For Giannis Antetokounmpo, the inspiration of Kobe Bryant loomed large

MILWAUKEE, WI - FEBRUARY 22: (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - FEBRUARY 22: (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images) /

Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo drew great inspiration from legendary Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and the latter’s influence can be traced to Antetokounmpo’s rise to superstardom.

It was a cold, winter night on February 22, 2016 — as all February 22nds are in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee Bucks guard Michael Carter-Williams dribbled out what ended up being a 108-101 victory for the Bucks over the Los Angeles Lakers in what was essentially two lost seasons for both clubs.

In what was his final stop at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the legendary Kobe Bryant rose from the visitor’s bench and pointed his fingers toward Bucks star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had just compiled his first career triple-double (27 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists). Antetokounmpo promptly walked towards Bryant and shared a moment with the man who was his idol back when he was simply looking for a better life on the streets in Greece as a youngster.

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The two men couldn’t have been on more different trajectories at that point in their respective careers, with Bryant a month and a half away from saying goodbye to the game after 20 incredible seasons while Antetokounmpo was in the beginning stages of his superstar transformation midway through his third NBA season.

Those precious few moments, in front of a sold-out crowd full of Bucks and Lakers fans, was a special sight (thankfully, I was among the thousands of those there that night). Later that night, Bryant publicly shared the wisdom he’d passed on to Antetokounmpo, as the latter was on the precipice of taking the next big step in his developing career, as Aron Yohannes later relayed for Brew Hoop:

"“I said listen man, it’s just a choice you’re going to have to make. If you want to be that great player, then you’re going to have to make certain sacrifices and go after it.” Bryant said. “He has the potential to do it. He has the physical tools, the intelligence. Now it’s just a matter of believing in himself and going after it. He has the talent to be a great player.“Times going to go by fast. You know you have the potential to be a great player and the last thing you want to do is at the end of your career look back and say ‘Oh I wish I worked harder’. Because time goes by too fast, man.”"

Bryant would hang up his signature Nike kicks several weeks later, but it wouldn’t be the last time the two parties would be linked with one another over the following few years of Bryant’s post-playing career.

First, there was challenging Antetokounmpo to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in the summer of 2017, something Antetokounmpo made good on following the 2018-19 season. But perhaps the most profound encounter between the two occurred two summers ago when Antetokounmpo met with Bryant for a one-on-one meeting before Antetokounmpo’s MVP-winning season.

In true Antetokounmpo fashion, he showed up to the gym three hours before the five-time NBA champion arrived himself, as he told venerable Bucks play-by-play announcer Jim Paschke in his summer sitdown a couple of years ago.

For a player that has famously eschewed requests and invites to work out with his peers over the years, the prospect of working out with Bryant, someone that he grew up idolizing, motivated Antetokounmpo to show Bryant he was there for a purpose:

"“I look up to Kobe Bryant. And in my head, I got to show him that I’m not here to just mess around and say I’ll work out with you. I’m here because I want to be better.”"

It’s that drive, the insatiable work ethic that both Antetokounmpo and Bryant shared together that makes, and has made, each player special in their respective ways. And the bond between Antetokounmpo and Bryant goes deeper than their drive, their accomplishments as MVP winners or their mutual respect for one another.

Both grew up in front of all of our eyes entering the NBA as teenagers and molding themselves into superstars by sheer force of will. That includes overcoming humble beginnings such as Antetokounmpo combated simply making it to the NBA and coming to America as a true fish out of water for his rookie year, or of course the career and personal lows Bryant endured through his sexual assault case in the mid-2000’s.

Yet, through all of the trials and tribulations that both men faced, they had unlocked a level of being and determination that turned both Antetokounmpo and Bryant into these larger than life presences.

And that’s one of the biggest tragedies on a Sunday that was full of them. In the wake of Bryant’s untimely passing Sunday afternoon after he, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and reportedly seven others, were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, the basketball world is left reeling having lost one of their biggest icons and champions of the game. More importantly, the Bryant family is tragically now separated between life and death as Kobe is survived by his wife Vanessa and his three daughters.

Both directly and indirectly, traces of Bryant’s presence have followed Antetokounmpo beyond the latter’s idolization and their shared attitude towards their craft. One can only think of the anecdote of Giannis and his older brother Thanasis having to share the same pair of Kobe 4s with one another as he recalled with Aaron Dodson of The Undefeated last summer:

"“Their father, Charles, overheard the boys’ exchange and interjected. “My dad came out and was like, ‘That’s your younger brother. You’ve gotta share shoes with him. If he wants to wear them, he can wear them. It’s not like we have a bunch of shoes,’ ” Giannis remembers. “That’s when me and Thanasis started sharing shoes.”"

And as Dodson wrote later in that piece, when it was time for Antetokounmpo to design his own signature shoes, the Zoom Freak 1s, much of the feel and shape Antetokounmpo was searching for was based on those same shoes, along with the Kobe 10s.

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Bryant touched the game of basketball in ways that few people have done in the history of the sport. Some can’t even think of the NBA or basketball itself without Bryant being a part of it, depending on when we grew up or came to the sport, myself included. The outpouring of emotion, appreciation, emotion, and gratitude from all over the world that has mourned Bryant’s passing over the last day have only begun to show the impact and legacy he leaves behind far too soon.

Bryant had a way of challenging either those who looked up to him or his peers to look inward and elevate themselves to become the best version of themselves on the basketball court. And the way with which Bryant gave back and passed on his knowledge of the game to those wanting to unlock themselves in order to reach their potential expanded his influence after his playing days, in both the men’s and women’s game.

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Now that Bryant’s presence has left this world, one can only wonder who will be there to inspire and ignite the fire and passion within the next Giannis Antetokounmpo.