Giannis Antetokounmpo is being marketed to overtake LeBron James as face of NBA, but he's focused on 'essence' of basketball

Giannis Antetokounmpo is being marketed to overtake LeBron James as face of NBA, but he's focused on 'essence' of basketball

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Giannis Antetokounmpo soaring dunk, AP photo

Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks in the first half on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. He finished with 33 points and 11 rebounds as Milwaukee beat the Atlanta Hawks 135-127.

MILWAUKEE  Giannis Antetokounmpo could probably drive your SUV from the back seat. He might be able to simultaneously open your fridge and microwave. He can definitely touch the rim without leaving his feet.

The "Greek Freak" has a wingspan of 7 feet, 3 inches.

And yet those in his corner want to expand his reach.

"We want to be the world's team," Bucks president Peter Feigin said, "led by the world's player."

The basketball world will descend upon Chicago for NBA All-Star Weekend. There will be parties, promotional events, hospital visits, media sessions, a skills challenge, a slam dunk contest, a 3-point shooting extravaganza and even an actual All-Star Game.

Antetokounmpo could do without all of it . expect for the game.

He is so serious about basketball  even a defense-optional exhibition that doesn't count in the standings  he debated conducting his pregame routine in Milwaukee before a drive down I-94 to the United Center.

"We had serious discussions," agent Alex Saratsis said.

Antetokounmpo only relented once Saratsis, a Northwestern alumnus and Lincoln Park resident, promised he'd secure a quality gym in Chicago for Antetokounmpo's Sunday afternoon sweat.

"And then he will go and play hard," Saratsis said, "to the point where teammates have told him: Chill out."

Antetokounmpo is so serious about basketball, he didn't sound entirely thrilled about having received the most fan votes (more than 5.9 million) among Eastern Conference players. That tally made him team captain for the second straight year, requiring him to draft players.

"If I'm the captain, I'm the captain," he said. "But by being the captain, you have more things to do and it takes away from the game. I don't like things that take away from the game."

And therein lies the conundrum for those pushing Antetokounmpo to overtake LeBron James as the sport's most famous player: What if he doesn't want to be the face of the NBA? Or he's simply ambivalent?

"In five years he might say: I make 'X' amount from the Bucks, I make 'Y' amount from Nike; I'm good," Saratsis said. "How much money does anyone need in a lifetime? For him it's not about being a power broker. He doesn't want a production company. He cares about family, people close to him and basketball."

The Bucks (46-7 after Monday night's win over Sacramento) have lost only once since Jan. 8. They held off the Celtics on a 40-point night from Kemba Walker. They beat the Bulls as Antetokounmpo scored his 10,000th career point and enjoyed his 18th career triple double (28 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists). They beat the Hornets in Paris.

Seven days later they were back home at Fiserv Forum, the glistening House That Giannis Built, for a special occasion: Greek Night.

The Bucks distributed a bobblehead of Giannis and teammate Thanasis Antetokounmpo, the older brother Giannis hugged moments after the Bucks made him the 15th pick in the 2013 NBA draft. Thanasis wears 43 to mirror Giannis' 34 jersey.

Coach Mike Budenholzer gave Thanasis his only start of the season, and he scored 62 seconds after the opening tip on a breakaway slam. He laid one in off a Giannis feed to give Milwaukee a 13-4 lead. The Bucks' bench and sellout crowd went nuts.

But long story short, the Nuggets shot 22 of 46 (47.8%) on 3-pointers and stunned the Bucks 127-115. It made for a quiet scene in the Bucks locker room, a Friday night that felt more like a Monday morning.

Peppering Antetokounmpo with non-basketball questions seemed even sillier than usual.

Asked how he has adjusted to the spotlight, the NBA's reigning MVP replied: "To be honest I try not to think about it. I know my name might be out there, but I've never cared about that and don't now."

Told of Giannis' comment that the captain's duties might detract from his play during the All-Star Game, Thanasis understood. Of course he did.

The brothers are so attached that when Saratsis presented them with two hotel room keys shortly after Giannis was drafted, they looked at him quizzically. They explained that they had never slept in separate rooms. Even adjoining hotel rooms didn't provide enough closeness.

"(Giannis) is all about the essence," Thanasis said. "How he practices will translate to the game."

Though Antetokounmpo doesn't seek fame, it finds him. He has the NBA's second most popular jersey after James and ahead of Stephen Curry. He has more than 7.2 million Instagram followers, which ranks 11th in the NBA and first among international players.

Although Antetokounmpo plays in one of the NBA's five smallest markets, Feigin said he could make the case that the 6-11 forward is actually the league's most famous player.

Where else other than Greece?

"If you did a survey in Paris," the Bucks' executive replied cleverly, "he might win."

Saratsis, his agent, said that given that Antetokounmpo's parents are Nigerian, he "touches two continents. Europe has a massive immigrant population, and his story resonates with so many people. He has blazed a new trail with fans that are immigrants and have multinational parents."

Antetokounmpo, 25, partnered with Nike in 2017 and last year became the first European-born player to have a signature Nike shoe — the Zoom Freak 1.

Don't expect to see him doing ads for Binny's or Majestic Star Casino while he's in Chicago this weekend.

"We look at it as quality over quantity," Feigin said. "What are the right spots? We want to market him as a global brand. It's not ubiquity, it's not everywhere, anyway, anyhow. How do we make things special?"

Antetokounmpo is scheduled to appear at Water Tower Place at 3 p.m. Saturday for a panel discussion with hip-hop artist Swoope, a fellow JBL ambassador. They will explore the intersection of basketball and music.

On Sunday he'll be the focal point of Team Giannis, a captain who selected Walker, Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam and Trae Young to round out his starting five. Last year Team Giannis lost 178-164 despite his game-high 38 points in 27 minutes.

Then he will return to his comfort zone of Milwaukee, a bright light in a city without all that many.

"I think he really enjoys life here," veteran wing Kyle Korver said. "I don't think he's doing this well because he's in a small market. I think he could flourish anywhere. But with his upbringing and how he thinks, he wants to keep the main things the main things — his family and the game."


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CHICAGO (AP) — Players were taking charges, bodies were hitting the floor, calls and non-calls were being screamed about on both ends. The fourth quarter of the NBA All-Star Game was as intense as the final moments of a playoff game, the biggest stars in the league holding absolutely nothing back.

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