What Motivates Middleton

The Milwaukee Bucks small forward explains what led him to the sport, his family’s impact, his charitable work and more.

BY NICOLE KIEFERT  |  PHOTOS BY GARY DINEEN

Milwaukee Bucks shooting guard and small forward Khris Middleton has worked long and hard to be where he is today: successful NBA star who joined teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo at last month’s All-Star game; one of just three Milwaukee Bucks in history who have made it to the Mountain Dew Three-Point Contest multiple times; award-winning philanthropist and all around kindhearted, humble man. The Milwaukee transplant credits his successes to his family members and their sound and practical advice, as well as his own persistence.

“[My biggest motivator] is definitely my family,” says Middleton. “They’ve been with me every step of the way. … They’re always a phone call away or a flight away.”

Middleton started playing sports at a young age, showing interest in several until his parents advised him to narrow his focus to two. Middleton found the decision easy, and it launched him on his path to success.

“I basically started playing [basketball] since I can remember,” the 6-foot-8-inch star reminisces. “My dad introduced me to the game. So the two sports I chose were basketball and baseball. I wanted to play football, but my mom wouldn’t let me.”

Middleton sidestepped football at his worried mother’s request, and focused on basketball and baseball, eventually keeping his attention on basketball alone. From there it was a matter of working hard and persevering through each step of the process, and, he says, maintaining confidence and a positive attitude.

“I always dreamed about [becoming a professional in the NBA], but I think my mom and dad [stressed that] it’s the work ethic,” Middleton says. “You have to work for it; it’s not going to be given to you. That’s one thing I’ve always envisioned. So it was a step-by-step process. ‘OK, now you’ve gotta make the V team in middle school, [then] try to make the JV team, the varsity team and then cross your fingers to get a scholarship, and then once you get to college you never know what’s going to happen. So it was just a step-by-step process where I just went in to work my way up.”

After high school, Middleton turned his eye toward the pros, signing with Texas A&M in 2008. In 2012, he was the 39th overall pick in the NBA draft, signing his rookie scale contract with the Detroit Pistons. In July of 2013 he was traded to the Bucks, where he has played proudly ever since.

Of course, there have been a few bumps in the road. A leg injury nearly ended his season in his freshman year of college. A hamstring injury in 2016 required surgery that benched him for six months, and a quad injury sidelined him for a few weeks in late 2018. But Middleton never lost his confidence and composure.

“[My parents] instilled that ‘never quit’ attitude with us and that you’re gonna go through obstacles in life,” he explains. “[They] said, ‘It’s up to you to either let it get to you or overcome them.’ That was a big message that we’ve always gotten, and I’ve carried it with me to this day. So it was all about just knocking out barriers or getting over the obstacle. ...You’re either going to quit just because you got hurt and take the easy way out, or you can fight against it.”

Middleton patiently waited for his injuries to heal, diligently following doctor’s instructions and completing extensive rehab, then bounced back better than ever at the end of 2018, earning a spot in the 2019 All-Star game and heading back for a second time to the Mountain Dew Three-Point Contest. Relaxing after practice on a chilly February day, Middleton says he’s incredibly proud of how far he’s come, especially considering how hard he’s worked to continuously prove himself.

“When I was first training here I was kind of an afterthought,” he recalls, “but I worked my way up into making the roster and then making the team and then the rotation and finally getting to start. It’s been a grind, I will say, but it’s been a great grind. That’s what makes making the All-Star game — by being the No. 1 [team] in the [Eastern conference] and having the potential to be a championship-caliber team. We’re special in that we literally started from the bottom and climbed our way up and built this thing up to something special.”

About to step onto the court for a game when he heard of his All-Star game selection, Middleton admits that he didn’t have time to process it.

“[But] after talking to my family and friends, and just how much work I put in — you know, a lot of people didn’t expect me to be where I’m at today, being the second-round pick or not getting really recruited out of high school and now being this superstar, [and] to actually make an All-Star game, or roster after all that — it means the world,” he beams.

Despite trade rumors swirling around the hot commodity, Middleton says he’s enjoying his time with the Bucks, both his teammates and coaching staff, and has no immediate plans to leave Milwaukee or the team any time soon.

“When you’re on a winning team, there’s no reason to really change unless the guys upstairs [say so],” Middleton reflects. “So as long as they’ll have me here, I’d be [happy]to stay here, but it’s always gotta be the right situation for me and my family. … Right now it’s been perfect for [me], so, hopefully it can stay that way.”

In addition to his accomplishments on the court, Middleton added another treasured accolade to his resume when he was named NBA Cares Community Assist Award recipient. This past holiday season, Middleton hosted the 12 Days of Khrismas, performing a dozen different acts of service with deserving residents and community organizations “I’ve always wanted to do something special for Christmas,” he says, smiling. “In the past couple of years, I’ve always done something small with a couple of different departments, but this year I wanted to do something bigger and special. … The 12 Days of Khrismas was something where we felt like it would be big and we could touch a little bit of everything in Milwaukee and in Louisiana and South Carolina, the states I grew up in.”

The 27-year-old star hosted a range of activities, from classroom makeovers at the Milwaukee Environmental Sciences Academy to donating moving supplies to a small business, and to giving gift bags to teachers at Hawthorne Elementary School and much more. Middleton has also spent the last five years working with the Boys & Girls Club of America, both in Milwaukee and back home in South Carolina, and stresses how important it is to give back to your community whenever you’re able.

“I’m just blessed enough to be in the position I am — to make a lot of money, to play the game that I love,” Middleton says. “I also know the other side of things, of how things could be and what other people are going through. And I just want to reach out to people. I’m here to help. I’m a regular person. You can talk to me. Like I said, a lot of people are going through tough times, and we go through tough times as athletes too. I want people to realize that we’re normal folk too.”

When he’s not on the court, Middleton confesses that he’s a devout homebody and enjoys his downtime, making time to visit his family, spending time with friends, and golfing in the off season when the weather allows.

“I do play a little golf,” he says. “I’m terrible at it, but I love playing — during the summertime only, though. Some friends like to try to golf too, so we just go out there to have a good time.”

And if he weren’t playing in the NBA? Well, that’s an idea that Middleton has never entertained.

Though he lists coaching as an option, he admits, “I get scared when people ask me that question, because I have no idea. I’ve had a basketball in my hand since I can remember!” MKE

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