At 26 years old and after an impressive and historic 50-point performance in Game 6 of the Finals, Giannis Antetokounmpo was crowned on Tuesday as a modest and unlikely hero in NBA Olympus.
The Milwaukee Bucks star, who owes the Greek the franchise’s first ring since 1971, was voted Finals MVP after an amazing series in which he averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and five assists per game.
Antetokounmpo was an endless nightmare for the Phoenix Suns and, in addition to these memorable 50 points on the decisive night, he left other moments to remember such as the block on Deandre Ayton in Game 4 or the alley-oop in Game 5 with which the Bucks snatched home-court advantage from the Suns.
However, in these Finals he has not only stood out for being a titan on the court but also for his cautious reflections off the court about success, disappointments and ambition.
“When I focus on the past, that’s my ego. ‘I did this, we beat that team 4-0, I won that in the past.’ When I focus on the future, that’s my pride. ‘Yeah, next game I’m going to do this and this, I’m going to dominate.’ That’s your pride talking, but it hasn’t happened,” he argued to the media last week.
“I try to focus on the moment, on the present. That’s humility. That’s not setting expectations. That’s going out there, enjoying the game, competing at a high level. A lot of people throughout my life have helped me with that, but it’s a skill I’ve tried to hone,” he added.
The Greek phenomenon
Born in Athens in 1994 to a family of Nigerian immigrants, Antetokounmpo spent nearly two decades of his life without being a citizen of any country because he didn’t have papers.
As a child, he engaged in street vending to contribute to the family’s struggling economy.
Giannis was not the only brother who ended up successfully dedicating himself to basketball: Thanasis is a teammate of his on the Bucks, Kostas just left the Lakers for the French Asvel and Alex is part of UCAM Murcia.
After attracting attention for his exceptional physical conditions and unique talent in the lower divisions of Greek basketball, CAI Zaragoza signed him in 2012 but allowed him to remain in his home country to continue growing as a player.
He did not make his debut in CAI: Antetokounmpo was selected in the 2013 draft in the 15th position by the Bucks and left some money for the Aragonese coffers in addition to a curious and ephemeral passage through the Zaragoza team.
Antetokounmpo in the NBA
The Antetokounmpo who landed in the NBA with only 18 years old, all the possibilities in the world and no certainty of entry is little like the all-powerful player who has swept these Finals.
The Greek Freak’s evolution to the pinnacle of world basketball was calm and patient.
In his first season he averaged 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game (24.6 minutes on average), while in 2020-2021 he has posted 28.1 points, 11 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game (33 minutes on average).
His first step forward was the award he earned for Most Improved Player in 2017, the same year he made his All-Star debut.
From there, Antetokounmpo grew in spectacular fashion to become a beast of power and quickness, an almost unstoppable threat in the zone, a defensive specialist and a figure capable of adding in all facets of the game and on both sides of the court.
The individual accolades kept coming: regular season MVP in 2019 and 2020, Best Defensive Player in 2020, five All-Star selections, etc.
But there was also criticism for his low percentages in shooting and from the personal line.
In addition, Antetokounmpo was recognized as a virtually unique player in the league but lacked to get the Bucks to make the leap in quality to aspire to the ring.
After several playoff disappointments, coach Mike Budenholzer landed in Milwaukee in 2018 and in his first season led Antetokounmpo and his teammates to the East Finals, where they fell to the eventual NBA champions, the Toronto Raptors.
Last summer, the Greek signed a mammoth contract with the Bucks: $228 million for five years.
But the investment was worth it, as Antetokounmpo, always with his feet on the ground and with the team ahead of the individual, led the Bucks to glory thanks to the help of teammates like Khris Middleton or Jrue Holiday and all those who accompanied him along the way.
“I started playing basketball to help my family. I tried to help them out of the problems and challenges we faced growing up,” he said after becoming a champion.
“But I never thought I would be here with the NBA trophy and the Finals MVP award. It’s been a long journey,” he concluded.