‘It was a dream come true’: Former BYU star Elijah Bryant describes improbable road to NBA championship
For the first time since 1986, a former BYU player has won an NBA championship
When the Milwaukee Bucks captured the 2021 National Basketball Association title last month, it marked the first time in 35 years that a former BYU player could call himself an NBA champion.
But Bryant’s road to that championship wasn’t easy. He started the season in Israel, playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv before being part of the Bucks’ playoff run.
“It just worked out. My team, Maccabi, allowed me to fulfill a lifelong dream,” Bryant said. “We won a championship, so it was a dream come true.”
Bryant and his wife, and their 1-year-old son, Blu, made the move to Milwaukee, and when the season concluded, they returned to Utah for a brief respite.
“It’s been nice to settle down and spend time with my family,” Bryant said. “I left for Israel on Aug. 26 last year. It’s been almost a full year of playing basketball. I’m mentally taking a break from the game.”
But Bryant won’t be resting for long. He’s returning to Milwaukee before joining the Bucks’ Summer League team in Las Vegas.
The Deseret News caught up with Bryant to ask him about his improbable campaign with Milwaukee.
Deseret News: How would you describe what this season was like, going from Israel to Milwaukee?
Elijah Bryant: It’s been a whirlwind. That’s what I signed up for when I left BYU. Being a professional athlete, you live out of a suitcase. It’s a blessing. You get to play a sport you love for a living, but at any time, you could be called to a different place. If you really show gratitude, it all becomes a blessing. But don’t get me wrong, it’s been a lot, moving my family from Israel to Milwaukee.
DN: What is it about Milwaukee franchise that makes it special?
EB: If I could sum up the franchise in one word, it would be humility. The overarching theme is humility, and that starts with the front office and players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, the owners. When there’s that sense of humility built into the culture, it allows everyone to be comfortable in their role, whatever that role is. Not a lot of egos. A lot of humility that allows everyone to thrive.
DN: What was your role with the Bucks this season?
EB: My role is to be an everyday guy and try to get better and help the team win. Coming in late in the season, things are solidified. I was there for insurance, in terms of injuries. I definitely can help the team with positive energy and help guys out. When you know that, you’re going to have your opportunity at some point. You never want to be that guy that’s only happy when he’s scoring or only happy when it’s going his way. For me, coming in this year, a big aspect was to learn the system so I can give myself a chance next year.
DN: You’re the first BYU alum to play in the NBA finals since Danny Ainge did it with the Phoenix Suns in 1993. What does that mean to you?
EB: It still hasn’t sunk in because I have so much going on. It’s definitely special. I felt emotion at the end of the (final game) just because as a kid, you dream of this type of stuff. I kind of tried to catch myself — why am I emotional? I didn’t play. But then I realized every single guy on both teams, and coaches, sacrificed so much to be in that position. Whether or not you played, you deserve to be there.
DN: Has your life changed since becoming an NBA champ?
EB: Not really. I’ve always been a humble guy, regardless of what I have or where I’m playing or what I’ve accomplished. I’m the same guy, still trying to learn every day. Yeah, I won an NBA championship, but I have a lot of learning to do and a lot to accomplish in my career personally. For me, it’s opened some doors off the court. I’m so focused on getting better. You always want more.
DN: What’s your relationship like with your Bucks teammate Sam Merrill, who you played against when he was at Utah State?
EB: He was definitely a blessing in my life, being a fellow member of (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). I played against him in college. I didn’t know him too much before, but he helped me transition into the NBA with plays and stuff like that. It’s kind of cool to see two LDS guys win an NBA championship.
DN: You worked with Dr. Craig Manning (who is a mental strength coach at BYU, and also works for the Bucks) when you were in Provo. What has his influence been on you and the Milwaukee franchise?
EB: For me, he’s been a big part of my success. I’ve been working with him for six years, starting at BYU. When I was in Israel, I called him once a week. ... People don’t realize how much pressure and doubt. … A lot of people like me work out physically, but you have to mentally work out, too. A lot of the traits that he’s taught me over the years has helped me a lot. Being around the team and seeing how they operate, I can definitely tell Craig has had an influence on the organization.
DN: During the NBA finals, Giannis Antetokounmpo talked about the importance of humility and staying in the moment. How much of that comes from Dr. Manning’s philosophy?
EB: I can’t speak for Giannis, but I had a conversation after I saw that and I told Dr. Manning that, “If I didn’t know you were working with the team, I would know.” I could tell from Giannis’ responses that he’s been trained the same way I have — in terms of humility and focusing on the moment. He’s definitely played a big role in developing the culture around the organization.
DN: How would you put in perspective all you’ve been through, particularly during the pandemic?
EB: Life is about trials and tribulations. We’re here to go through trials, and I hate trials so much, but it’s so cool at the same time because you know you’re about to level up. Something good is about to happen. A year ago, I wasn’t in the best mental mindset being stuck in a room in Israel, but when I look back and take a mental snapshot of what I went through, I see the bigger picture. It’s always hard to see the bigger picture, but it’s a great testimony-builder to look back. I’m big on journaling. That’s something Craig’s taught me, so you can remember those moments when you’re going through trials. Faith, for me, is something that’s helped me a lot. It’s not easy. There are definitely times when I’m doubtful and fearful, but practicing those daily habits of journaling and being in the moment has helped a lot.
DN: What did you do to celebrate the title with your family?
EB: The game was late. The family was in the locker room. My in-laws were there; my mom was there. We celebrated and took pictures with the trophy. We went home and talked. We reminisced about the journey. The journey is where it all happens. I reminisced on all the times in Israel when I believed, they believed, but nobody else believed. Everyone else thought I shouldn’t have left (BYU) early. It’s a time to reminisce and be grateful for this time and cherish the moment.
DN: How would you evaluate your future at this point?
EB: I can play in the NBA. Now it’s about finding a role. A lot of guys can make it to the NBA but the next step is finding a meaningful role, where I can help the team win. That’s my focus — do everything possible to help Milwaukee win and be a great teammate.