The Milwaukee Bucks waited 50 years. Fifty!
The last time they won an NBA championship, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson rolled to a Finals sweep over the Baltimore Bullets. In the champions’ locker room, a familiar face appeared on national TV.
Bob Boozer had achieved so much already in his basketball career. NCAA All-American. Olympic gold medalist. NBA All-Star. At 34, Boozer was only a small part of the Bucks’ 1971 title team, but it was his career exclamation point. His last NBA game.
“I just want to say hello to all my friends in Omaha,” Boozer said through the Champagne and shouting.
As I watched the celebration in Milwaukee Tuesday night, I wondered what Boozer, who died in 2012, would’ve thought of the scene at Fiserv Forum. More specifically, I would’ve loved to get his opinion of the Bucks’ improbable superstar, the new face of the NBA.
Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 50 points. Fifty!
The Greek Freak dominated the Suns in ways that, even a decade ago, would’ve pushed the limits of comprehension. How could a player be that long, that strong, that quick? And still play that hard?
The NBA has bloomed globally over the past 50 years, inspiring new fans in China, Africa and Europe. The fruits of that expansion include unique talents like Giannis, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic.
But here in America, the NBA has also lost many fans who yearn for more traditional styles. They prefer Magic and Michael to LeBron and KD.
I engaged in countless, fruitless debates over the past decade. I argued that almost nobody played defense in the ‘80s — Bill Laimbeer knocking off someone’s head is not good defense. I argued that Larry Bird and Dr. J traveled, too. That today’s game is full of wings equal to Scottie Pippen and Clyde Drexler. That Tim Duncan’s Spurs and Steph Curry’s Warriors played even more beautifully than Magic’s Lakers. Alas, I didn’t change many opinions. Nobody does.
Regardless of past squabbles, I hope the skeptics paid attention Tuesday because Giannis simultaneously revolutionized the sport and honored its best traditions.
You don’t like the glut of 3-point shooting today? Giannis made only three 3s in six Finals games. You don’t like hero ball? Giannis didn’t isolate and wave his teammates away, he leaned on them in the clutch.
You don’t like superstars jumping ship? Here’s a guy who could’ve left Milwaukee in 2020 after a humiliating playoffs exit. Instead, he doubled down on the small-market Bucks, determined to succeed for the team that drafted him 15th overall in 2013.
“I could go to a super team and just do my part and win a championship,” Giannis said Tuesday night. “But this is the hard way to do it. … We did it. We f-ing did it!”
You don’t like pre-packaged promotion over authenticity, style over substance, hype over humility? Giannis didn’t grow up on the AAU circuit making highlight films on YouTube. He learned the game on the streets of Athens, where he sold tourists cheap sunglasses and CDs to help support his Nigerian immigrant parents. Born in Greece, Giannis didn’t receive citizenship from his government.
After the Bucks drafted Giannis in 2013, one prominent Greek politician compared the 18-year-old phenom to a chimpanzee, calling for his arrest and deportation.
“Why am I less Greek than you?” Giannis once said. “Why? Because I am black? Are you going take my nationality because of my skin color? Come on, man.”
Giannis hasn’t forgotten any of it. It’s the source of his drive and work ethic. But also his joy and gratitude.
“People around the world from Africa, from Europe, I give them hope, it can be done,” Giannis said Tuesday night. “It can be done! Eight years ago, I didn’t know where my next meal would come from. My mom was selling stuff in the street. Now I’m here sitting top of the top.”
There’s an incredible story from Giannis’ rookie year, when he averaged just 6.8 points per game. One cold November afternoon, he took a taxi to Western Union to send money home to his family. He tried to get a return cab, but his credit card wouldn’t work.
Without a winter coat, he ran the downtown Milwaukee streets toward the arena until a stranger stopped and offered a ride. He squeezed into the back of a subcompact Honda, thanking his good Samaritans.
That’s the guy who, eight years later, is the best basketball player on Earth. You can’t make it up.
Last week after Game 5, a reporter asked Giannis how he controlled his ego at such a young age. His answer stunned me.
“When you focus on the past, that’s your ego,” Giannis said. “When I focus on the future, that’s your pride talking ... I try to focus in the moment. The present. That’s humility. ... It’s been working so far. I’m not going to stop.”
That’s the skill that matters most. Not strength or size or athleticism, but relentlessness. Even when his team loses in the playoffs, even when he air-balls free throws, even when he hyperextends his knee in the conference finals, Giannis does not quit.
Wednesday morning, Giannis pulled into a Chick-fil-A drive-thru in Milwaukee armed with a fully loaded credit card and the Finals MVP trophy. Broadcasting the scene on Instagram, he ordered 50 chicken minis.
“Fifty exactly,” Giannis said. “Not 51. Not 49. Fifty.”