STURTEVANT, Wis. — Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks chose to recover from the end of their 18-game winning streak at a medium-security Wisconsin state prison.
Two days before an anticipated showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night, the team was scheduled for a “player individual day” on Tuesday — usually used for individuals to get extra training or medical treatment. Instead, the players opted to hear stories from inmates at the Racine Correctional Institution.
“I wasn’t seeing guys that made mistakes,” Antetokounmpo said. “I was just seeing humans, humans that were laughing, that were trying hard, humans that shared their stories. That really touched me and I realized sometimes we take things for granted. That’s not going to happen again.”
Antetokounmpo, his older brother, Thanasis, and other Milwaukee teammates Sterling Brown, Kyle Korver, George Hill, Pat Connaughton and D.J. Wilson traveled about 30 miles south of Milwaukee to the prison to take part in the “Play for Justice” initiative, which brings together NBA teams and inmates at correctional facilities across the country.
The event, organized by Represent Justice, One Community and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, sets out to break down stigmas associated with individuals — disproportionately people of color and the poor — who are impacted by the criminal justice system. The event was launched alongside the upcoming film, “Just Mercy,” about a wrongfully convicted black man on death row in Alabama.
The Sacramento Kings held the first “Play for Justice” event last week at Folsom State Prison in California.
Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer, some of his assistants and former NBA player Caron Butler — born in Racine — also attended as some of the more than 1,600 incarcerated men shared stories of crimes and mistakes that changed their lives.
“Whenever you’re around anything that’s powerful, that’s bigger than you, that makes you think about how do we make a difference in life and other people’s lives, and makes you think about other people, I think it makes our team think about their teammates or how they could be doing something maybe better for each other and be more empathetic toward each other,” Budenholzer said.
Each player also shared stories of their respective journeys, recalling childhoods in broken homes or impoverished environments. Brown has a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Milwaukee Police Department and the city that stems from a January 2018 incident where a group of officers took him to the ground, tasered and arrested him after a parking violation at a Walgreens. The incident prompted an internal investigation that ended with several officers suspended and others retrained. Brown, who was not charged in the incident, opened up about that night and his mission going forward.
“I’m not doing it for myself,” he said. “I’m being that voice for those that don’t have a platform.”
The 25-year-old Antetokounmpo said he didn’t always make the best decisions while growing up in Greece. He said his family, specifically his father Charles, helped him straighten out his life. Charles died of a heart attack at 54 in 2017.
Antetokounmpo said he spoke with his family after the visit and told them it was an eye-opening experience.
“It’s crazy how many things you take for granted,” he said. “Obviously, they made mistakes. But at the end of the day, you have to realize they’re human.”
Budenholzer, Bucks front office personnel, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes played a game of basketball alongside some of the inmates. Antetokounmpo and his teammates served as honorary coaches. The Milwaukee players laughed and cheered with each possession. Antetokounmpo even took jabs at Budenholzer for his lack of effort on defense.
“He made a big 3 and gave us a lot of momentum,” Antetokounmpo said. “So I was happy with him and kept him in the game for like 25 more seconds because I realized defensively he wasn’t that good.”
The Bucks return to the court Thursday against the Lakers in a contest between teams tied for the NBA’s best record. It will be Antetokounmpo against LeBron James — and possibly a preview of the NBA Finals.
With all of that looming, the Bucks thought getting out of the training facility would be the best way to prepare.
“It’s means a lot,” Antetokounmpo said. “Just seeing one another off the court, especially when you go and do something for a good purpose and try to change people’s lives, it’s always good. That definitely brings the team together. And when you have each other’s backs off the court, you have each other’s backs on the court. It’s a lot easier.”