The thing about fairy tales, of course, is their audacity, their stretching of reality. And, indeed, NBA championships are the stuff of fairy tales. So very much has to go right for them to occur that it’s hard to keep track of it all.
Think of everything that had to fall into place for Giannis Antetokounmpo to be on that stage Tuesday night, cradling the Larry O’Brien Trophy and the Bill Russell Finals MVP Award like they were Gatorade bottles in his hands, after going for 50 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks in the Bucks’ 105-98 win over the Phoenix Suns to secure the franchise’s first title in 50 years.
First, he had to somehow first navigate a life in which he and his brothers were on the streets of Athens, Greece, unseen and uncared about by many of his fellow Athenians because his family was of Nigerian descent. Think of their fight, over years, simply to be recognized as Greek citizens. Then he had to take up and master enough basketball as a teenage boy that he could be drafted in the first round in 2013 by a team in a midwestern city in the United States whose citizens couldn’t pronounce his name.
“My mom was selling stuff in the street,” he said after dropping that 50 piece. “And now, I’m here sitting at the top of the top. And I’m extremely blessed. I’m extremely blessed. If I never have a chance to sit at this table ever again, I’m fine with it. But, like, I hope this can give everyone around the world hope, and allow them to believe in their dreams.”
Then he had to endure the slow grind of building aAn NBA body before he could even attempt to get real time on the court. After which came the development of each skill, step by step becoming a valuable asset in the league. Ultimately working his way to league MVP, and a top 5 NBA player.
But with that rise to fame came failures on the biggest stages. What followed was critics in the media, waiting on his down fall after helping build up the superstar.
It had been a long journey to the top for Antetokounmpo, and as the clock ran out, his emotions took over.
When it was all done, finally, he could claim his place among royalty.
Giannis Antetokounmpo took a seat on the baseline, soaking in the moment.
No more shots to swat from their orbit.
No more free throws to steer with heightened resolve.
No more fouls to overpower.
No more all-out sprints up the court, fueled by an appetite riches couldn’t satiate.
When the clock struck zero in Game 6, and the Milwaukee Bucks were NBA champions, a 14-year-old’s dream graduated to a 26-year-old’s feat.
Fifty points in an elimination game.
Fifty years after Kareem delivered.
Questions about his game have been eradicated.
Slights that long followed him now have the ultimate rebuttal.
His performance in the Finals places him in a private club of elitism.
Jordan. Duncan. LeBron. Shaq. Hakeem.
In his first NBA Finals, Antetokounmpo delivered more than anyone could have ever expected.
In Game 6, with the Bucks one win away from securing an NBA title, Antetokounmpo played a game for the ages and put up 50 points, 14 rebounds, two assists and five blocks in 42 minutes. The rest of the Bucks struggled offensively in Game 6, but it didn’t matter; Antetokounmpo took over in the second half, scoring 33 points on 10-of-15 shooting while going a scorching 12 of 13 from the free-throw line.
With his Game 6 performance, Antetokounmpo became the first player in NBA Finals history to put up at least 40 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a single game. He also joined Shaquille O’Neal as just the second player in NBA history to put together three games with at least 40 points and 10 rebounds in a single NBA Finals. He was the clear and deserving choice for 2021 NBA Finals MVP, averaging 35.2 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.8 blocks over the Finals.
“It’s easy to go somewhere and go win a championship with somebody else. It’s easy. I could go — I don’t put — I could go to a super team and just do my part and win a championship. But this is the hard way to do it and this is the way to do it and we did it. Fuckin’ did it. We did it, man.”- Giannis Antetokounmpo after the game 6 win.
The Bucks won just 15 games in Antetokounmpo’s first season, but the team’s struggles allowed then-head coach Larry Drew to play Antetokounmpo more than most anyone expected before the season and Antetokounmpo did not disappoint.
Despite playing only five minutes, Antetokounmpo managed to score his first NBA points in the first quarter of his first NBA game. He did so at Madison Square Garden, the NBA’s grandest regular-season stage, by getting fouled on a fastbreak, the portion of the game he would weaponize like few before him, on a pass from Khris Middleton, who would be his teammate for the next eight seasons, with Mike Breen, who called each of his spectacular 2021 NBA Finals moments, on the telecast.
For the next four seasons under Kidd, Bucks fans watched as Antetokounmpo grew from a lanky question mark to one of the game’s most dominant forces.
The debate over how much credit Kidd deserves for the transformation will continue as long as Kidd continues forward as an NBA coach, but the results were undeniable. Antetokounmpo became a solid rotation player during his sophomore campaign and then exploded into stardom after the All-Star break in his third season when Kidd turned him loose as the Bucks’ point guard. Antetokounmpo averaged 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game in the season’s final 28 games and then signed a four-year, $100 million extension to remain in Milwaukee.
Antetokounmpo’s time at point guard set the stage for Antetokounmpo’s first All-Star appearance and All-NBA nod in the 2016-17 season, his fourth in the NBA. Antetokounmpo led the Bucks in all five major statistical categories — 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.6 steals per game — that season on his way to second-team All-NBA honors.
With each passing season the Greek Freak got better and better. It didn’t come without failures and trials and tribulations, but at the end of each year you were left thinking he is coming for the throne.
I'll never leave the team and the city of Milwaukee till we build the team to a championship level team..
— Giannis Ugo Antetokounmpo (@Giannis_An34) July 17, 2014
The plot in the middle, or the journey, is one that goes hundreds of layers deep. Peaks and valleys which build character, which translates into a story.
But it is very seldom that those stories have fairytale endings like The Greek Freak’s did.
There are also many themes and morals you can dissect from the storybook ending of Giannis holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The foreign born living the American dream. From rags to riches. But the one which may hold the most weight across NBA circles is this: winning the “hard way” seems to be 100x more satisfying.
Giannis and the Bucks are being unanimously celebrated because they in fact did it the hard way. The Bucks found a diamond in the rough with Giannis in Greece. But did they really? He was such a raw talent that there was a better chance of him being out of the league than becoming league MVP.
Khris Middleton was a presumed after thought for most of his early career. But they stuck with him and have reaped the rewards of watching him grow into one of the best late game closers in the league.
Going all in on a security blanket in Jrue Holiday, at the right time to please your franchise player, signals the Bucks played the right cards at the right time.
The Bucks rise to the top is much like the Golden State Warriors, pre Kevin Durant. They found an unlikely superstar. Kept a core of players. Then went out and secured that missing piece (Jrue Holiday for the Bucks, Iguodala for the Warriors.)
Will they have the same destiny as the Warriors did? 5 straight finals appearances, 4 rings? No probably not considering they’re not a super team. But the window for championship runs will be open as long as Antetokounmpo resides in Milwaukee.
Right now the story of the Greek Freak could be finished and written off as a fairytale ending and be made into a movie. But for Antetokounmpo and the Bucks this may just be the midway point to an impending dynasty.
Only time will tell how this books finishes, but volume 1 was compete with the taste of victory and champagne.