Last week, the Milwaukee Bucks, who finished with the best record in the NBA regular season, were eliminated from the playoffs by the Miami Heat, the 8th seed who barely snuck in. The Bucks’ star player, Giannis Antetokounmpo was asked following the game whether he viewed the season as a "failure." His refreshingly raw answer went instantly viral and was celebrated not only by secular media and sports fans but received a substantial amount of attention and promotion from frum Jews on social media and “Jewish influencers,” several of whom who labeled it “great mussar.” A rebbe in a yeshiva even played it for the boys in his shiur.
Giannis’ full answer to the reporter:
Do you get a promotion every year on your job? No, right? So, every year you work is a failure? Yes or no? No. Every year you work, you work toward something—toward a goal, right?— which is to get a promotion, to be able to take care of your family, to be able to … provide a house for them or take care of your parents. You work toward a goal. It’s not a failure. It’s steps to success. There’s always steps to it. Michael Jordan played 15 years. Won six championships. The other nine years was a failure? … Exactly, so why do you ask me that question. It’s the wrong question.
There’s no failure in sports. There’s good days, bad days, some days you are able to be successful, some days you are not, some days it is your turn, some days it’s not your turn. That’s what sports is about. You don’t always win. Some other group is gonna win and this year someone else is gonna win. Simple as that. We’re gonna come back next year and try to be better, try to build good habits, try to play better … and hopefully we can win a championship. So, 50 years from 1971 to 2021 [the Bucks] didn’t win a championship, it was 50 years of failure? No it was not. There were steps to it. And we were able to win one and hopefully we can win another one."
While I admire and appreciate Giannis’s sentiment and understand the power and attraction to his encouragement, I believe his failure to label his season a failure is more than semantics: it is significant, even damaging.
Failures needn’t define us. The most accomplished and greatest people of our sacred history were not perfect and not above failure. They became who they were because they learned how to fail forward, how to see the particular moment, event, decision or act as a failure while not seeing themselves as failures.
Nevertheless, failing forward begins by recognizing and admitting failure. Failures are steps to success only if we pause to honestly assess them as failures, address how they occurred, ask what we can learn from them, and determine how we can avoid them happening again. Failures generate success when we take responsibility for them, hold ourselves accountable for them, and use them to motivate ourselves.
When we whitewash them, downplay them, minimize them, fail to take responsibility for them, we cannot fix them or avoid them. Minimizing and diluting failures by refusing to acknowledge them and instead describing them as part of a process, as steps on a journey, constitutes a failure to be honest, accurate, or accountable.
To be clear, Giannis's life has been anything but a failure. He was born in Greece to Nigerian immigirants, overcame incredible obstacles including poverty, and against all odds, got drafted into the NBA at a young age. He doesn't only compete, he has emerged to be one of the best players in the NBA and someone described by his peers as a not only a great ball player, but a great person.
The question from the reporter wasn't, you were eliminated from the playoffs, is your life a failure. It was, you have been eliminated from the playoffs, would you call this season a failure. His comments are understandable taken in the greater context of his remarkable life story, but they are still wrong regarding the specific question about the season.
The Bucks had the best record in the NBA this season. When the playoffs started they were given the best odds to win the championship, and they were overwhelming favorites to beat the Heat. The city, owners and fans expected the team to do much more than have fun, do their best, and just win one game in the playoffs. The players, coaches and management were paid to win, to take home a championship, certainly to get past the first round. Anything short of these goals was, objectively, a failure.
Identifying something as a failure doesn’t mean beating ourselves up, being debilitated by guilt or shame, or staying stuck in the past. It means being honest with ourselves, taking ownership, and holding ourselves accountable.
Teshuva, repentance, repair, and reproach begin with Viduy, an admission of what went wrong and a declaration of a commitment to improve. Rav Soloveitchik said before we can approach the Mizbeiach, the place of forgiveness and growth, we must pass the kiyor, look in the copper base that is made of mirrors, stare into our reflection, and be honest with ourselves.
We live in a time where there is growing intolerance for pain, discomfort, or failure. Giving everyone a participation trophy can’t and won’t inoculate them from the harsh reality that life will teach them one way or another that in competition, there are winners and there are those crowned champions. There will come a time they may not get into the yeshiva or seminary they want, they may not get the job they want or the “other side” of a shidduch may say no. When we give all children a literal or metaphorical participation trophy, when we try to protect and save them from feelings of failure, pain, disappointment, we stifle their growth, squash their drive, and set them up for unrealistic expectations of how life and the real world will treat them.
The Gemara in Berachos and Bava Basra says “luchos v’shivrei luchos munachin ba’aron.” When Moshe came down from the mountain, saw the people worshipping the calf and smashed the luchos, the broken and shattered pieces were gathered, collected, and carefully placed in the Aron to sit beside the unbroken, complete, second set of tablets. The broken pieces are saved to remind us that our failures and mistakes are not to be discarded, eliminated, and forgotten from our memories. We can only succeed when we remember the broken experiences and use the lessons learned as springboards to success.
A healthier and more Torah-based approach to the question Giannis was posed might have sounded something like: “Yes, given our record, our talent, and our potential, being eliminated in the first round makes this season a failure. We are sorry to the fans and the owners, but we assure you, we won’t be defined by this loss or elimination. Life is a journey, it is made up of many seasons, and while they include failures, we are committed more than ever to learning what went wrong, to working harder than ever to improve, and we hope and plan to come back and succeed in our goal of bringing this city another championship.”
Giannis rhetorically asked if the nine seasons Michael Jordan didn’t win a championship were a failure. We don’t have to speculate how Jordan would answer. In a famous commercial from years ago, Jordan said the following monologue about his career: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner wrote a beautiful letter to a student who was very discouraged:
A failing many of us suffer from is that when we consider the aspects of perfection of our sages, we focus on the ultimate level of their attainments, while omitting mention of the inner struggles that had previously raged within them. A listener would get the impression that these individuals came out of the hand of their Creator in full-blown form. Everyone is awed at the purity of speech of the Chofetz Chaim, z.t.l., considering it a miraculous phenomenon. But who knows of the battles, struggles and obstacles, the slumps and regressions that the Chofetz Chaim encountered in his war with the yetzer hara (evil inclination)? There are many such examples, to which a discerning individual such as yourself can certainly apply the rule. The English expression, ‘Lose a battle and win a war’ applies. Certainly you have stumbled, and will stumble and in many battles you will fall lame. I promise you, though, that after those losing campaigns you will emerge from the war with the laurels of victory upon your head. Lose battles but win wars.
Several years ago, I had the privilege to interview Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l. I asked him:
When we look at your life and productivity, whether the trajectory of ascending to the chief rabbinate, publishing 30 books, 17 honorary degrees, being named a Lord, etc., it just seems that you have had success after success, triumph after triumph. Have you ever experienced failure? Have you ever had any challenges that you couldn’t overcome and what gave you the tenacity to persevere?
He was taken aback, even amused by my question, and this was his response:
Ha! Have I ever experienced failure?! My goodness me! Oooh! [Laughter.] I nearly failed my first year in university. I nearly failed my second year in university. I was turned down for virtually every job that I applied for. Since I was a kid, I wanted to write a book. I started when I was 20 and I gave it every minute of spare time that I had. Even when Elaine and I went to a concert I would be writing notes during intervals or between movements during a symphony. Yet, I failed for 20 years! From 20 to 40 I had a whole huge file cabinet of books I started and never finished.
What changed is I happened to be reading the preface to “Plays Unpleasant” by George Bernard Shaw. It opens by saying that if you’re going to write a book, write it by the time you’re 40 or forget it. I thought it was Min Hashamayim. Someone is telling me something because I had no idea why I happened to read that passage by that writer at that time. I thought to myself that it was my last chance. So, I wrote my first book at 40 and then I wrote a book a year ever since.
Winston Churchill put it beautifully: “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” The secret was marrying someone who believes in you and then to just keep going. Never stop! All of the things that came much later, most of them unexpected – very moving but not the ikkar – it’s just “keeping on going” day after day.
That wonderful Medrash in hakdama of Ein Yaakov asks what is the main pasuk in the Torah? One [Tanna] said that it’s loving your fellow man, ואהבת לרעך כמוך. A second said שמע ישראל, it’s about accepting the yoke of Heaven. Then, Ben Pazzi says את הכבש אחד תעשה בבקר... bringing the daily sacrifice in the morning and in the evening. It’s about Shacharis, Mincha, Maariv. That’s life! You keep hammering away and eventually you’ll get there.
The only thing that is absolutely necessary is that you have to key into your mental satellite navigation system, your destination. Because if you don’t know where you’re trying to get to, you’ll never get there. I knew I wanted to write a book. It took 20 years of failure until I finally succeeded in the twenty-first year.
It is not a failure to acknowledge, recognize, and call out failure by its name. Giannis is objectively wrong: there are failures in sports, just like there are failures in life. Not all failures are bad, and we shouldn’t be afraid to experience them or to name them. On the contrary, by properly naming them, owning them, and learning from them, we can use them to propel ourselves to greater successes than we ever thought possible.