MILWAUKEE — Back in 1971, one of the best duos in NBA history led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first title, veteran guard Oscar Robertson and young big man Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Bucks now have a dynamic superstar duo capable of living up to or even surpassing the greatness of that Hall of Fame legendary duo with big man Giannis Antetokounmpo and veteran guard Damian Lillard.
But whether it’s Oscar and Kareem, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers or any other historic NBA duo, Antetokounmpo would prefer to win an NBA title with Lillard before being comfortable in that stellar conversation.
“We haven’t won anything,” Antetokounmpo told Andscape. “There’s going to be a lot of hype around us, but we haven’t done anything. We haven’t even played a game yet … So, we can talk about it all day, but at the end of the day, our actions speak louder than words. But we have an opportunity to do something great, and that’s exciting for me.
“But Kobe, Shaq, Kareem, Oscar, those [duos] are great. Those are all-time greats. And the reason they’re all-time great is because they won. So, if you want to even join the conversation, we have to win. So, right now, we’re not in that conversation.”
Antetokounmpo sat down with ESPN and Andscape for a wide-ranging interview during the Bucks’ media day at their practice facility on Oct. 2. The following is a Q&A with the two-time NBA MVP about the major acquisition of a seven-time All-Star Lillard in a trade for his beloved teammate and friend Jrue Holiday, his aspirations of getting “Dame” his first title, the firing of longtime Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer after losing as the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed in the first round of the 2023 playoffs to the Miami Heat, questions about his long-term future in Milwaukee and much more. New Bucks coach Adrian Griffin told the NBA Today show on ESPN that Antetokounmpo and Lillard are expected to play in their first preseason game together Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers on ESPN (7 p.m. ET).
You said it’s a blessing to play with Lillard. In what way?
It’s a blessing to have opportunity to play with a guy that is built from the same cloth as you. A guy that is a killer [as a basketball player]. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He’s been good for so many years in the league, dominating the league. And having a guy that you can go to war with every single day that wants it as bad as you want, it is always a good feeling. I’m hungry, but he even makes me hungry because when you are amongst greatness every single day, which I believe is great, you have to bring it. You cannot slack. And it goes vice versa. He has to bring it, too.
But being with him, we have a chance. We have a legit chance to do something great here. And I’m excited for what the future holds, but we got to take it a step at a time.
What would it mean for you to not only win another championship, but to get Lillard his first one?
It [would] mean the world to me to win another championship. Because a lot of people don’t believe. But I believe that as long as I am persistent with it and [work] every single day, a championship, eventually it’s going to happen. Eventually it’s going to happen. And Dame wants it, too.
When he talks to me, I can feel it by the way he walks. I can feel it by the way he practices. I can feel it. He wants it badly. So, when you have a lot of people around like that, eventually it’s going to happen because of what they put their body through. And they go through everything and sacrifice everything in their life and put their body in through stress in order for that to happen. You’ve seen it in the past. So, it is a matter of time. It’s going to happen.
Can you reflect on being upset in the first round of the playoffs last season as a top seed and all the change that came after?
Obviously, it was hard time for us having a good regular season and going the first round and ending our season like that. And it was just unfortunate because we couldn’t catch a break and I don’t want to talk about the excuses. But obviously, it wasn’t a good feeling for the team. Everybody was in disbelief when we [lost] Game 5 at home. We were looking at one another and we were like, ‘We just lost in the first round of the playoffs.’
But at the end of the day, in life, sometimes that happens. And at the end of the day, what are you going to do about it? You’re going to sit down and just keep on whining about it and feeling bad about yourself, or you’re going to do something about it? And hopefully this year we can get back in this right position, same exact position, and power through that. We got to take a game at a time, but when we get to the first round be better when we lose the first game, be able to respond when we face adversity. But it wasn’t a good summer. And sometimes it’s good to have summers like that, to have kind of like a bad taste in your mouth.
It makes you work harder. It makes the team even more locked-in because even though we had a good team last [season], we couldn’t advance from the first round. So, tough time for the team. And obviously because of that, a lot of changes was made from coach on. Coach Bud was together with us for five years. We won the championship together and now [we are] on to other things. But at the end of the day, again, it was a lesson and hopefully I’ll learn from it and hopefully the whole team can learn from it. Then, once we get in the same position again, we are better.
In the process of gaining Dame, what was it like to lose Jrue, who was not only a great player but a good friend?
People just talk about basketball. But it’s not just about basketball. It’s about going to school and seeing him there, dropping his kids there and I’m dropping my kid there and talking about our kids and talking about life. It’s bigger than basketball, obviously. With Jrue, I won a championship and he’s the reason why now I’m a champion. And there were so many days he was sitting right next to me and we were talking before the game and we were about to play a big game, Game 5, Game 6, Game 7, and check on one another. ‘Hey, man, you good? How are you feeling today? I feel good. How are you feeling? Big fella, you’re good? Good. We’re going to get this one today. OK?’
All those conversations were before you go to war, but that’s basketball. But there were conversations outside of basketball. Our families was very close. Our kids are very close. A guy with a great and positive energy every time he came to the practice facility or came to the arena. He had something about him that allowed you, when you were next to him, to feel good about yourself. I’m definitely going to miss it. And again, I wish him the best in everything that he does. And you never know down the road, you still might be teammates again. I love him. I don’t love him as a basketball player. I love him as a brother.
I wish him and his wife and his kids and his extended family the best. They always took care of me and my family. They always were nice and kind to me. They gave everything they could for not just the Milwaukee Bucks organization, but the city, the community. And again, I wish him the best in the next chapter wow with the Boston Celtics — not against us; against everybody else. But it’s definitely bittersweet. But now you just got to look at today and look about how can we get better right now and tomorrow. Get ready for the season right now. Dame, I’m excited for him to be here and I’m excited to go to war with him every single day.
Like you, Dame is also a young father with three kids. Your families met the weekend after his trade at the Bucks’ practice facility. Can you talk about that growing off-the-court connection?
Yeah. I’m excited. I met his family. Vice versa. He met my family I’m excited. I’m getting to know him. Man, having a Top 75 [NBA] guy, an All-NBA, All-Star, a scoring threat from after half court. Having a guy like that next to you, you can go through the alley late at night and you feel like you’re the bully because you have that guy next to you. So, I’m excited to play with him.
While you appear committed to the Bucks, you have also said your loyalty is connected to the franchise remaining in championship contention. Does the acquisition of Lillard help you envision yourself being in Milwaukee long-term now? Or is it still better to do your due diligence in terms of your pending free agency?
I always envisioned myself to be in Milwaukee for a long time. And I always say that I want to play 20 years. I want to be like Tim Duncan, like Kobe, all those guys that played with one team for a lot of years and won the championship. But at the end of the day, before loyalty, winning comes first. We are judged on winning. I’m a winner. I want to win. And the words that I say, I feel like sometimes they’ve been taken out of proportion because I’ve said these words for four or five, six years now. And I don’t know why it’s different this time. It is different when your extension comes around, when your extension is three, four years down the road and you say those words like, ‘Hey, I want my team to be the best available team and I want everybody to be on the same page,’ nobody really cares.
But when your extension comes around, it’s like, ‘Oh, he might leave.’ No, no, no. It’s not the case. I want the best possible team. I want to wake up every single day when I come to work and know that I have a chance to win. And I want the organization to be on the same page and not to be comfortable because we won one Milwaukee Bucks ‘haven’t won anything’ yet with Damian Lillard — Andscape. So, what we going to wait 15 more years to win another one? No, no, no way. We have to bring it every single day. I try to bring it every day as much as I can. And I expect the same approach from people next to me.
But obviously bringing Dame here, it’s a beginning, it’s a start. But again, I’ve always wanted to be [a title contender] and that doesn’t change. But the moment I feel like people around me, they’re not as determined to be great … I try to surround myself with greatness. I try to surround myself with winners. I want to be that guy. But so far, the last couple of years, the last five years, we’ve been the most winning team in the NBA and we have to continue to be that way and hopefully we can have another chance to win another championship and don’t get comfortable at all.
I’m not comfortable. I’m 28 years old; I cannot be comfortable. I want the same kind of approach from everybody on the team. So, so far, I feel good. And I know for sure the city of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Bucks organization is excited for the season and they feel good with the players that they have on the court. So, I’m excited to go to and try to do the best that I can.