Giannis Antetokounmpo Talks About Why Comfort Is Just As Important As Pressure

We don’t tend to assign comfort to NBA basketball or its ecosystem. Pressure, strain, dominance, yes; those are qualities we not only anticipate, but consider a player, team, or season to be faulty — even erroneous — without. But when we consider the basic qualities of the game, requirements like skill, conditioning, recovery, communication, team chemistry, comfort is as fundamental as footwork (also fundamental to footwork), essential to the action as a mechanic as to the desired culmination: winning.

Comfort’s been essential to the Milwaukee Bucks this season, though on the surface it may not seem that way. The team adjusted to the biggest offseason move of the summer in adding Damian Lillard to its roster, and has shifted between three head coaches in the past eight months. These moves speak to the competitive bent of the team, now one more season removed from an NBA title the franchise is keen to repeat, and to the mindset of the main person the front office trusts to get them back there. A person who understands, deeply, the value of comfort.

“I don’t know if you watched, a couple days ago we played in Portland and the way that they received [Lillard], how people love him there because he did so many things for that organization, literally. We use the phrase, that’s his house, or he built that house, so when he went back, everybody was ecstatic to see him,” Giannis Antetokounmpo recounts to Dime on a call from the road in early February.

Lillard’s come up because he’s been something of a barometer for the Bucks perceived success this season, and because his acclimatization in Milwaukee has been a crucial concern for Antetokounmpo. The way the Bucks competitive merit has been debated this season, without context, suggests a losing team opponents are bulldozing over night after night. The reality, an offensive juggernaut with a top five offensive rating replete with a top three effective field goal percentage, has kept the Bucks snugly in top tier contention in the East for half of the season. That in itself is a comfortable position, and is in no small part due to Lillard.

Before this season started, Antetokounmpo and Lillard sat down for an interview with Chris Haynes. In it, Antetokounmpo talked about the hard-edged qualities like sacrifice we’re most familiar with in analysis around winning, but he also made the quieter point that in order to be successful, they had to feel very comfortable. Asked whether he thinks comfort is just as important as pressure in competition, and Antetokounmpo is adamant.

“I believe…I cannot imagine putting myself in Dame’s shoes and going to a different team after 11 years. I’ve been in Milwaukee for 11 years. I know how the game’s going to look, I know how practice is going to look, I know my route to my house, my route to the arena. I have seen pretty much most of the fans, have interacted with them,” Antetokounmpo says, underscoring the familiarity of his routine as much as the parallels Lillard had, and lost. “I know every single room and area in the Fiserv Forum, all the people that work there. It’s a level of comfort.

“Obviously when the game starts, it’s unpredictable. You’re uncomfortable for those 48 minutes but you take the 23 hours, 12 minutes left, you try to make it as comfortable as possible.”

It’s worth noting the parallels between Antetokounmpo and Lillard, at least as Antetokounmpo clearly sees them when he mentions and repeats several times their shared tenure of 11 seasons (Lillard has gone through 11, while Antetokounmpo is entering his). Antetokounmpo’s ease in turning the Bucks over to Lillard is part wanting to accelerate the comfort necessary to win, and because it appears that after a decade with one team, winning a title and acquiring a star-level running mate, he not only has the material to look back on, but the necessary distance to do it. From this retrospection we’ve gotten Giannis, in multitude.

In the short span of 2024, Antetokounmpo has released UGO: A Homecoming Story with WhatsApp; launched own media production company, Improbable, that will subsequently release his documentary Giannis: The Marvelous Journey to debut on Prime following All-Star Weekend; and now, has teamed up with Starry as one of the brand’s newest ambassadors.

giannis antetokounmpo starry

For a person who started his professional career as a shy, lanky kid nervous to make a misstep, Antetokounmpo’s growth into a candid, accountable, funny (there’s no one better at or more fond of dad jokes in the entire NBA, maybe present or historic) public persona has been exciting to watch. It’s also a reality of his life that he’s had to grow comfortable with.

“I started playing basketball because I love the game of basketball, and there’s a lot of things that come with playing basketball which is getting attention, having a platform,” Antetokounmpo says. “Hopefully, while I’m doing what I’m doing I can inspire people, impact other’s lives. I didn’t start playing because I wanted to be a role model in any way, but I understand that’s a responsibility that I have now.”

Where his desire to share has changed the most over time has come from being a parent. He credits it for some of his lightness as well as the partnerships he chooses, leaning into his playful side with Starry. Having kids of his own has also made him as “careful as possible” with that he shares.

“There’s kids in Greece, kids in Africa, kids in Milwaukee, there’s kids all around the world that follow every little thing that I do and they repeat everything I say. I think I understand it more with having kids now, every single day you gotta walk on tippy-toes around them because they repeat and copy every little thing you do,” he chuckles. “But I think as I grow older I’ve become more mature and more aware of the platform I have. People get inspired by my journey, and at the end of the day people will not remember my accolades, and things on the court, they will remember how I made them feel, and if I motivated them to do something great in their life.”

It takes confidence, a profound sense of comfort in oneself, to play the kind of basketball Antetokounmpo does night after night — thundering, physical, flowing — as it does to act out a pretend presser with a cartoon lemon and lime, as in his new Starry commercial. The key, for him, is to shed all expectations but his own.

“If you see my acting skills, I’ve been taking a lot of advice from Denzel Washington, and Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ryan Reynolds, so I felt comfortable. I felt in my zone,” he jokes about his succinct lines and excellent body work in the spot, pointing out how easy it was to work with the Starry team because their humor aligned with his.

“I’ll be very honest with you,” he tone switches to a notch more serious. “I set my own expectations through my whole career, through my whole life. I don’t think anybody has higher expectations than me. Nobody lives my life. There can be expectations from the media, from the organization, from your teammates, from your circle, but at the end of the day I set my goals and I always try to set realistic expectations that I believe I can achieve.”

Some of that comfort comes in the bone-deep understanding that he’s outpaced any of the expectations that were placed or projected onto him.

“Going back through my whole journey, with all the people that I’ve worked with, I feel I’ve exceeded all the expectations that anybody set for me,” he notes, almost with the verbal equivalent of an amiable shrug. “So I just keep on setting my expectations, because if I listened to their expectations, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I don’t think anybody ever thought a skinny kid from Greece would be one of the best — not to sound arrogant, but I’m trying to speak facts — players to play this game today.”

Antetokounmpo’s singular drive to succeed for himself and his family has been well documented, and we’re lucky to watch it alchemized into small, game-sized bites. What’s been less noted is where his personal and professional extension beyond the floor, ramping up in the last few years, comes from. Antetokounmpo has a palpable curiosity for the wider world, and a burgeoning intrepid bent. His recent and larger ventures reflect it — travelling back to Nigeria and Greece for his documentary projects — but if you consider the risks and uncertainty he faced and figured out in his formative years, it was a fearlessness shaped from desire; for life and the world.

“I’m just trying to live life hard and be in every single moment, hard. From the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, I try to live every single moment as hard as possible,” he says. “I’m trying to embrace all of those moments, learn from them, and live them hard. I only live those moments once — that’s pretty much it.”

The quote, in a way helpfully tidy for this story, exemplifies the duality Antetokounmpo exhibits in most of his public ventures. He can deliver a scorching game, a bluntly honest reflection of himself or his team, or a compelling ethos for living that makes you want to immediately run outside just to feel the sun on your face, and then cap it with a joke or gently effacing punctuation. It’s a handy way of drawing a parallel between him and his audience, who in some ways (such as on the floor) will never be able to relate, but in others (like in the fundamentals of life), will. It goes back, once again, to comfort.

Antetokounmpo confirmed as much at a recent presser when, asked if he was happy to stack two team wins together, told a room of reporters he didn’t mind if they stacked two or ten in a row. What’s important, he said, was the team competing, heading in the right direction. As the Bucks look to solidify their identity in the second half of the season under Doc Rivers, their determination to dig into this comfort and put outside perception aside will be key in cutthroat conference.

A big hint of whether they’ve arrived came in Antetokounmpo finishing his thoughts about accommodating Lillard: he switched from past to present tense.

“We had to make him feel as comfortable as possible on the basketball court, but also off the court. It’s hard. We knew it would be hard for him. I think everybody, the team, did a good job,” Antetokounmpo says matter-of-factly. “We supported him, and now he feels comfortable. So, our goal stays the same: to be the last team standing.”