Pat and Giannis

FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Bucks' workaholics

Shooting is the NBA’s most valuable skill, but the Bucks, who play Game 4 of the NBA Finals tonight, have long minutes for two players who aren’t elite: Pat Connaughton and Giannis Antetokounmpo. They succeed in different ways, but especially by being incredible athletes and—as it happens—workout partners.

In a 2019 TrueHoop series, we examined the mental approaches of elite athletes. Pat and Giannis came up. I visited them in the locker room after a big win over the 76ers:

“Some nuts stuff”

By the time the team hit the showers, there was a good feeling among the Bucks. Sure, the visitors’ locker room may have been a little threadbare, tattered carpets, nothing close to a window. The showers, around some steamy corner from where the team dressed, barely seemed to have lights at all. But this team had stared adversity in the face and come away with a mathematical lock on the best record in the NBA. Teams like that sometimes win titles.

If the NBA is a dreamland, to be in a room like this, feeling that, is awfully close to the dream. Close to a billion people watch, play, or follow basketball in some way around the globe. Fewer than 500 put on an NBA uniform in a typical season. You could say NBA players are one in a million, but by those rough numbers, it’s more like one in 2 million. About one in 325,000 Americans is a U.S. Senator. It would be a more realistic plan to be an astronaut or President.

The idea has long been that there is only one exception: to have a truly unusual (and especially: tall) body. In one study, roughly a fifth of the Americans who are seven-feet tall, and of appropriate age, are in the NBA at a given time.

Brook Lopez is seven feet tall and the Bucks’ starting center. As a tribute to the ways height trumps odds, not only did Lopez make the NBA, but his twin brother Robin did too. Brook emerges from the showers needing multiple towels to give his torso a little privacy.

Being seven feet tall isn’t the only way to make the league, though. Another, grittier way: have an outrageous capacity for work and for avoiding people, habits, and substances that keep you from that work. Some people have bodies that are NBA-perfect and minds that are good enough. Some people have minds that are perfect to get the most out of a body that’s good enough.

As he dressed, it was this latter category that Lopez discussed. Lopez knows a lot about what works in basketball. One of the best bodies in NBA history, Antetokounmpo’s, was only a few yards away. Lopez played with Kevin Garnett and Vince Carter, as well as for Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd. Everyone in the league has an astounding capacity for work.

But Lopez, like every elite athlete, was talking about that athlete. He has a teammate who, Lopez estimates, is “ALL ABOUT IT. Every day in the gym. If we’re on the road, in the hotel gym. He’s always there.”

“I’ve seen him do some crazy things that I absolutely can’t do with my body. … Acrobatic stuff, there’s strength. Yeah. There’s some nuts stuff.”

He shot a look down the row of lockers. Ten feet away, there was the guy, putting on his pants. “Pat.”

American Ninja Warrior

“Pat” is Pat Connaughton, the pride of Arlington, Massachusetts. He was never a sure thing, and might never be. A few years ago, Pat measured 6-foot-4 without shoes at the 2015 NBA draft combine. He’s listed an inch taller. The secret sauce for professional players that “small” is shooting ability, and here Connaughton is perhaps good enough but certainly not elite. (An uncharitable review of his position would be that he is a non-shooting shooting guard—historically a great recipe for a short career.)

Go down the list of 6-foot-4ish hopefuls at the combine with Connaughton, and you’ll see that as it is in the numbers, so it is in the stories: Almost nobody makes the NBA. His compatriots are now on teams like the Herd, Hustle, and the Blue in the G-League. Or they’re overseas at Dinamo Sassari, Telekom Baskets Bonn, or in the Turkish Basketbol Super Ligi.

Not long after that combine, Connaughton was drafted 41st overall and then played a grand total of 143 minutes all season for the Blazers. Both numbers are huge accomplishments, both numbers predict a career likely to end.

But Connaughton has been expecting and prepping for the challenge of keeping his NBA job since middle school. He works to keep his career every day, and as a result, that night in Philly he had just logged 31 minutes and 23 seconds for the best team in the NBA.

In researching this story, I asked some of the finest athletes on the planet, from basketball and beyond, about work ethic. A common question: How do you feel when you miss a workout because of, say, a long flight, a funeral, or whatever life throws at you? (That night, in a typical response by a fine athlete, I asked the same thing of the 76ers’ Mike Scott, who answered that if he misses a day he feels “sluggish.”)

Connaughton wouldn’t even let me finish the question.

“Doesn’t happen.”

This was a first. Wait, it never happens? Other than a few weeks of rest after the NBA season, Connaughton says he takes no days off. No questions asked?

“No questions asked. Prioritize. Make sure you handle your business.”

Harsh. Heroic. Bewildering. And what got him here.

Connaughton determined in eighth grade that he needed to dunk, to defeat stereotypes about unathletic white shooting guards. So he figured it out. In high school, he thought it would take special work to get a college scholarship, so he connected with a demanding trainer. He played for Notre Dame, he says, after high-school years dedicated in no small part to “jumping off the ground and doing 360 windmills and things like that, it changes people’s perception of you. And it kind of negates the whole stereotype.”

Lopez and Connaughton both struggle to describe specific Connaughton workouts. “In Milwaukee,” says Connaughton, “our weight room’s ... think of American Ninja Warrior. It’s set up for functional movements. Instead of doing chin-ups and pull-ups I try to do muscle-ups. All the way up.” He mentions something called a 90/90, then mentions “different things with chains on me.”

The process of making himself athletic enough for the NBA made him athletic enough for just about anything. As a baseball pitcher, he had a fastball in the mid-90s and was a fourth-round draft pick by the Baltimore Orioles who still hope Pat might resume playing baseball. I joke that he should go on the TV show American Ninja Warrior, and his curt reply that his GM might not like it makes me feel like he has considered it.  

There’s a shirtless Connaughton, in socks, chucking a football 80 yards. He swears it is real. (Here’s a recent article about the longest pass in NFL history, which traveled 68 yards in the air.)

Here’s what he says drives all that working out: “I gotta look myself in the mirror and be like: did I do everything I could today to help extend my NBA career, to help extend my professional sports career, to help make me the best version of myself that I can be? That’s what drives it, because at night when I lay there, if I hadn’t? Well, it’s tough to sleep.”

Wired differently

Research shows that obsessive work often comes with a social cost. Or, more accurately, most people don’t do that because it can be socially weird to be so all-in, all the time. People that dedicated to their work tend to invest less time and attention in friends, family, and other people generally. (Adam Silver recently told the story of an unnamed superstar saying he spent entire road trips alone in his hotel room.) Connaughton doesn’t have kids, for instance. Most dads miss a workout or two. Some of the best athletes head home early from, say, team-building dinners, because they’re worried about the next morning’s workout. I asked Lopez if Connaughton’s intensity was ever weird, and he said Pat had it down. “He gets it all in,” he says. “Team dinner, break bread, and then get his work in the next day, too.”

But everyone on the team also knows about Connaughton’s friendship with Giannis and the unique way it began when the Bucks signed their new shooting guard last summer. “I remember when I got here,” Connaughton mentions casually, “it was hey Giannis I can lift more than you. He was like no way, and then we started to go back and forth.”

Wait, that’s literally how their relationship began? With Pat straight up challenging a new coworker to a contest?

Connaughton couldn’t remember exactly the order of things, but maybe. “I don’t know if that’s the first way it started,” he says, but the rivalry “definitely started early.”

Giannis is fine with it, anyway, and later confirms Connaughton can outlift him, before adding “I’m going to get him in the summer.”

I laugh. This is not a normal way to make a new friend! Connaughton laughs too, but less than I do, and says, “Wired differently, I guess.”

Game 4 is tonight. Thank you for reading TrueHoop!