On Wednesday night, Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat closed out their NBA Playoffs first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks in five games. It was only the fifth time that an 8-seed defeated a 1-seed, though the Heat made history as the first play-in tournament team to win a series.
The Bucks came into the series after having been the best team in the NBA during the regular season, posting a league-best 58-24 record. A clear favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, it’s extremely hard not to see the 4-1 series loss to a 44-38 team as an epic disappointment.
So by the time Bucks star player Giannis Antetokounmpo started taking questions at the post-game press conference, it made logical sense for someone to ask him to put the season, and how it ended, into context.
“Do you view this season as a failure?” asked The Athletic’s Eric Nehm.
From there, Antetokounmpo rifled through all of his emotions as he attempted to answer the question. Shifting from anger to frustration to disappointment to acceptance, the 28-year-old superstar gave the kind of heartfelt and honest answer that normally eludes all of us in these situations. In the end, both the reporter and the athlete came away with what they wanted.
"Do you view this season as a failure?"
Giannis Antetokounmpo offers quite the heartfelt answer after Milwaukee's first-round exit. pic.twitter.com/tlRa97q7om
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) April 27, 2023
While Antetokounmpo’s response was almost universally lauded, opinions were split on Nehm’s framing of the question. Some felt that it was a perfectly fair question to ask while others took him to task for trying to set the NBA player up by using the word “failure.”
Not that @eric_nehm needs me to defend him but I see this going viral as a “Giannis DESTROYS reporter” thing and I think that’s completely wrong. To me it’s more of a very honest and raw answer—exactly what we want—that we’re only getting because Giannis knows and respects Eric https://t.co/XuJLNZ7zOv
— Yaron Weitzman (@YaronWeitzman) April 27, 2023
Giannis' answer was excellent. Professional and well said. Whereas sometimes the sports media is flat out unprofessional in their approach. https://t.co/ZYOjoln6Sc
— Jimmy Van (@jimmyvan74) April 27, 2023
Perhaps the harshest and strangest reaction came from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who ended up using this as proof that NBA reporters should be replaced by AI.
Great response @Giannis_An34 This response should be required viewing for every sports media member and sports journalism teacher and student. Headline seeking questions that look good in a tweet are what sports media has devolved to far too often. It’s also on @espn and @tnt… https://t.co/V1FZvUsC9i
— Mark Cuban (@mcuban) April 27, 2023
“This response should be required viewing for every sports media member and sports journalism teacher and student. Headline seeking questions that look good in a tweet are what sports media has devolved to far too often. It’s also on [ESPN] and [TNT] to not accept this as state of the art,” wrote Cuban on Twitter. “Of course not all sportswriters or beat writers fall into this category, And difficult questions that require difficult answers need to be part of the game. But gotcha questions are still far more common than insightful questions. And questions about actual basketball strategy are rare. How far away are we from @sportswriterGPT being a better source of post game questions? It will be interesting to see where this side of the industry goes.”
The only thing more absurd than the idea of NBA players taking generic questions from an AI chatbot during press conferences is the idea that Nehm was attempting to play “gotcha” with Giannis or set him up to look bad in some way.
Given the pressures and expectations foisted on professional athletes, and the “second place is first loser” mantras that permeate so much of American sports culture, finding out if the star player of the best team in the league feels like he failed because they lost in the first round of the playoffs is a perfectly reasonable thing to want to know. The word “failure” evokes strong emotions and opinions, but Nehm wasn’t calling the Bucks a failure. He was asking an athlete whose career is often discussed in terms of success and failure what he felt about it.
And had Nehm watered down the question, or offered up a softball to Antetokounmpo, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here today talking about his amazing answer.
Appearing on The Dan Le Batard Show on Thursday, Nehm said that he asked the question like that because he knew Giannis to be a thoughtful and philosophical person who could maturely discuss the situation.
"I didn't think that was exactly how it was gonna go but I was excited and interested in finding out how he views the end of a season." – @eric_nehm joins to discuss his back and forth with Giannis Antetokounmpo postgame last night after the Heat ended the Bucks' season. pic.twitter.com/ojPC8hXcIE
— Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz (@LeBatardShow) April 27, 2023
“In my mind, I kinda thought it would be a fun way to delve into the topic,” said Nehm. “There is this very binary kind of win-lose type of thing in sports and he just doesn’t really subscribe to that. So I did think we were going to get into something interesting. How he views wins and losses and failure and success…I didn’t think it was going to upset him in the way that it did. But I guess the fact that it did ended up making his answer even better and more interesting cause that just like kinda who he is.”
Cuban’s negative take on the interaction likely has more to do with his own personal interests, which tend to be about shutting down criticism of the Mavericks or himself and technological obsessions that take influence away from media companies. If it were up to him, we’d have nothing but press conferences full of generic questions and generic answers that serve no one except league owners and executives who want to maintain the status quo.
As it happened, the Nehm-Antetokounmpo interaction was a perfect storm of what can happen when a reporter and athlete build a history together and are willing to challenge one another. The authenticity of both the question and the answer helped make that a memorable moment and we should applaud both.