A lot of ink has been spilled over Laddergate. Some of the worst ink was spilled on Twitter, where the user who initially posted the video framed it as disrespectful. Some of the best ink was spilled over at The Athletic, which provided the context omitted from the video.
Why spill any more ink? Although a case could be made to simply consign this incident to history - and let ladders in front of the hoop lie, as it were - I think that it actually serves as an important piece of Giannis’ legacy. To me, Laddergate reveals who Giannis truly is: not a disrespectful or even an understandably erring superstar, but a hard worker who stands up to bullies and shows contrition.
The catalyst for Laddergate was a trait of Giannis that we all know and love: his absolutely insatiable work ethic. He had just played a punishing night game in a punishing environment - and was specifically punished by a certain opposing player. However, he sank only 4 of 15 free throws, good for the worst clip in his career and likely costing them the game against the team that featured his (albeit injured) nemesis.
A lot of NBA players may have (understandably!) wanted to hit the road after such a nadir. The Bucks were slated for a weekend off, followed by a four-game home stand. Giannis could have easily packed his bags, got on a plane, and started his weekend at home with his family.
But that’s not who Giannis is. Instead, at 10:00 pm on a Friday night - when yours truly was already fast asleep - he was back on the court to work on his shot.
But bullies were near. Montrezl Harrell - Sixers bench player and, perhaps not unsurprisingly given the following events, NBA journeyman - stole Giannis’ ball because he wanted to use the court. The basketball court, as we all know, only contains enough room for one person to play. (Incidentally, this is why hero ball, in which the floor is cleared for one player to try to score, is always the best game plan - especially in the playoffs.)
He then resorted to primary school recess tactics, including classics like “head shake” and “keep away” as well as the more advanced “drop expletives.” Jason Love, ostensibly a member of the Sixers coaching staff but here Harrell’s second-grade teacher, then explained (lied) to Giannis that he was not allowed to have a ball.
In response, Giannis started with diplomacy, naively thinking that he could retrieve the ball by simply asking for it. He even offered that he and Harrell could shoot together at the same hoop. However, when diplomacy failed, he followed in the footsteps of many American presidents by vacating the war zone before returning with double the ammunition: two basketballs. Not only a hard worker, he continued his hard work in the face of (convoluted) obstacles from bullies.
However, he also continued his hard work in the face of the Sixers’ ladder-wielding employees, who were most likely not bullies. For those who spent the last two weeks living under a rock, he twice removed a ladder from in front of the basket, the second time pushing it with enough force that it toppled over. This was the footage captured and tweeted by the Sixers-fan-cum-intrepid-reporter.
When discussing the incident with the media immediately afterwards, Giannis was understandably concerned about the dynamics I outlined above. Yet, he also clearly stated that it was an “unfortunate event” and that he meant no “disrespect.” Moreover, he was visibly unnerved by the entire incident.
It is always hard to gauge contrition in anyone, let alone superstars that we can only glimpse from afar. But Giannis passed the sniff test, both verbally and nonverbally. In many ways, I think that this is more important than the incident itself. Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone respond to their mistakes in a thoughtful manner. I respect people who own up to their errors.
Likewise, I do not respect people who do not own up to their errors. I particularly do not respect people who do not own up to their errors when their errors are part of a broader pattern of injustice. At the risk of equating the actions of Giannis and others, Giannis quickly admitted his mistake even in the absence of growing anti-ladder sentiment in the United States. Others have not.
I also do not mean to suggest that reactions are more important than actions. The actions of Giannis and others are emulated by millions, even if they are apologized for afterwards. But the reaction is especially important when the action can be weaponized for hate. The actions of others enable people to enact discrimination; Giannis’ action enables people to knock over ladders without discrimination.
At the end of the day, it is important to consider how people with influence act and react within society at large. The actions and reactions of other basketball players were not isolated incidents - they were part of and contributed to systemic antisemitism (not to mention a variety of other -isms and -phobias). In contrast, Laddergate was an isolated incident - albeit one that I think forms a part of Giannis’ legacy.