Giannis, with the ball, running from one end to the other, scoring, nobody else touching the ball.
Giannis’s English was much better than the year before, but he was still learning new phrases. He became obsessed with saying the word bro. “Bro, bro, bro, bro, bro, brooooooooooo,” he’d say. He continued to make bold proclamations. Giannis was sure he was going to grow to 7 feet. “I can be like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar!” he said one day.
Before a game, a friend had given Giannis his first pair of Jordans, the Jordan Xs. Giannis took them out of the box and paused. These were fancier than any shoe he had ever held. He touched the soles, staring at them, realizing they were his. Really his. The soles on this pair listed many of Jordan’s milestones: “’85 Rookie of the Year,” “’89 All Defense,” and “’92 MVP/Championship,” to name a few.
Giannis read them out loud, unconcerned with who heard him. Namoc, the Bucks equipment manager from 2012 to 2017, came over to Giannis’s cubby. Namoc picked up Giannis’s regular sneakers, the ones he’d be wearing that night, and flipped them over, scanned the soles. “Ain’t shit on these,” Namoc said.
Giannis nodded, a little deflated.
“Hey, man,” Namoc said, sensing Giannis’s disappointment, “you work hard enough, maybe they’ll put these kinds of accomplishments on the bottom of your shoes one day.”
About five games before the playoffs, Giannis became frustrated in practice. He kept screwing up in a one-on-one closeout drill. It was one of Kidd’s hardest drills: a defender started at the foul line and closed out on an offensive player, who stood at the 3-point line. The defender had to cut off the dribble, not allowing 3s (or any bucket, really). Players would go and go until they got a stop.
Giannis killed on offense, scoring 28 straight times. On defense? Everyone scored on Giannis. He couldn’t get a stop. He was exhausted and stopped closing out hard. At one point, he stood on the free throw line, catching his breath, not moving, not trying. He was pissed. Realizing Kidd wouldn’t bail him out, he began moving his feet. His closeouts were still weak, half-hearted. It took him 15 minutes to get a stop.
Kidd just watched. Didn’t yell, didn’t call him out. Just watched. Waited until film the next day to expose him. Kidd turned on footage of the drill, showing Giannis failing to close out hard. Giannis was forced to watch how lackadaisical he was, in front of everyone. Kidd didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. The embarrassment hung over Giannis. He understood, apologized to Kidd. Told him it wouldn’t happen again.
The next day, the Bucks played Cleveland. Kidd told the team before the game, “Giannis isn’t going to play tonight. If we’re going to be the best team we want to be, that can’t happen.”
That meaning the drill. Giannis’s lack of intensity. Giannis had hit a wall, as many young players do. He was tired. And Kidd was old school: he wasn’t afraid to sit his best players down.
One January game, at Philadelphia, the Bucks messed up a defensive coverage. Kidd thought Giannis had made the mistake. Giannis respectfully insisted that it wasn’t his mistake. They went back and forth, but Giannis stood his ground, diplomatically saying, “Coach, I promise—it wasn’t me.”
Then, at halftime, Kidd pulled up the play on film. “Show me,” Kidd said, confident he was right. But Kidd was actually wrong: the film showed it wasn’t Giannis’s mistake. Kidd still benched Giannis for the second half. The Bucks were blowing the 76ers out, so Kidd didn’t necessarily need to put Giannis back in. He was making a point, as if to say, “Yeah, you’re getting better, but I’m still the boss.”
Kidd hoped benching Giannis against Cleveland would be another teachable moment. An opportunity for him to refocus. The message was “We need you. We need you to be better.”
But Giannis was upset. He decided to look up Kidd’s NBA stats, thinking, What did this guy do in his career, anyway? When he saw Kidd’s résumé—NBA championship, USA gold medal—he realized he’d better keep his head down.
“Giannis was really, really angry,” Oppenheimer says. “It was an opportunity to play against LeBron.”
The Bucks lost, 104–99. Giannis had played so well up to that game, starting 67 of the team’s last 77 games. By practice the next day, Giannis was still fuming. He came in with his head practically shaved. His teammates were concerned. “Bro, are you all right?” they asked. “What’s going on with you?”
“Yeah,” Giannis said, shrugging. “I’m just going through it.”
Tyler Ennis, a guard who had joined the team in February, knew what was really agitating Giannis: “You could see how much it bothered him, that he had to miss the game.”
The next day, the Bucks played the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Before the game, Giannis told Sweeney his plan: he vowed to play angry. Rebound angry. Score angry. Pass angry.
“Why angry?” Sweeney asked him.
“I didn’t play.”
“Well, if you do it for that game, you gotta keep doing it in all the games.”
The game started, and Giannis blocked a shot, yanked the ball out of the air, zoomed downcourt. New York’s Cole Aldrich was just ahead, and as Giannis sprinted toward him, dribbling behind his back, Aldrich instinctively ran out of the way, allowing Giannis to hammer home a dunk. Giannis did the Westbrook scowl. Well, the Westbrook-Giannis scowl he had been practicing all year.
The arena erupted. Kidd tried to hide a faint smile. “That was part of what J-Kidd was trying to do,” Ennis says, “just make him channel that anger into the game, and it came out on that play.”
Giannis finished with 23 points and nine rebounds to help the Bucks win, 99–91. Afterward, Giannis told reporters he had played “angry.” Then he showed them what he meant, showed them his scowl. He scrunched up his cheeks, tightened his nose, dubbed it his “ugly face.”
Then he softened, unwrinkled his forehead, and smiled. He laughed, and reporters did too. “The ugly face was prettier today,” Giannis joked. “I had swag too.” Then he stiffened back up and explained his approach from there on out: “I try to be angry when I play,” he said. “I try to be mad. Mean, man!”
The Bucks had clinched a playoff spot as the no. 6 seed in the East, something that had seemed impossible the year before.
The no. 3–seeded Bulls, first up against the Bucks, were stacked, with Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol, and Joakim Noah leading the roster. They played tough, physical. They were far more seasoned than the Bucks, which was the youngest team in the playoffs.
Butler hounded Giannis in Game 1, making it difficult for Giannis to find any kind of rhythm. Giannis kept fouling, kept looking out of place, shooting 4-for-13 from the field. He was still icy in Game 2, going 2-for-11. The Bucks lost both games.
The Bulls’ strategy was to be physical with Giannis. Slow him down in the open floor, take away his driving lanes. Foul him if he got inside. Make him resort to jump shots, which were his biggest weakness. With so many defenders suffocating him, Giannis had never attracted that much attention before.
“It really, really pissed Giannis off,” says Johnny O’Bryant III, “the way they guarded him. The things they did to him.”
His teammates told him to not second-guess himself. Let the game come to him. Attack the rim. He did just that with a breakout performance in Game 3, as Kidd shifted him to power forward, scoring 17 of his 25 points in the first half—adding 12 rebounds. Michael Carter-Williams had 19, but the Bucks lost again, this time in double overtime as Rose dropped 34.
No team had come back from a 3–0 deficit to win a playoff series. “We can come back. We can win this series,” Giannis told Carter-Williams, “even though the odds are small.”
Carter-Williams nodded. “The odds were small for us to even make it to the NBA in the first place,” Giannis said to him. “We’re not quitting.”
The Bucks won Game 4. And in a Game 5 win, Giannis swatted four shots, including a critical block on Rose, who charged down the lane with 39 seconds left. “I remember being in awe,” says Doug McDermott, Bulls forward who now plays for the Pacers. “Like, Giannis is fearless. There’s not a lot of people in the world that would take on that challenge.”
Giannis started gaining more confidence as the Bucks fought to keep their season alive.
“It was Giannis’s coming-out party,” says Aaron Brooks, former Bulls guard. “I could just see him progressively getting better in each game in the series.”
Game 6 was brutal. Bulls guard Mike Dunleavy Jr. punched Carter-Williams in the jaw in the first quarter. Officials didn’t see it, but TNT’s cameras did. Carter-Williams chipped a few teeth and later had to seek dental assistance.
That was Dunleavy: competitive, cold-blooded. Once, a water boy didn’t have a towel for him. He flipped out, yelling at the ball boy. Another time, Dunleavy got ejected from a game, took his jersey off, tossed it into the crowd. His Bulls teammates used to watch that video of him on YouTube to fire them up.
Giannis was infuriated. Carter-Williams was his best friend, and nobody was going to do that to his best friend. Giannis was about to explode as the Bulls’ lead ballooned to 30. With Carter-Williams out, Giannis looked directly ahead, as if he was about to scrunch his face. Then he ran. So hard, 70 feet downcourt, making a beeline for Dunleavy. He body-slammed Dunleavy so hard Dunleavy landed in the front row of seats. Giannis was ejected from the game, drawing a flagrant 2 foul and earning him a one-game suspension that would start next season.
It was a side nobody had seen from Giannis before. No longer happy-go-lucky, smiley—he finally looked mean.
“Giannis almost killed him,” Oppenheimer says. “But that’s how he was: he had a loyalty to his teammates. He wasn’t a punk. But it did surprise me, the aggressive nature of it. It surprised everybody.”
“I wasn’t shocked,” Sweeney says, “but I remember thinking to myself, Wow.”
“I got a lot of respect for Giannis, going after him, to be honest with you,” says Foster, the assistant coach. “You don’t see that much in today’s game.”
Milwaukee fans had a lot of respect for Giannis in that moment too. “That made Giannis a hero forever,” says Jim Kogutkiewicz, a longtime fan who was at that game.
Fans began to boo Dunleavy. It was a startling sound for the forward, who had grown up in Milwaukee. His dad, Mike Dunleavy Sr., had both played for and coached the Bucks. “We gave him so much crap for that,” McDermott says. “He thought that Milwaukee was kind of his city. But after that night, we made sure that we let him know that that’s Giannis’s city now.”
Nobody tried to leave early, even after it was clear the Bucks were going to lose by more than 50 points. As the final seconds of the 120–66 loss dwindled away, fans began a loud, defiant chant: “Mil-wau-kee! Mil-waukee! Mil-wau-kee!”
So many fans—fans who had been quiet, almost dormant, for years, struggling through decades of despair, through the still-painful Ray Allen trade, through the once-great-hope Andrew Bogut shattering his elbow, through the signing of journeyman Drew Gooden to a ridiculous $32 million deal, through trading a promising future franchise player in Tobias Harris—were now proudly screaming at the top of their lungs, “Mil-waukee! Mil-wau-kee! Mil-wau-kee!”
They weren’t going to leave quietly, no matter that they were down 54. No matter what would happen with the upcoming arena deal. They needed this team to stay in Milwaukee.
“Mil-wau-kee! Mil-wau-kee! Mil-wau-kee!” fans chanted after the final buzzer, as if to say, “We’re still here. We still matter.”
Excerpted from GIANNIS: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP. Copyright © 2021. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.