It can be lonely at the top, so the adage goes. That can be easy to forget or lose sight of totally for a number of reasons, and it becomes doubly unclear when introduced into the artifice of professional sports. On the one hand, riches beyond your wildest childhood dreams. On the other, a career that pushes your body to its limits before it gives out, a demanding mix of responsibilities to stakeholders ranging from the deeply personal to the totally anonymous, and that vague thing called “legacy” we all try to manage, knowingly or otherwise.
Yet, underneath the money, below the commercialization, past the layers of imaging and spin, sport still embodies the core values that give it an aura that draws us all in.
Loyalty to your teammates, coaches, organization, and city. Dedication to taking the raw physical and mental components we are all given and wringing out the highest perfection of movement possible. Unity of purpose, working together with people who were once strangers, and achieving goals you could never reach on your own. And honor: staying true to the commitments you’ve made along the way, from the decision to pursue this path, to contracts signed, to the moral weight you accumulate by dint of existing as something between legend and an all-too-human individual tasked with carrying a city’s name to the world.
But we cannot reasonably ignore that these tenets inevitably create tension. Once vast sums of money are introduced, the strain between idealism and reality must grow. As fans, we hope to root for saints when all we have are normal people. It is impossible to expect, nor do we believe, that every player can rise to our highest expectations. Once any one player genuinely approaches those heights, though, the stakes are inevitably raised. If you as a player walked a righteous path to success there grows a presumption on the part of outsiders that you’ll stick to it. A balancing act begins with much at stake.
There are two Milwaukee Bucks who were expected to navigate this high-wire: Giannis Antetokounmpo and (to a lesser degree) Khris Middleton. Giannis as a sort of Chosen One who has charmed, fought, and prevailed in becoming the franchise’s icon; Khris as the long-time running mate who has made much more of himself than ever expected for a second-round draft pick/trade throw-in. Both have come from humble professional beginnings and delivered the thing that matters most: a title. Both did it all “the right way” without much controversy, with even less show, while also serving as two halves of a whole personality—the extrovert and introvert coming together to create something great.
Still, the pressure to continue delivering remains and takes on new forms. Now, as they age, goodwill becomes more conditional: did they take a discount on a contract, are they willing to concede and adapt how they play “for the good of the team,” however defined? Will they maintain high personal standards as the cold calculations of a cut-throat business tick away in the background? In short, can honor be genuinely kept in a world where it is cheap?
Through this past summer, we received our answer in the form of a definitive, “yes.”
For Khris Middleton, the opportunity was there to test a free agent market in which he’d get near-top billing and which could serve to drive up his maximal earnings no matter who he signed with. Instead, he took a large haircut to his annual income on a three-year, $102 million deal that looks like the result of mutual goodwill between player and team. Dramatics were totally avoided, the threat of losing him for nothing evaporated, and the Bucks held up their end of the bargain by standing by their recently injury-prone star in terms of years and a still-healthy salary. In his very typically low-key way, Khris stuck by the tacit commitments made to the city and franchise over the past decade at a critical juncture in his personal story.
And then there is Giannis, who signed a three-year, $186 million extension yesterday. Surprising because all logic said he’d be better served waiting until next summer to sign to maximize income, and completely unsurprising in light of his public statements that if the team does right by his competitive drive, he will do right by them. Once Damian Lillard was acquired via trade, it was all but guaranteed that Giannis would re-sign again. That guarantee? His word—something to be taken deeply seriously.
When faced with the divergent paths of self-interest and keeping the faith, both chose the route that leads back to those initial tenets that make sports more than simply a business. Up until now they’ve strode upright and garnered our respect and adoration accordingly. Yes, they will be well-compensated, but critically this compensation won’t simply be financial; by staying the course, by doing right by others, by consenting to carry Milwaukee, Wisconsin on their shoulders they continue to earn ever more heartfelt gratitude and genuine respect from us, the anonymous mass these men will never meet.
A cynic asks “so what?” and scoffs at misplaced idealism. The fan, the individual who finds the deeper meaning in these games, knows the answer cannot exist in words. It exists in feeling, the unspoken bargains made and kept, and the knowledge that honor still runs true in the face of so many obstacles against it.