Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant’s fingerprints are all over the greatness of Milwaukee Bucks superstar and 2021 NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Most people think it began with a challenge, but it began even earlier than that.
The first basketball game Antetokounmpo ever watched was in Greece at the tender age of 13. Basketball games generally must be watched into the wee hours of the morning in Europe because of the time change so Antetokounmpo stayed up to watch the Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Boston Celtics.
He watched as one player took over the end of the game and was clearly the best on the court. This player was none other than Kobe Bryant, who would later be the impetus for Antetokounmpo to reach the next level in his career.
The year was 2017 and Kobe Bryant was dishing out Mamba Mentality challenges to various athletes including Demar DeRozan and Isaiah Thomas as part of a Nike campaign. By 2017, Antetokounmpo hadn’t achieved anywhere near his current level of stardom, but he was the reigning Most Improved Player and he requested his own Mamba Mentality challenge, to which Bryant responded challenging him to win MVP:
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) August 27, 2017
The Black Mamba had spoken and less than two years later Antetokounmpo did the unthinkable and actually became league MVP. Last night, as he became the 2021 NBA Finals MVP, he actually spoke on how much this challenge inspired him.
“It means a lot. It started almost like a joke at first. It was a challenge to players, and I was like, let me just shoot my shot, kind of like, what’s my challenge, and he was like MVP. But at first I was, like, joking. I didn’t think he was going to respond to me,” Antetokounmpo said.
“But when he did, he made me believe. I’m like, Kobe Bryant thinks I can do this and I can play at a high level and build my team and win my MVP? I had to do it. I had to work hard. And to not necessarily let him down. I had to work hard because people believed that I can do it.”
The relationship between Kobe and Antetokounmpo continued as the latter showed just how serious he was about fulfilling the Mamba Mentality challenge. Back at the 2018 All-Star Game, Antetokounmpo and Kobe were scheduled to be at the same Nike event as Giannis publicly unveiled his plan to pick his brain and find a time to train with him.
“It’s all about how he thinks. It’s about how they think, how the greats think. How they think about the game,” said Antetokounmpo. “I want to see how he thinks about the game, how he sees the game, how he would play today, would he change something about the way he plays. Obviously, he’s watched me play, and hopefully, he can give me some tips.”
In true Mamba fashion, Antetokounmpo showed up three hours early to his workout with Kobe to show him that he was, “not here to mess around.” Antetokounmpo later elaborated that Kobe got him to make between 350-400 shots and gave him the advice to, “think outside the box and be like a kid.”
Antetokounmpo continued to say that he looked up to Bryant and further illuminated on the advice Kobe gave him about being like a kid. “Kids use their fantasy. They are being creative. When you are a kid you always want to learn. You ask questions,” Kobe said to Antetokounmpo during their training session.
This photo made the rounds as the level of respect Bryant had for Antetokounmpo was clear. Unsurprisingly, Antetokounmpo began to absolutely dominate the league following this training session.
He’d become a monster on both sides of the ball, beginning to make signature two-way plays to close out games. He could easily come up with a big-time steal or swat before the 6’11 forward would run the floor like a freight train and convert at the other end.
He became the consummation of what it would look like if Shaquille O’Neal and Lebron James were combined. He gained early MVP buzz at the beginning of the season and finally lived up to Kobe’s challenge before receiving another Mamba Mentality challenge:
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) June 25, 2019
Antetokounmpo not only accepted the challenge but lived up to the lofty expectations as he finally brought the city of Milwaukee their first championship in 50 years. Antetokounmpo and Kobe have many similarities so it’s no wonder they connected on such a deep level. Antetokounmpo stuck through the hard times just like Kobe.
“Obviously I wanted to get the job done, but that’s my stubborn side. It’s easy to go and win a championship with somebody else. It’s easy… I could go to a super team and just do my part and win a championship. But, this is the hard way to do it and we did it,” said Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo won his first championship with the city that drafted him and stayed loyal just like Kobe.
Kobe said at his last game that he was most proud about the down years because “We didn’t run. We played through all that stuff and we got our championships and we did it the right way.”
Now the biggest thing Bryant and Antetokounmpo have in common is that they are both NBA champions, just as Kobe believed would happen.
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