Life lessons from the NBA playoffs

The Milwaukee Bucks, widely projected to win the 2023 NBA championship, just lost in the first round of the NBA playoffs on April 26. After the series-ending Game 5, I posted on Instagram that I was heartbroken, and I made crying sounds while watching the Bucks lose in overtime.

But what stunned me into silence was the postgame press conference.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ star power forward, is called the best current basketball player on the planet by most fans and sports commentators. He is distinguished by his unusually philosophical postgame interviews. He cracks his fair share of dad jokes and puns here and there, to be sure. But he is also a consistent source of thought-provoking reflection, setting him apart from his peers with their endless variations of “We gotta lock in” or “We have to put the work in.” 

When a reporter asked Giannis if he viewed his team’s season as a failure, he gave a slightly agitated yet impassioned answer. “It’s not failure; it’s steps to success… Michael Jordan played 15 years [in the NBA]. Won 6 championships. The other 9 years were a failure? … There’s no failure in sports. Some days it’s your turn, some days it’s not your turn. You don’t always win… We’re gonna come back next year, try to be better, try to build good habits.”

That might be an obvious piece of wisdom to some of you, but to me, it was the final push I needed to turn my life around this quarter.

Growing up, I was interested in almost everything except for sports. My parents told other people the most exercise I did was breathing. I played a little soccer and basketball in elementary school, but eventually devoted more time to schoolwork, playing cello and writing. At age 22, I still don’t have a consistent workout routine.

To be honest, I sneered a little bit when other people talked about the life lessons they learned from sports. It seemed to follow the same simple clichés. You learn how to win and lose; you learn how to work hard; you learn how to be a team player. You deal with disappointment if you get injured, and then you get over it sometime later. Basic stuff. An elementary schooler can grasp these ideas.

I peered down at my athletic-minded peers from my pedestal of “intellectual” pursuits. Classical music, literature, film theory. Academics. I felt that these worlds were more complicated and more capable of expressing nuanced human emotions. 

I started watching the NBA in February 2022, while dating a passionate NBA fan. It might have been the exact day the James Harden-Ben Simmons trade blew up on social media. I had always thought basketball was more interesting than other sports because of its concentration of action: the constant scoring and motion packed into a relatively small court. But as I sat cross-armed in front of a computer screen, the only thing I could think was, “What could be so special about this?” Why did people memorize minute roster changes and endless strings of statistics and abbreviations? 

Nevertheless, I decided to learn more about the game. I decided to root for the Warriors because 1) they were good and 2) I now lived in the Bay Area for college. Just a few days later, I went to watch my first live NBA game: Warriors versus Clippers. The Warriors lost in a 20-point blowout that day, but I could already identify some players by their jersey numbers. 

While I was mesmerized by Steph Curry’s 3-pointers, I kept hearing about another player with a name so daunting I had to practice how to say it over a few days. Giannis Antetokounmpo. I learned about his explosive, unlikely rise to stardom and his team’s Cinderella run to the 2021 championship. As I gained more basketball knowledge by watching countless documentaries, game breakdown videos and profiles of individual players, Giannis became my favorite player. I was drawn to his humility, his fierce work ethic and loyalty, and most of all, his incredible talent. 

Focusing on the NBA was a much-needed distraction from college struggles. After starting Stanford in 2019, I started to keep track of a “resume of failures,” a concept made popular online in the 2010s. I wrote down everything I applied for but didn’t get. It was a reminder that my hard work exceeded what was visible on my resume; that there were many invisible hours spent on pursuing opportunities that eventually became rejections. 

Over the course of 2022 and 2023, my resume of failures grew unusually long. Increasingly, my college experience grew more challenging than I had anticipated. I experienced just six months of freshman year before taking over a year of online classes during COVID. Then, I took a full gap year on top of the “COVID year.” Right now, I am readjusting after two and a half years of no in-person classes and fractured friendships. There were many, many personal tragedies that broke my heart – events whose effects still ripple throughout my daily life. 

At the time, I felt disillusioned by a popular mindset among younger millennials and Gen Zers: that to chug through life, we must be as unbothered as possible. “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” was on my high school friends’ bookshelves and every bookstore I walked into. 

I thought that not caring about what happens in your life, being complacent and saying “I don’t care,” was lazy. It was an avoidance mechanism, a way to shield yourself from responsibility and consequences. Isn’t it good to have goals in life? To work hard? How can I not care about the results of my goals and efforts?

But now I realize that when you choose to not let these events have power over you, it is freeing.

Recently, I’m learning how to be less frustrated, angry and devastated when things don’t go my way. If something is out of my control, I’ll think that God just had different plans. If something is within my control, I’ll learn and do better next time. I’ll wait for the next opportunity. This doesn’t mean the effort has to end with a “victory”; moving forward with calmness is what matters. 

My close friends told me that I don’t have to label disappointing events as “failures.” They are simply events that happen in my life. Some days, it’s my turn. Some days, it’s not my turn. When I feel afraid about a crucial decision someone else will make about my life, I remind myself that I will be the same person before and after that decision happens. 

The first NBA jersey I got was Giannis’s. He is one of those rare people who has achieved the pinnacle of success in a discipline. If he can be content with an unexpected early exit in an auspicious year, I can be content despite rejections from jobs, graduate schools or personal relationships that go awry.

This quarter, I’m sleeping earlier. I reply to texts more quickly. I arrange more hangouts with friends. I’m finally going to the gym. I keep telling people this is my favorite quarter at Stanford.

Life is good. Even though the team I thought — and hoped — would win the NBA championship got bounced out in the first round. And I think Giannis will feel that way, too, after a couple nights of good sleep and making some free throws. 


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