It was a private moment among a celebratory crowd. Antetokounmpo slouched in a chair and started crying. He placed a white towel over himself. His body shook underneath it. When he showed his face again, his entire face was wet.
Only 26, he is now an NBA champion, having led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first title in a half-century. And he clinched it for them in the most spectacular manner possible, with a 50-point, 14-rebound, five-block Game 6 masterpiece Tuesday night that could go down as the defining performance of a career far from finished.
His accomplishments are multiplying. In the past three years, Antetokounmpo has added two regular season MVP awards, a Finals MVP and a defensive player of the year honor. He is a legend just starting his prime.
In this championship light, Antetokounmpo still looks like a superstar from the future. He is a basketball anomaly, an athletic wonder full of power as well as grace, a post player who attacks from the perimeter, a center and a point guard and everything in between.
Yet he’s a throwback in mentality. He honors the NBA’s past with his incessant competitiveness. No getting chummy with opponents. No pining to join other famed peers in a more glamorous city. No premature obsession with legacy. Antetokounmpo lives for the moment and for the journey, even when it’s painful and embarrassing.
Look at him, standing atop the sport, bridging all eras with his evolutionary talent and classic approach. This is his time, and though he struggled to get here, his arrival is right on time. Let’s avoid the trite and unnecessary “best player in the game” designation, that mythical title assigned breathlessly every year to the leading man of each new championship team. It doesn’t matter — not to Antetokounmpo.
He cares more about what the entire team just proved. Milwaukee did not become another abandoned market. The Bucks stayed committed to improvement, and their franchise player remained patient. He also took ownership of his shortcomings and continued to refine his game. Now the Bucks are something you used to see often in the NBA. They’re the aspiring team that endured agony on the way up, kept learning, kept pushing and finally turned all of its difficult experiences into a most rewarding triumph.
The superteam era diminished the appreciation of this gradual, laborious climb and the beneficial scar tissue it creates. There is nothing wrong with a star who wants change, but it creates a special lane for ones who chose to persist. They seem different, fascinating, sometimes weird. For the sake of variety, it was important that one from the increasingly rare breed set a new standard. Antetokounmpo stands as a 6-foot-11 monument to persistence.
“This can make everybody believe in their dreams,” Antetokounmpo said. “It might be basketball. It might be anything.”
It is not simply okay to stay and fight. It is gratifying. And even if this is the only championship that Giannis and the Bucks win together, it will still feel grand years from now as a singular feat. Some championships weigh more. This one, the franchise’s first since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominated and Oscar Robertson dished, is plenty heavy.
I love dynasties and dramatic displays of greatness. Much of the NBA’s history belongs to Hall of Famers who deciphered the championship code and made excellence replicable. But room exists for grinders to make an impression.
The Bucks created their own version of the hard way. They were promised nothing. Eight years ago, they didn’t draft Giannis and immediately forecast stardom. He was the No. 15 pick, a project who came to Milwaukee a couple of inches shorter and about 40 pounds lighter than he is now. They acquired Khris Middleton in a bigger trade not knowing that the second-round pick was destined to be a great complementary star.
They built, developed and adjusted. They did it over and over until it all clicked. And even when they seemed championship-ready, they experienced two more years of postseason setbacks before making a big trade for Jrue Holiday and figuring out how to take the final step.
“I just think their experience in these moments was pretty evident,” Phoenix Coach Monty Williams said of the Bucks. “I just thought because they have been in these moments before, it made up the margins for them, especially in those moments where you need a stop, you need a bucket, there was no panic, there was no lack of poise. … So, that’s what I saw tonight, not just a guy that was putting up numbers and is a great player, but I saw a team that had a lot of experience in playoff situations.”
You witnessed a long-disregarded franchise grow. You saw a franchise player, a son of Nigerian parents who was born and raised in Greece, built from scratch. The Antetokounmpos are a remarkable rags-to-riches family story that stretches across three continents. Giannis arrived in Milwaukee with no prior knowledge of the city and with a body desperate for proper nutrition, and by his fourth season, he was an all-star.
“He’s an even more amazing human being than he is a player,” Milwaukee Coach Mike Budenholzer said.
Looking back, there was no way the Phoenix Suns were going to rob him of this opportunity. He wanted it too badly. In the 105-98 victory in Game 6, Antetokounmpo made 16 of 25 shots, and the notoriously erratic and slow free throw shooter made 17 of 19 from the foul line. It was a near flawless effort to complete a historic Finals debut. Two weeks ago, Antetokounmpo entered Game 1 coming off a scary knee injury, and the basketball world wondered how effective he would be. After 40-point games and a 50-piece, after The Block and The Lob, there are no more questions about the knee.
He is the Greek Freak, for certain. Whatever we thought of Giannis previously, no matter how high the praise or strong the criticism, we should all be able to agree on this: During the Finals, he showed he is greater than how we had imagined him to be. Wherever you had placed him on your greatness scale, he needs to occupy a higher place. He’s flat-out better than almost every way he’s portrayed. He’s far more than a Freak with no jumper who had trouble adjusting to intense defensive attention during past playoff runs. But he also exceeds some of the running acclaim that his biggest admirers provide. Because no superstar in NBA history operates quite like him — his ability to own the paint but do so off the dribble, his status as a big man who is his own facilitator, his Kevin Garnett-like influence on the defensive end — it’s going to take a long time to capture him perfectly.
Then again, it will be fun trying to create the proper context. Antetokounmpo isn’t going anywhere. The Bucks aren’t budging, either. The new champions should remain contenders for a good while.
Upon reflection, Antetokounmpo mentioned that he could have gone the superteam route, but that’s not him.
“That’s easy,” he said.
This, he said, was the hard way. He pounded the table for emphasis.
At the end, he made it look easy, but he embraces the difficulty. The hard parts make all this breakthrough all the more meaningful.