Merci, GOAT

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Frank Ntilikina, Point Guard / New York Knicks - The Players' Tribune

Michael Jordan told me the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard.

I had no idea I was even going to meet him. I was nobody. Well, not a nobody. Like, how you say … J’étais juste un mec normal. Just a normal dude. Sixteen years old. Skinny basketball player from Strasbourg, France. I got invited to come over and play in the Jordan Brand Classic.

It was my first time in America, and my idea of New York City was from like hip-hop videos and the TV show FRIENDS. My brothers used to watch that show all the time. Joey. Monica. Chandler (Chand-leur). Sitting in the big coffee shop. I always loved the idea of America.

I remember we landed at JFK and we were driving into Manhattan — and maybe this is going to sound stupid — but I thought it was so cool seeing all the yellow taxis on the highway. Our taxis aren’t yellow in France. Yellow taxis with the black letters — that’s America to me. Then I saw the skyscrapers way, way, way in the distance, and it was like, Wow. I’m really here. I am really touching my dream.

I knew it was called the Jordan Brand Classic, but in my head, I never thought we would actually see Jordan. That’s like saying you’re going to church and you’re gonna see God, you know? It’s Jordan.

So we arrive at the arena in Brooklyn and there are a bunch of players there. We’re doing some stuff, and then somebody takes us all into a little room. We’re in there waiting for maybe five minutes, and nobody knows what’s going on. Maybe the media wants to talk to us or something? We’re waiting, waiting….

And then Michael Jordan walks in.

The GOAT.

He’s right there.

I’m like….

Can I curse in Players’ Tribune?

I’m like, Oh s***. MJ.

It’s funny but my first thought was, Oh my God. He changed.

I didn’t think of him as an older guy, you know what I mean? I knew young MJ from YouTube. So he starts talking to all the players, saying, “Welcome to New York,” and everything. And then he goes around the room, shaking some of the guys’ hands. And I’m like, O.K., you have to ask him a question. You have one chance at this.

But I’m so shy. No — more than shy. What’s the word in English? I’m pétrifé. I was shaking a little bit, and I had a little voice.

So I said, “Hello, Michael. Can I ask you, what is the key to all your success?”

MJ looks at me. He takes a second.

I thought for sure he was going to say what everybody says to me when I ask the question. They all say something about hard work. It’s MJ. He’s going to tell me to work harder than everybody, 100%.

But he doesn’t say that. He says something really surprising. I thought about it all day. I thought about it all week. I still think about it.

You know what he said?

You have to wait!

If I tell you now, you just click off the page. You go back to Instagram or whatever. I know how this works. I would do the same thing. But you have to hear some more stuff first before you understand why MJ’s answer was so amazing to me. It’s not gonna make sense if I don’t tell you about Rwanda, and NBA 2K, and some other stuff.

The NBA was my dream. Always. My dream. My family came to Europe from Rwanda during the war. My mom escaped with my two older brothers, Brice and Yves, before I was even born. They went to Belgium first, and I was born there and then we moved to France when I was young. For a long time, I didn’t know anything about what my family had gone through in the war. In my head, I was just a French kid. I loved playing video games and I loved basketball. My brothers would take me to the court to play one-on-one, and they would beat my ass. Then we would come back home and play NBA 2K. And at least on the video game sometimes I would beat their ass.

The whole time, we would be talking trash. I just loved basketball. I don’t know why, I just loved it. I would always want to stay up all night and watch the NBA games on TV with my brothers, but my mom would tell me no. She was a nurse, and she worked like crazy. She had two different spots that she would go to work, and so when she came home she would basically cook for us and then go to bed. When she was sleeping, you didn’t mess with her. So I remember during the 2007 NBA Finals, I was eight years old and I wanted to stay up and watch so bad. It was LeBron’s first Finals, against Tony Parker and the Spurs. I had to watch. I begged my mom. She said no way.

I went to bed, but I knew my brothers were out in the living room watching it, so I couldn’t fall asleep. I kept coming out of my room very sad, begging them. They said, “No, go to sleep!” I’m begging, begging. After so much begging, they got so annoyed with me that they said, “O.K., you can watch, but shut up. Ne fais pas de bruit!”

We couldn’t wake up Mom. So we watched the whole game with the volume really low, not making a sound. Tim Duncan would do something amazing and we would be going crazy … but in silence. You know, waving our arms around, grabbing each other, like DID YOU SEE THAT? But real quiet.

It is a great memory for me. I knew even when I was eight years old that I wanted to play in the NBA some day. My brothers were really supportive of that dream, even in a way that might seem funny if you don’t understand them. Like when we went to the court — when I say they were beating my ass, I really mean beating my ass. I was eight! But no mercy. Blocking me, swatting the ball into the air like Dwight Howard. They were like, “O.K., if you want to make it, you have to work on this move, you have to play this way, you have to be tough.”

They were my brothers. I thought they were so cool. But I had no idea how hard they were working. One day, I will never forget, I wanted to play NBA 2K. So I went to Brice’s room, and his door was closed. I open the door, and I say, “Come on, let’s play.”

He says, “No, I can’t. I’m studying.”

I’m sad. I go to my other brother’s room, and he says the same thing.

I’m like, What’s going on? These guys are crazy. It’s 2K time.

I was lonely! So I went out and played basketball at the court. I came back hours later and their doors were still shut. I open the door to Yves’s room.

He’s like, “Still studying.”

So I say, “What do you mean? What are you studying so hard for?”

He says, “Medical school.”

I’m like, Medical school? My brother?

 

They stayed in their rooms all night. They only came out for dinner. And I remember eating with them and my mom, and everyone was so tired. And I was like … O.K., I get it. This is how you have to work.

What I didn’t understand was where the spirit was coming from. I knew that they had come from Rwanda and that they wanted a better life, but every time I asked my brothers about Rwanda, they would say, “You don’t want to know. Just forget it.”

I knew there were some books on Rwanda and the war on my stepfather’s bookshelf. So one day I snuck in there and opened up this big book. I didn’t really understand all the words, but I saw all these photos from the war….

Dead bodies all over the ground. Not soldiers. Women and children.

And that’s all I had to see. I closed the book and put it back.

And I was just thinking, Oh, my God. My mom and brothers were there? They really lived through this?

I didn’t tell anybody about the book. I pretended I never knew about it. But when I saw that one photo, I really started to understand why everybody in my family was working so hard. I tried to do the same thing, but just with basketball. When I got to be 12 years old, I went to a school that specialized in basketball and they start telling you about the professional teams in France, and what it takes to make it to that level.

So I’m like, O.K., that’s the first goal.

When I was 15, I signed with SIG Strasbourg’s youth academy, and I started playing for the professional club pretty quickly after that. Then at 16 and 17 I got to go play overseas in the FIBA under-18 tournament and the Jordan Classic and I even got to go to Toronto for Basketball Without Borders. I was making a good salary — not crazy money but enough to not worry. And so I told my mom to relax. I said, “You have to stop working two jobs. You need to chill a little bit.”

And I’ll never forget what she told me.

She said, “I will stop when all my children reach their dreams.”

I said, “Mom, Yves is a surgeon. Brice is a physical therapist. I’m a professional player. We’re good.”

She said, “This is not your dream. Your dream is to play in the NBA. I’ll relax when you reach your dream.”

So now we get to my favorite part of the story. Not MJ. Not yet.

Now we get to the 2017 NBA Draft in Brooklyn. It was so crazy because the night before the draft, my team was playing in Game 4 of the French League finals! I didn’t want to let my team down, but I didn’t want to miss out on the best moment of my life. So I got on a plane after the game with my family and we flew from Paris to New York. It was the same thing as three years before. Landed at JFK. Saw all the yellow taxis. Saw the skyscrapers. But now I’m about to be drafted into the NBA. It was crazy.

I had no idea where I was gonna go. I saw on Twitter that the Knicks were interested in me, but I knew it was me and a few others guys they liked. And I didn’t want to put anything into my head, you know? I didn’t want to be disappointed. So when we got to the greenroom, I told my agent, “Whatever happens, do not tell me! I know that one guy is going to be breaking the news on Twitter, and I don’t want to ruin the moment. Just let me hear it from the commissioner.”

My agent is like, “Come on.”

I say, “No! Seriously, don’t tell me.”

The draft starts, and Adam Silver comes up to the podium and it was like … how can I describe the feeling?

It’s like … when I was 13 years old, I was watching the 2012 NBA draft on TV at home and whenever Anthony Davis got picked, I took a photo and posted on my Instagram, “Where dreams are made.”

And now I’m sitting there for real. My brothers were laughing at me, because I was so tight. I was not chill at all.

My agent had this little notebook. Right before Adam Silver would go to the podium to announce a pick, my agent would get some news from his phone and he would cross a name off in his book.

Pick 1. I see him cross a name off. It’s Fultz.

Pick 2. I see him cross a name off. It’s Lonzo.

I’m trying not to look at him, but I’m looking out of the corner of my eye because I can’t help it.

Pick 3. Crosses a name off. Pick 4, 5, 6….

Minnesota was at 7. They traded the pick to Chicago. He crosses a name off. They pick Lauri.

The Knicks are up next.

My eyes are going back and forth. I’m trying not to look over.

All of a sudden, I see him cross a name off … and he shuts the book.

I’m like … !!!

I had my phone in my pocket. Didn’t want to look. All of a sudden, my phone is blowing up with text messages. It’s shaking in my pocket.

I’m like … !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I’m looking straight ahead, and I’m telling my family, “Shut up! Don’t say anything!”

Adam Silver comes to the podium.

“With the eighth pick in the 2017 NBA draft, the New York Knicks select … FRANK….”

I was good until I got backstage with my family. Then I cried.

We had to get back on the plane to France that night so I could play in the finals, and when we were in the air, I said to my mom, “O.K., all your sons have reached their dreams. Now you can relax.”

She said, “O.K., now I can relax.”

I can’t relax. My dream is beginning now. I get to play basketball in the greatest city in the world.

So now I will tell you what MJ told me when I was 16.

I said, “Hello, Michael. Can I ask you, what is the key to all your success?”

He thought about it. Then he said, “What you have to do is love basketball. You can’t be great unless you really love the game. Once you love basketball more than anyone else in the world, then you’re willing to sacrifice. You’re willing to wake up early. You’re willing to do what it takes to be the best. But first, you have to really love it.”

It sounds simple, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense in my life. A lot of people are asking, “How good do you think you can be? What is your ceiling?” I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the NBA. But I do know that I really love the game more than anything.

So there you have it — this is why he is the legend. I have been thinking about what he said for the past three years.

Thank you for your advice, Mr. Jordan.

Merci, GOAT.

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