Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks is a remarkable basketball player. He has the unusual chance to become the best basketball player in the world, the kind of person who fans compare to Kareem Abdul-Jabar, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, and Magic Johnson with a straight face.
When the Bucks played the Toronto Raptors in the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals, noted basketball writers fell all over themselves to coronate Giannis, as if he’d clinched a trip to the NBA Finals already. Some went so far as to declare the Bucks an emerging dynasty. There were two problems with that.
First, there already is a dynasty in progress. The Golden State Warriors are near the top of the mountain again. They are watched the Bucks-Raptors series in luxurious repose, because they swept the Portland TrailBlazers in the Western Conference Finals and earned some time off. While Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors were duking it out with Giannis and Co., the Warriors were sleeping in late and putting up shots in leisurely shootarounds. I think we were eager to dethrone the Warriors because, by definition, dynasties have to win a lot for a while, so we are all kinda tired of seeing the Warriors lift trophies.
Second, the Bucks lost the series in six games to the Raptors. Whoops!
That’s inconvenient. It busted up a journalistic narrative—Giannis’s ascendancy to best-in-the-world status—that has built up all year. This season, Giannis became the nigh-invincible player that basketball fans had hoped he would. When he came into the league, Giannis was a whispered rumor or magical creature who only hard-core hoops heads whispered about. He has always obviously had the physical gifts to become the best. The last several seasons, and this one in particular, have shown that he has the tenacity necessary to get there.
Some thought he already had. He may well become the best in the business, but it turns out he’s on the same schedule as his predecessors. All those greats had to stumble in Conference Finals or Finals before reaching the mountain top, with the exception of Magic—and he played second fiddle during his first championship run to Kareem, the reigning best player in the world. It takes time, and there’s no shame in taking it.
But the hype built up very quickly in the last few weeks. After all, Giannis is very easy to root for. He’s a seemingly decent person who is astounded by, and grateful for, the wild reversal of fortune that is his life. As a kid, Giannis picked up basketball so that he wouldn’t have to dodge racist gangs who harassed him and his brothers on the streets of Athens. He also genuinely loves to hoop, and he’s really good at it. Giannis is mythic. Trouble was, we wanted the myth to be a fairy tale, one that reached an early, perfect apex.
Another contributing factor to the breathless praise is surely the previous occupant of the best-player-in-the-NBA throne. Until recently, King James was the best basketball player in the world. But LeBron chose to go to the Lakers last summer, and the Lakers, as is their wont, melted down in spectacular fashion—a meltdown in which he played his part. LeBron is many things, most of them admirable. But he is also messy and dramatic. I think we are all a little bit fatigued. On top of all this, Giannis’s most recent opponent, Kawhi Leonard, is pretty boring.
So those are the basketball reasons for Giannis’s premature anointment. There are others: for one, I think we all want the chance to look smart. Reporters, especially, have this impulse. You want to appear prescient and insightful, and wow your readers, peers, and rivals with your amazing analysis. This is why everyone is in such a hurry all the time to declare the end of the Trump administration, even though, despite all those endings, it has not ended yet.
Aside from being smart, plenty of reporters also want to be influential. They want to influence their colleagues, to be the first one on a corner, the thinker who created the consensus anointing Giannis the biggest and the best. When I am reporting a story, I do so from the inside of a paradox. On one hand, I don’t want to be accountable for whatever is going on, good or bad. On the other, I might root for a particular person or outcome. And I want everyone to know what I think about it. If the story lands, it may very well influence what some of the subjects do in the future.
I bring this up not to clown the people who propped up Giannis. Giannis’s game is spectacular, euphoric, and dominant. Hyperbole comes easy with him.
Rather, I’m pointing this out because of those reportorial externalities. Journalists have to be careful about this kind of thing if they’re reporting on something more consequential than basketball. It’s very tempting to get into the prognostication business, but it has dangerous consequences. Remember—Hillary Clinton was the next President of the United States, until she wasn’t.