Across its 75 seasons, the NBA has been the backdrop for a countless number of rags-to-riches stories.
None of them, however, can touch Giannis Antetokounmpo’s.
One year he and his brothers are pestering tourists on the streets of Athens, Greece, selling whatever trinkets they’ve scrounged up that week as a way of putting food on the family table. A couple years later, he’s in Milwaukee, Wis., blinking into the bright lights as an NBA first-round draft pick, all untapped potential and hope for a multimillion-dollar sports franchise.
A few short years after that, the young man has a record $228 million contract extension in his pocket, two NBA Most Valuable Player awards on his mantel, a Finals MVP trophy in a case and an NBA championship ring on his finger. A state-of-the-art practice facility and arena – the Houses That Giannis Built – have transformed Milwaukee’s downtown.
Antetokounmpo’s hard work sets a standard for his teammates and his foes. His skill set makes him more versatile than the most expensive Leatherman multi-tool. And his smile and personality harken back to Lakers legend Magic Johnson in making the game fun and accessible to fans. (Allowing for occasional mean mugs in the heat of competition, anyway.)
He accomplished all this by the age of 26.
What we are seeing then – what we already have seen – is like nothing that has come before him in NBA history, perhaps across all major sports. He was an unknown from a far-off land, with a name as difficult to spell as it was to pronounce.
The annual mock-draft machine whiffed badly on him in the spring of 2013. ESPN and Draft Express thought he might go to Oklahoma City at No. 29 of the 30 first-round picks. NBA.com predicted No. 22 to Brooklyn. CBS Sports wrongly penciled him in for Cleveland at No. 19, while Sports Illustrated did not consider the raw, 6-foot-9 prospect first-round worthy at all.
And Bleacher Report – like a lot of outlets back then – was spelling the kid’s name 'Giannis Adetokunbo.'
Fortunately for the Bucks, general manager John Hammond not only got his name right, they got the pick right.
When the Bucks introduced Antetokounmpo to media in Milwaukee soon after the draft, he looked like a Tootsie Pop come to life: A round, smiling face on a long, lanky, bony, skinny body. Eighteen years old and built like 15, a typical high school kid stretched in a funhouse mirror.
This was a rare departure from the team’s traditional offseason maneuvers. Typically, even in the draft, the Bucks sought helpful pieces for the short term. Team owner Herb Kohl’s mandate was for a competitive squad, a roster that could hover around .500 and chase a playoff spot.
The situation, however, had grown increasingly untenable. After the blip of a berth in the Eastern Conference finals in 2001, the Bucks missed the playoffs seven times in the next 12 years. They were a combined 104 games under .500. The two times they did (barely) post winning records, they were brushed out of the first round.
Also, in the five seasons prior to the 2013 Draft, attendance at the city’s aging Bradley Center ranked 24th, 23rd, 23rd, 26th and 27th. The team all but scheduled losses on Opening Night by design, starting each season on the road so its home opener could fall on a Saturday. Big date night, surest way to get a sellout, right?
By 2013, Kohl was 78 years old. He had owned the franchise for 28 years. Its only championship was way back in 1971 and the brightest days since, a run of almost 10 seasons under coach Don Nelson, was nearly three decades gone. Kohl wanted to win and he wanted to spruce up the team and the balance sheet for a prospective sale.
Lottery picks generally had not panned out for the Bucks: T.J. Ford (No. 8 in 2003), Andrew Bogut (No. 1, 2005), Yi Jianlian (No. 6, 2007), Joe Alexander (No. 8, 2008), Brandon Jennings (No. 10, 2009) and Jimmer Fredette (No. 10, 2011).
Plucky overachievement wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
Well, Antetokounmpo was plucky but he quickly showed he was so much more. Performances in his first season revealed glimpses of his whole package – scoring, rebounding, slick passing, rim protection, even a 3-pointer now and then – as well as his willingness to take on legends such as Kevin Garnett, a similarly 'unicorn-ish' rookie when he arrived almost 20 years earlier straight out of high school.
As Antetokounmpo’s first NBA season unspooled, more than a few of the league’s general managers and scouts had to feel a little nauseous seeing what they had missed. It’s easy now, in the prime of his career, to second-guess those first 14 picks. But even in half a season, his attributes and upside were clear to the untrained eye.
As I wrote for NBA.com in January 2014:
'Antetokounmpo has been the Bucks' great Greek hope, the biggest reason besides elbow room to drop by the BMO Harris Bradley Center. On the right nights, the city's gray dampness and frigid drizzle melt away, Antetokounmpo's coltish potential and unbridled enthusiasm turning it into a Kentucky horse farm, sunshine, bluegrass and thoroughbred greatness in the making.'
'He has arms that reach till next Tuesday, hands like jai-alai cestas. The Bucks produced a Giannis growth chart for giveaway and it was obsolete almost immediately; the kid reportedly has grown 1 ½ inches since he was drafted, his warm-up pants starting to look like Capris.'
Antetokounmpo’s stats his first season – 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks in 24.6 minutes – were solid given his age, his experience, the cast around him and the overall ennui in Milwaukee.
The Bucks got worse before they’d get better. They went 15-67, the worst record in franchise history and a plummet from 38-44 the season before. Drafting a steal at No. 15 is a laudable thing, but the real strides in the NBA – for a team such as the Bucks that isn’t much of a free-agent destination – means acing the lottery. Especially with ballyhooed young players such as Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Marcus Smart on the board in 2014.
Antetokounmpo managed to land on the 2013-14 All-Rookie second team but in balloting for Rookie of the Year, he tied for seventh place with OKC’s Steven Adams and Memphis’ Nick Calathes. They each got just one down-ballot vote out of the 124 ballots cast.
Didn’t matter. Antetokounmpo upped his production across the board in his second season, playing for coach Jason Kidd and with No. 2 pick Parker. Their team shot up to 41 victories. Giannis notched his first triple-double on Feb. 22, 2016, and before the schedule was done, he had racked up four more.
Teammates and opponents alike were raving about Antetokounmpo by 2016-17, with the league’s coaches and extended family quick to join in. They voted him to a starting spot on the East’s All-Star roster and haven’t kept him off since.
Antetokounmpo’s work habits in the weight room were transforming his body. His skills on the floor were blossoming and, thanks to a spiral notebook into which he scribbled tips, reminders and strategies, his grasp of the game was growing too.
Then there was his energy, bounding around the court, racing its length in a few strides and dribbles. His pursuit of excellence and willingness to shoulder team responsibility saw another leap in his numbers, enough to earn him the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award. And it wasn’t long before the MIP started to think about the MVP.
At nearly 7 feet, Antetokounmpo reminded some fans of Kevin Durant, the Thin Man of the Thunder and later the Warriors and Nets. He didn’t have KD’s shooting touch – who does? – but the frame and mobility were close.
The Greek Freak’s wingspan was reminiscent of George (Iceman) Gervin, the way he could stretch out an arm like Plastic Man and let the ball roll off his fingers into the basket. Some saw versatility not unlike LeBron James, a big man making plays like Magic Johnson and a dunker flexing a lot of Julius Erving’s ferocity.
League bosses saw an international player who could become the face of the NBA for another decade, while even Antetokounmpo had to admit that he saw some prestigious hardware in his future.
'I feel like I can get there [MVP winner] one day,' he said. 'I’ve just got to keep working hard, try to get my team better.'
Some wondered if the Bucks had it in them. Others worried that Antetokounmpo’s spindly legs and willingness to battle under the basket might lead to injuries. By age 23, though, the young star already had impressed a Who’s Who of NBA hoops.
He was making a name for himself almost as big as it was long.
Antetokounmpo improved across the board again in 2018-19, his sixth season. His scoring (27.7 ppg) and rebounding (12.5 rpg) numbers had risen every year, even as his playing time was peeled back from 36.7 minutes nightly to 32.8.
With Kidd replaced by new coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks did more with less of Giannis, leading the league with a 60-22 record and top seed for the postseason. All that collective success made Antetokounmpo a runaway MVP winner over Houston’s James Harden, getting 78 of 101 first-place votes.
And while his complete game earned him the distinction, when it came to his barrage of dunks – boom! boom! boom! – it sometimes seemed as if the rims were bowing before him.
Another year, another gear. Antetokounmpo found it in 2019-20, his minutes dipping again (30.4) even as his points production jumped considerably to a career-best 34.9 per 36 minutes. No one made a big deal of it at the time, but in terms of efficiency, the Bucks’ star was up in all-time territory.
Consider: When Wilt Chamberlain posted some of the biggest numbers in NBA history in 1961-62 (50.4 ppg, 25.7 rpg, 2.4 apg), he averaged 48.5 minutes. So his per-36 stats were 37.4, 19.0 and 1.8.
Antetokounmpo’s across the board were 34.9, 16.1 and 6.6.
As in 2018-19, team success was essential. Led by Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee (56-17 in the virus-shortened season) wound up winning 75% of its games over two seasons (116-39). Even though regular-season success didn’t translate to the postseason in 2019 – the Bucks started 10-1 against Detroit, Boston and Toronto, only to see the Raptors win four straight to take the East finals – there was a sense the Bucks had learned a hard lesson.
So this time, Antetokounmpo doubled up. He was named MVP again with an 85-16 margin on first-place votes over LeBron James and also won Defensive Player of the Year in a 75-14 landslide of first-place votes over Anthony Davis.
Another playoff disappointment – ousted by Miami in the Orlando bubble in five games – meant Antetokounmpo and his crew would have to wait another year for that next big trophy.
Relentless drum beats had provided an ominous soundtrack to Antetokounmpo’s two MVP seasons. As he wrapped up the sixth and seventh seasons with the Bucks without making serious progress toward a championship ring, the league’s vultures and speculators began to see his exit from Milwaukee as inevitable.
By the offseason of 2020, conventional wisdom suggested Antetokounmpo would hit free agency in 2021, looking for a greener pasture from which to pursue his quest for NBA supremacy.
So naturally, on Dec. 15, 2020, Antetokounmpo surprised many by signing the maximum $228 million contract extension the Bucks had put before him.
Exactly 217 days later, he surprised people all over again.
As upgrades go, this was like going from a middle seat in coach, right past first class, all the way to the flight deck. From one MIP, one DPOY and two MVP awards to the Finals MVP and that most elusive hardware of all, the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
By committing to the franchise and the city before the season, before reaching the goal he and the Bucks had set for themselves, Antetokounmpo did more than hush up chatter from so-called insiders and covetous fan bases elsewhere. His decision to re-sign allayed a lot of anxiety for all involved as they embarked on a closely watched, potentially tense, high-stakes season.
Milwaukee intentionally used the 2020-21 schedule as a workshop, tweaking their tactics at both ends, testing lineups and rotations with their eyes on playoff adaptability. How much that helped wasn’t clear when the Bucks had to survive a grueling seven-game conference semfinals series against Brooklyn, then close out Atlanta in the East finals with Antetokounmpo sidelined by a wrenched left knee.
That frightening hyperextension injury looked serious enough to wipe out Antetokounmpo’s postseason, maybe force him into an even longer layoff. Instead, there he was for the Finals opener, grinding his way to 20 points and 17 rebounds with that achy, shaky knee.
Ten days later, the best-of-seven championship series was tied at 2-2. That was when Antetokounmpo shared with a roomful of reporters at Fiserv Forum a bit of his mental approach, an outlook that kept his success firmly grounded in improvement and in team success:
'I figured out a mindset to have, that when you focus on the past, that's your ego. ‘I did this. We were able to beat this team 4-0. I did this in the past. I won that in the past.’
'When I focus on the future, it's my pride. ‘Yeah, next game, Game 5, I do this and this and this. I'm going to dominate.’ That's your pride talking. It doesn't happen. You're right here.
'I kind of try to focus on the moment, in the present. That's humility. That's being humble. That's not setting no expectation. That's going out there, enjoying the game, competing at a high level. I think I've had people throughout my life that helped me with that. But that is a skill that I've tried to, like, kind of -- how do you say, perfect it.'
Ego, pride, humility. Antetokounmpo just happened to match those three attributes with three remarkable highlights to close out the Finals.
There was his jaw-dropping block of Deandre Ayton’s attempt to flush an alley-oop pass late in Game 4, Antetokounmpo scrambling from his help defense on Devin Booker to thwart the Phoenix center at the rim.
There was his daring to seal Game 5, point skyward after guard Jrue Holiday ripped the ball from Booker and dribble across midcourt. Antetokounmpo, in full sprint, wanted the lob and got it, turning a one-point game into three. He missed his free throw after the play – then got a hand on the rebound, tipping it to sidekick Khris Middleton to ice it.
And there was Antetokounmpo’s Game 6 performance, one of the most dazzling in Finals history: 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots, hitting 16 of 25 shots and a remarkable (for him) 17 of 19 free throws.
The man might as well have been on the bow of an ocean liner at sea, his arms high and wide, his head thrown back. King of the world!
The way Milwaukee’s thundering arena was shaking, with tens of thousands in the Deer District outside and Antetokounmpo stalking the halls with goggles, cigars and champagne, his tears of joy might easily have been covering up some real ones.
Like Alexander the Great, who wept seeing he had no more worlds to conquer.
Antetokounmpo has established himself as one of the best to ever play the game, made official with his inclusion on the 75 Greatest Team selected as part of the NBA’s 2021-22 diamond anniversary season. He could walk away now and head directly to Springfield, Mass., into the Hall of Fame.
He will see his number up in the rafters of Fiserv Forum next to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s, Milwaukee’s first ring-bearing superstar and arguably the league’s greatest player ever. Abdul-Jabbar spent six seasons with the Bucks before pushing for a trade to the Lakers. Antetokounmpo stayed first, then won, 50 years after the first title.
The Greek Freak has reached pretty much every goal he has had as an NBA player, and countless more than he dared to imagine while scratching for a future back in Athens. He keeps setting the bar high, then surpassing it.
He’s still only 27.