Giannis Antetokounmpo's journey from a relatively unknown player to one of the all-time greats is a special one.
When the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA Championship all the way back in 1971, the franchise was full of hope. Their superstar player was none other than Lew Alcindor, who everyone now knows as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Just a few years after the Bucks' big win, Alcindor was able to lead his team to yet another NBA Finals appearance, although they would eventually lose to the legendary Boston Celtics in seven games. A year later, Alcindor left Milwaukee for the Los Angeles Lakers, and he eventually went on to win five more titles all while cementing himself as one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA.
Unfortunately for the Bucks, Alcindor's absence put the entire franchise in a deep and dark hole that last decades. In the early 2000s, the Bucks were able to find some success with Ray Allen, however, once he went to the Super Sonics, their reign came to an abrupt end. From there, the team drafted Brandon Jennings with the 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft, and for the most part, he was nothing short of fantastic. If you're a Bucks fan, then you probably remember how Jennings ran into injury problems which ultimately led to a shortened career. With all of that being said, it's clear that the Bucks had been struggling to find a superstar who not only had staying power but a desire to remain in a small market like Milwaukee, as well.
In a shocking turn of events, the Bucks somehow found that player in the unlikeliest of places: Greece. With the 15th overall selection in the 2013 NBA Entry Draft, the Bucks took a relatively unknown scrawny 18-year-old by the name of Giannis Antetokounmpo. At the time, this selection was scrutinized by critics who felt as though Giannis hadn't done enough to prove himself. In fact, it was a common opinion at the time that Giannis wouldn't even see any playing time in his first season and that there were no guarantees he would grow into his body and become the man we see today.
What many didn't account for at the time, was Giannis' determination. His background shaped him into one of the most determined young men the game had ever seen, and while it would take a few years for fans to realize this, there is no denying that a storm was brewing within him. Antetokounmpo was born in Greece and raised by two Nigerian immigrants who didn't have a lot of money to their name. As Giannis described himself, there were times where he didn't know where his next meal would be coming from. He would help his mom sell items in the street and would even sometimes play games on an empty stomach. These experiences ultimately shaped his mentality and forced him to work harder so he could one day realize his dream, and become an NBA Champion.
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As a European player, Giannis was always going to have to go the extra mile to prove himself. When it comes to scouting, teams usually prefer guys who have been through the American college system. One could just look at the discourse surrounding Luka Donic to understand what we mean. Having played for a club team in Greece, the expectations surrounding Giannis were fairly low, although the Bucks felt like they had struck gold, and in the end, they were right. Throughout his first season, Giannis would log about 24 minutes per game and averaged a respectable 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds. Over the next few seasons, Antetokounmpo would steadily improve his numbers as it became clear that the Bucks were building their entire future around him.
During the 2016-2017 season, Giannis' physique matured to the point where he was no longer the frail kid from Greece that he once was. Now, he was a grown man with a ton of muscle and athletic capabilities that could rival any player in the league. Fans began to call him "The Greek Freak" and his numbers backed up the nickname. After averaging 22.9 points and 8.8 rebounds per game in 2017, Giannis received Most Improved Player honors and he only got better from there. In 2019 and 2020, Giannis was crowned league MVP, and he even picked up a Defensive Player of the Year award in 2020. All of these accolades were piling up at an excessive rate, however, there was one thing missing: playoff success.
In 2019, Giannis led the Bucks to the Eastern Conference Finals where they had a 2-0 lead on the Toronto Raptors. Eventually, the Bucks lost four straight games to Kawhi Leonard and company, while being shut down by the Raptors' defensive wall. It was one of the biggest disappointments of his career and it was only exacerbated by a horrific showing in the bubble where the Bucks lost in 5 to an underdog Heat squad in the second round.
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At the start of the 2020-21 season, there were questions surrounding Giannis' ability to be the best player on a championship team. Sure, he had the accolades, but the results simply weren't there, yet. Not to mention, after signing a $250 million contract to remain in Milwaukee, there were questions as to whether this was a smart idea and whether or not the Greek Freak should consider a trade to a contender. Giannis had no interest in succumbing to the media's rumblings, and instead, he put on a clinic throughout the regular season and stepped up his game even further in the playoffs. By early July, Giannis' team was in the NBA Finals and for the first time in 47 years, the Bucks had another shot at glory. After years of agony, the Bucks finally had their superstar and the fanbase couldn't be more excited about it.
Coming into the Finals, Giannis had just suffered a hyperextended knee although he decided to power through things as he had one objective in mind: win. That mentality he had always brought with him since childhood was in overdrive and it led to a pair of 40-point performances in Games 2 and 3. After Game 2, Giannis and the Bucks were down 2-0 to the Suns and things looked bleak. As soon as the team touched down in Milwaukee, the entire series shifted and the Bucks won three-straight matches en route to Game 6 where they had a shot at winning the title in front of their home crowd.
Game 6 would ultimately become Giannis' magnum opus. It was a culmination of his days in Greece to his humble beginnings in the NBA when he had very little muscle and was barely a blip on other teams' radar. With five all-star appearances, five all-NBA honors, two MVPs, and a DPOY to his name, Giannis knew this game would be what defines his career, and he showed up. By now, you all know what happened. He recorded a whopping 50 points, 14 rebounds, and five blocks all while making 17 out of 19 free throws. This performance won his team that elusive title, and it also won him Finals MVP. It was truly one of the greatest performances in the history of the NBA Finals and it's a game that will forever cement his legacy amongst the all-time greats.
Following the match, Giannis showed off the goofy side of his personality. In a league where players take themselves too seriously, Giannis isn't afraid to make a fool out of himself. It's what has made him such a fan-favorite and it is ultimately why so many dub him the most likable player in the league. He's a man you can't help but root for and after all he's been through, it's hard to find a player more deserving than Giannis Antetokounmpo.
After winning a championship the hard way, there is nothing more for Giannis to do except win more titles. Even if he doesn't win another Larry O'Brien trophy, his legacy will always be bulletproof. He'll always be the kid from Athens who defied the odds and brought NBA glory back to a small market that had been afterthought since 1975. When you consider how Giannis is only 26, you can't help but be impressed.