Would Giannis Antetokounmpo be “Giannis Antetokounmpo” without the influence of basketball legend Kobe Bryant?
“I remember the first game I watched was a Kobe game, against the Celtics,” a quiet Antetokounmpo said following Milwaukee Bucks’ practice on Monday. He recalled that it was his first experience watching the NBA.
“(Kobe) was big, man. He was big. And you could feel it. You could definitely feel it in the air. From yesterday, what happened around the world and how many people reached out to him and to his family, you realize how big he was.”
Antetokounmpo was born in December of 1994. Bryant was drafted in June of 1996 and played 20 seasons before retiring in 2016.
“I grew up with Kobe. Kobe influenced my life,” he added. “Looking up to him, one of the reasons that I started playing basketball. He’s one of the reasons that I am here today.
“Kobe is one of the best players to ever play the game. He was put on this earth, obviously, to be one of the best.”
Antetokounmpo worked out with Bryant during the summer of 2018.
During an interview with Jim Paschke, recorded shortly thereafter, he told the story of showing up to the workout with a notebook full of questions, but didn’t want it to seem as if he was interviewing his childhood hero. Antetokounmpo also took pride in beating Bryant to the facility that day.
Based on comments, quotes and stories from Bryant’s former teammates and coaches, no one ever beats Kobe to the gym. No one ever stayed later than him either. It’s part of the legend. Part of the Mamba Mentality.
All in the feels… https://t.co/f2D8tg7q1n
— Tony Cartagena (@TonyCartagena) January 27, 2020
The two stars have shared multiple interactions since. However, Antetokounmpo made it a point to keep those encounters private. When asked repeatedly about memories, conversations or text messages exchanged between them, Giannis said that he intended to keep all of that nonpublic as well.
Antetokounmpo walked slowly to and from the corner of Milwaukee’s practice facility where he fielded questions. It didn’t take a body language expert to recognize that he was there out of obligation.
Talking was not a necessity in his grieving process after losing a friend. But, he shared pieces of his raw emotion with the world for a tough nine minutes and 50 seconds.
“Everybody deals with tragedy in their own way. I dealt with tragedy a few years ago, with my dad, and didn’t come out and speak about it at all.” he said. “All I can say is that I pray for the people who were affected by it.
“Yesterday was a horrible day, for basketball and for everybody.”
Mike Budenholzer met with reporters as well.
He memorialized Bryant as a fierce competitor. The Bucks head coach even cracked a smile to light-heartedly say he had “bad” memories of Kobe. Bryant played for the Lakers while Budenholzer was an assistant for the San Antonio Spurs. Budenholzer had to help game plan to beat the 18-time all-star and 5-time champion.
From 1996 to 2013, Budenholzer’s complete tenure in San Antonio, the Spurs lost to Bryant and Los Angeles in four post-season series.
“It’s almost impossible to articulate the tragedy, all of the emotions that you feel and how important Kobe is to his family, to his daughters, to his wife,” coach said. “His greatness. I watched a lot of TV yesterday, and one of the things I heard someone say was ‘sometimes you just can’t describe or articulate greatness.
“That’s kind of how I would just like to leave it. You can’t put it in to words, the greatness that is Kobe Bryant.”
The Bucks posted Giannis’ entire interview to their Twitter feed.
"Yesterday was a horrible day. For basketball, for everybody…I send my deepest condolences to Vanessa and the kids." pic.twitter.com/aqELqvyhew
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) January 27, 2020
Bryant’s impact is obvious when you just look at the footwear on an NBA court. Multiple players wear his signature sneakers during games and practices. At least five Milwaukee Bucks’ players wore Kobe’s during Monday’s practice. That’s not abnormal whatsoever. Similar to Giannis, the league is full of players who “grew up” on Kobe.
Milwaukee forward Ersan Ilyasova wore a pair of white and black Kobe’s. After practice he told The Zone that he “loves” the shoe, always has and always will.