The Bucks' band of brothers

NBA.com Global on Nov 22, 2019 07:08 AM
The Bucks' band of brothers
NBA file photos

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

MILWAUKEE -- Brook Lopez sat down after a rather boisterous shootaround at a college gym in downtown Chicago last week to talk about his brother. That brother, twin Robin, was within easy ear shot in the bleachers immediately behind Brook’s chair. But he never looked up from the tiny screen in his oversized hand, his laughter not at all in sync with his brother’s comments.

They were in different worlds a few feet apart, maybe different planets, which is how they claim to like it.

“We’ve got something,” said Brook, the Bucks’ starting center, of the two pair of brothers on Milwaukee’s roster. “Not nothing.”

He liked that. “It’s not nothing,” Brook repeated, brightening. “There’s your headline.”

Sorry, that’s not going to work, because this definitely is something.

It’s rare enough for an NBA team to employ a pair of brothers, but it’s nearly unprecedented for anyone to employ two pair. In fact, it only happened once before.

For about half of the 2014-15 season, the Phoenix Suns had both Marcus and Markieff Morris and Goran and Zoran Dragic on their squad. The first three were regulars, while Zoran appeared in only six games before he and his brother were traded to Miami in a multi-team deal.

Thanasis Antetokounmpo, at 27 the older brother by two years to 2019 Kia MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, has appeared in only two games so far. But he had a moment over the weekend, when his fast-break, alley-oop layup at Indiana checked the last box in this oddity: Three sets of brothers -- the four Bucks players and the Pacers’ Aaron and Justin Holiday -- participated and scored in an NBA game.

Or course, it’s all the other times they’re around each other, on or off the court, in practice or on the road, that makes this arrangement as valuable as it is unusual for the Lopez and Antetokounmpo bros. And even for those who aren’t blood relatives.

“It’s special in a lot of ways,” veteran shooter Kyle Korver said. “One, it’s rare to make it to the NBA. So it’s even more rare for two to make it to the NBA. Then there are 30 teams, so for both to end up on the same team -- and there’s two [pair] of them -- that’s unique.”

How do the family connections exhibit themselves?

“You can tell that both sets of brothers are very close,” Korver said. “Everyone is a competitor, but you can tell that each brother has the other’s back. It’s fun, coming from a family of brothers [Korver grew up as one of four boys], to watch them play out here. It makes your heart feel good, like, ‘Yeah, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Pulling for each other.’ “

Milwaukee signed Robin and Thanasis this offseason first and foremost as players. Coach Mike Budenholzer admitted that he had his antenna up lest there be any whiff of cliques or buddy-ball owing to the family bonds (“Off on an island by themselves,” he termed it). So did Giannis, as big an advocate for his four brothers -- Francis, Thanasis, Kostas and Alex -- as one could be.

“At first, in the summer, before we came together, we were like, ‘Oh man, two sets of brothers. How is that going to be?’” Giannis said. “‘Is that going to work?’ But now, we’ve got chemistry. Your best friend, obviously, is going to be your brother.

“Since the season started, when we get in here, he’s not my brother. It’s Thanasis, Robin, Brook, Khris, Bledsoe, we’re having to go out there and do our jobs. But sometimes it’s fun.”

Every team, every coach, wants to shape the camaraderie and trust in their locker room into a band of brothers. The Bucks have given themselves a head start.

THE FIRST RULE of a mock sibling rivalry is: You do not talk about a mock sibling rivalry. Therefore, it’s easy to imagine that the Lopez boys don’t much care for each other.

When they pass each other on the floor, one subbing in, the other exiting, there’s generally no glimmer of recognition. No fist bump, hand slap or eye contact whatsoever. It’s been a part of their schtick since they entered the league five picks apart in the 2008 Draft -- Brook went No. 10 overall to the Nets; Robin, No. 15 to Phoenix -- and nothing has changed now that, in their 12th season, they’re finally teammates.

“We’re on opposite sides of the locker room,” Robin said last week, typically deadpan. “So I think that’s helping the cohesiveness of everything.”

So what impact has the physical proximity had on their allegedly cantankerous relationship? “I think it heightens it,” he said. “But we’ve got a few buffers here, so it’s OK.”

Unlike the Antetokounmpos, who spend a lot of time together and in conversation, Brook and Robin seem at times to co-exist in parallel universes. They’re identical but easy to tell apart, with Robin more wild-haired and wild-eyed, Brook more clean cut. They get under each other’s skin -- in this pebble-grained performance art, anyway -- to keep it entertaining but never nasty.

“I always get a kick out of it when we scrimmage, and they’re doing the jump ball against each other,” Korver said. “I always laugh to myself a little bit.

“You can tell that neither one likes the other to score on him in practice. They’re going to complain about [the other’s] travel or foul or something. But I think mostly, it’s really healthy.”

Said Giannis: “It’s different. When they play [in practice], they don’t look like they’re brothers. They just go at each other hard all the time. That’s a good thing. Like when Thanasis and I play, we don’t look like we’re brothers. He comes at me hard, and I’ll go at him hard. Try to block his shot, try to hit him. But once we leave the court, we go back to family.”

Brook, peeling back the curtain a little, admitted that teaming with his twin for the first time since Stanford, has been a positive. “It’s obviously great to have another player who really fits into the way the Bucks are mentally, how we approach the game,” he said. “A tough player who is trying to play the right way. Defense first -- we’re based on our defense. And who’s unselfish and wants what best for the team.”

And off the court? “He’s a fun guy to hang out with -- a couple times of month.”

As for the worst thing about having his brother on board this season, Brook smirked. “I don’t have enough time for that,” he said. “The game is at 7 o’clock tonight, right? I could just make a huge list between now and then. I could keep going.”

They’ve been free spirits much of their lives, raised in California with older brothers Alex and Chris by a single mother. Deborah Ledford, a school teacher by trade, and her family made sure her sons were exposed to the arts, particularly reading, with sports slotting in alongside.

There was no denying their potential, though, as they grew to 7 feet and developed their games at San Joaquin Memorial High in Fresno, then for two seasons in Palo Alto. Brook has been the more prolific offensive player and an All-Star in 2013, while Robin has been content to focus on defense and rim protection.

Not that he’s a fanatic about it. After shooting only 20 3-point attempts in his first 10 seasons, Robin put up 31 a year ago as reports of Brook’s long-distance prowess filtered down to Chicago. And already this season, he has jacked up 23 from outside the arc, making (cough) five.

After games, they typically exit the locker room separately, though often dressed similarly in Star Wars or sports apparel and baseball caps. They’ll text each other after games now the same as they did when they played on opposite sides of the country -- in group chats with other friends. Even though they’re sitting maybe 25 feet apart.

“They’re different,” Thanasis said. “Yes, they are twins, but they’re unique in their own ways. They’re both energetic, but I would say Robin’s a little bit more. In general. Brook is really chill. But both of them, they like a lot of stuff I like, like Disney and comic books, different characters. They’re both amazing guys, man.”

THE ANTETOKOUNMPOS, BY CONTRAST, like to huddle. On buses, on planes, over lunch and like clockwork after games. Thanasis generally will roll his chair halfway across the room to sit next to his brother. Thanasis often is fully dressed by then, while Giannis still is wearing parts of his uniform, poking at his phone while icing his knees as well as a foot or ankle.

At 11-3, there haven’t been many nights of frustration for Giannis. But for someone as committed to continuous improvement as he’s said and shown, the 25-year-old three-time All-NBA performer always can find some nit to pick in his performance.

Thanasis’ desire to help him goes way back.

“I’m always protective, because I’m the older brother,” he said. “People are like ‘Why? He’s 6-10. He’s a big boy.’ I’m like, ‘No, no, no. That’s my little brother.’”

Thanasis played in two games for the Knicks in 2015-16, then went back to play in Europe over the past three seasons. He is a 6-foot-6 wing, most valued for his defense. And let’s be honest, the Bucks liked the idea of keeping their superstar focused and his family united. Their mother Veronica is in Milwaukee, as is youngest brother Alex, a 6-foot-7 high school senior at Dominican High. Kostas is in his second NBA season with the Lakers, after spending his rookie season in Dallas’ system.

“It’s been a blessing, just being able to talk to my brother,” Thanasis said. “Watching the way he works and he’s so positive about his work ethic. Not talking on the phone but seeing him every day. And for me, just being full-time with my family.”

The support runs in all directions. Last week, when Thanasis was farmed out to play a G League game with the Wisconsin Herd in Oshkosh, it didn’t matter that early winter had descended on the region. Giannis & Co. made the 160-mile roundtrip drive through icy, snowy conditions. Their guy scored 14 points in 26 minutes, but that didn’t matter either.

“What do I think? I would have done the same thing,” Thanasis said. “It’s not even for discussion. If he had been playing in Alaska, I’d have gone to Alaska to watch him play. Or Kostas or Alexis. If I could go, I’d go.”

This, after all, was the brother who accompanied a scared 18-year-old from Athens to New York in June 2013 for the NBA Draft. The guy who looked out for him, kept him company and waved that Greek flag at Barclays Center when his name was read (with a smile and careful enunciation by commissioner David Stern) as the No. 15 pick.

“Thanasis has supported me from Day One,” Giannis said. “When my brother is playing, I have to go support him. It was a long drive, I had to drive slow. When I came back, my back was hurting. But it was worth it to see Thansais and Dragan [Bender] play, and [two-way Bucks] Cam [Reynolds] and Frank [Mason III] and all those guys play.”

Giannis wouldn’t seem to need much advice, but he credits his across-the-board improvements (slight or sizable) to the sibling whispering in his ear.

“I’m definitely helping him, but I think he helps me more,” Giannis said. “He talks to me, tells me to be aggressive. He knows my game, what I can do and what I cannot do. He just gives me confidence. More defensively, but offensively, he’s always like, ‘Don’t stop! Keep going! Make sure you pull up. Keep working on your game.’ Hearing that from an older brother, it’s always good. But I’ve got to do the same.”

Said Korver: “That family is super tight. A lot of us come from close-knit families and the Antetokounmpos are one of them. When you ask him about different brothers, he lights up. He’s so excited for them and their basketball opportunities. It’s family first for them.”

Given their length, their talent and their dreams, the question hung in the air the other night after Milwaukee beat the Bulls at United Center: Does a team get bonus points in trying to sign him as a possible 2021 free agent based on how many of the brothers it employs?

Thanasis said the family just hopes to have as many of them playing professionally as they can. Still, Giannis’ take counts most on this one.

“All I can say to that is, I’ve played with my brothers before,” Giannis said. “One of our goals is to play on the national team at the same time. Like we did this summer, but Kostas didn’t make the final roster cut.

“Definitely I would love to play with my brothers. But in the NBA, I have to do my job and lock in.”

The Bucks are showing this season that it’s possible to do both.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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