Europe’s Jokić and Antetokounmpo show America how to be a balanced superstar | NBA

Basketball is not the main thing in my life. And probably never gonna be.

Those are not the words you might expect to hear from the Denver Nuggets’ point-center Nikola Jokić: a bonafide superstar, two-time league MVP, who was, at the time of these comments, about to head into his (and his franchise’s) first ever NBA finals (where he would win, handily, for that matter). But Jokić is not the type of superstar we’ve come to expect in the NBA. He has something that has been rare, and even frowned upon, among athletes of his caliber: perspective. So, in a world where work/life balance is a hot button topic, and we’ve recently lived through a pandemic that flipped our lives upside down, why are his sentiments so polarizing? And are they a true anomaly, or a bellwether?

The discourse around perspective, how much of it an athlete should have and what the merits or drawbacks are therein, stormed into the NBA zeitgeist earlier this postseason, when Bucks supernova Giannis Antetokounmpo gave his postgame comments after his team’s shock first-round exit at the hands of the eight seed Miami Heat.

He was asked by a reporter if he considered the season a “failure,” in light of the sky-high expectations for the team. Antetokounmpo shook his head.

“Michael Jordan played 15 years. He won six championships. The other nine years were a failure? That’s what you’re telling me?” he asked. “It’s the wrong question. There’s no failure in sports. There’s good days, bad days. Some days you’re able to be successful, some days you’re not. Some days it’s your turn, some days it’s not your turn. And that’s what sports is about. You’re not always going to win.”

Some, of course, appreciated Giannis’ ability to see the bigger picture, to understand that the definition of “success” is broader than hoisting a trophy. But the comments were also met with outrage by others: how dare he not be embarrassed at the way his team went out? Of course sports are about winning. Being an athlete is supposed to be about giving up everything to reach the ultimate goal. The greatest in the sport, like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, were often as famous for their ambivalence towards being liked by their teammates and their obsession with winning as they were for their talents. The idea that there was another way of doing things, and still doing them well, was an affront to the first rule of NBA Superstar Fight Club: being a psychopath when it comes to winning is part of the deal.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be. Besides both having one NBA championship, one Finals MVP award, multiple league MVPs and seemingly aligned priorities, Jokić and Antetokounmpo share another common bond that may give insight into their ability to keep their stardom in healthy perspective: they both come from extremely humble beginnings in European countries (Serbia and Greece, respectively). Europeans tend to have a healthier work/life balance than Americans – a recent study found that Americans work hundreds of hours more per year than their European counterparts. Beyond that, though, American culture exalts an every-man-for-himself, win-at-all-costs ethos that simply doesn’t exist in most of the rest of the globe. It makes sense, then that, as basketball becomes increasingly global, its stars will become less and less recognizably American, in both their attitudes and approach.

It’s interesting, too, that while prioritization of mental health has gained traction in recent years, athletes are often lampooned for putting their own emotional wellbeing first, and mocked for having the very same perspective that makes things like mental wellness possible. But the truth is that we’re living in a time in which our ideas about what male athletes, and men in general, “should” be are changing. Yet some of us are holding on to an antiquated idea of what it means to be an elite athlete.

As a general rule, fans historically wanted their athletes to be superhuman. They get to do the most fun thing for a living, after all, and generally get paid the GDP of a small country to do so. So why wouldn’t they be some extra-special version of a human who is impervious to pain, and isn’t susceptible to the ups and downs of the emotional experience? If they weren’t invulnerable, wouldn’t they be one of us, punching the clock in an unnamed cubicle? It’s been difficult, maybe, for some to reconcile that there are people walking among us who are simply a combination of skilled, gifted, and lucky. And that being the recipients of such good fortune doesn’t make them superhuman, nor does it exclude them from the right to have full, happy, lives in which sports are not the be-all and end-all.

In a recent interview with JJ Redick, Jokić and Antetokounmpo’s fellow European (and soon to be first overall pick in the NBA draft) Victor Wembanyama showed that he, too, possesses a wisdom that affords him perspective when it comes to the game. When asked by Redick how he keeps himself grounded in reality, the 19-year-old said: “[It] is something bigger than basketball. It’s just accomplishing yourself inside this universe. When I need motivation, when I need energy, and I feel tired … When I need to fight on the court and it’s hard, I always remember: I’m free in that universe … I always have that in mind. And it doesn’t stop at just basketball. It’s about life.”

Whether fans like it or not, the future of sports is evolving. And with it, our antiquated ideas of what an athlete should be, what a man should be, will inevitably evolve too. Players like Jokić, Antetokounmpo and Wembanyama represent this future: global in scope, forward-thinking, grounded. And as these players and others in their image continue to dominate the league, an inalienable truth will be left staring their old-school detractors in the face: there’s more than one way to win.