Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is a unique player, one who often defies traditional comparisons but inspires grandiose ones all the same. In honor of his All-Star selection, we’re re-examining his singular makeup in search of offbeat comparisons befitting of the Bucks’ unconventional star. Today, we examine why “alien” isn’t a useful moniker and designate a better fictional comparison.
At first glance, one may assume this is an article to implore people to stop calling Giannis Antetokounmpo an alien, and at first glance, you’d be right. This is a siren call telling journalists and fans alike across this humble globe to cease the mindless practice of calling basketball’s most singular talents, “aliens.”
For some time, this has been a popular phrase among digital wordsmiths. I’m just as guilty as anyone. Here’s an example from one of my own pieces:
“Giannis often played soccer with his brothers and friends in the street. A coach happened upon him, and, noticing his alien build, invited him to play basketball.”
Blech. Now, that doesn’t necessary call him an alien in the context of playing basketball, but it does imply a connection between the “alien” moniker and preternatural skills on the hardwood. This is where the online basketball collective must pause and consider why that description is folly.
Yes, #ButActually naysayers out there, I get the general premise. Aliens are otherworldy, their impossibly peculiar physical composition connoting an overlord demeanor and supposed athletic superiority. But here’s the thing, there’s little to no actual evidence aliens contain a shred of skill necessary to play the game of basketball. Indeed, even in fiction the preponderance of evidence points to the contrary.
This false anointment is due likely to the lingering aura of “Space Jam,” a seminal 1996 animated basketball film whose heyday coincided with the formative years of a glut of writers now waxing poetic about the sport. “Space Jam” planted the illogical seed, and the constant cries for a remake fertilized the fervor diligently over these past 20-odd years.
To be fair, Space Jam does a bang-up job portraying the unstoppable power of the MonStars, the Alien team that takes on Michael Jordan’s Looney Tunes crew. Menacing with bulging muscles that test a jersey seam’s integrity more than Glen Davis’ gut, the MonStars were designed specifically to obfuscate the real way these players should be remembered.
For the time, the team’s versatility was truly forward-thinking, with most of their bigs fitting the multi-dimensional archetypes any GM is looking for nowadays in a 7-footer. Their Synergy tracking stats would probably just show up as flame emojis. However, their prominence only came after they had stolen the powers of basketball’s greatest stars of the day, and Mugsy Bogues. Before that, they were a diminutive set of pests devoid of any athletic talent. In other words, they were aliens.
Without absorbing the supernatural skills of Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, etc., the MonStars failed to present any sort of above average skills on the basketball court. I’d say they were, at best, end of the bench fodder for fifth graders. Still, the fact remains that humanity maintained a significant edge in basketball skill over these aliens. Lest we forget that Bill Murray’s schoolyard fundamentals were alarmingly effective against the MonStars, to the point that he played a pivotal role in the Looney Tunes’ victory.
There is an argument to be made that their alien skills allowed them to absorb those players’ powers, thus making their skill legitimate because talent absorption is just another segment of their abilities. That, however, feels disingenuous considering those sort of feats are entirely beyond human comprehension at this point. It also doesn’t enhance an innate basketball skill already inside them, it’s simply grafted onto them.
So now that we’ve debunked the most prominent cultural tether between “alien” and “basketball acumen”, it seems quite clear that aliens have little, if nothing to do with basketball skill. No other alien in popular fiction has displayed any sort of upside or raw talent that many of today’s young athletes flash. Xenomorphs seem like they’d lack the court vision, Prawns don’t have airtight handles, the aliens from Signs are too camera shy to handle the bright lights of the NBA. Heck, even the titans from War of the Worlds would probably peter out due to the unbearable weight they’d lug around. An injury to their base would make Joel Embiid’s torturous recovery look like a poolside resort with a Shirley Temple fountain.
The saving grace for this connotative conundrum is that there are other cultural references that are significantly more related to basketball. Pop culture peppered us with a few examples from which to pluck, so let’s decide what the most apt, fictional moniker may be to describe Giannis and the growing assortment of NBA players that have defied what we considered capable from humanity on the basketball court.
Before Air Bud became a worldwide phenomenon, sparking spinoffs that got darker than a Scorsese film, he was a simple golden retriever with a unique talent: basketball. The film Air Bud is actually based on the real life story of Buddy, a dog taken in by Kevin DiCicco whom he subsequently taught various sports.
Gracing the film’s theatrical release poster is a shot of Air Bud preparing to dunk the basketball, a skill akin to Giannis’ ability, but also a complete misnomer. This is the closest you get when searching on YouTube for “Air Bud dunk.”
Instead, Buddy resigns himself to a midrange shooter with the highest assist percentage in history on his made baskets. This is useful when the ball is flinging around the court, but I’m not sure Buddy would have enough space in typical halfcourt offenses to find his stroke. Unfortunately, the inability for explosion at the rim and one-sided nature of his game makes his skills ill-suited for describing Giannis.
Mario, Luigi and Peach from NBA Street Vol. 3
Look, these are clearly just reskinned players from the game, but the hip-hoppin’ Mario Kingdom mixtape above demands your respect. While recent horrendous events may’ve conflated Mario’s existence with the reality of our own, their presence here makes them look wholly foreign, thereby qualifying them for this exercise.
The main issue here is that beyond the fact Mario, Peach and Luigi designate an off-putting Italian pronunciation from the DJ, their basketball skills are precisely the same as the other stars on the court. They’re not offering anything unique beyond the grandeur and hyperbolic athleticism of the NBA Street Universe. Luigi stuffing Lebron at the rim is still an otherworldly sight though.
Our final entry is a difficult one. Scott Howard, portrayed by Michael J. Fox, played basketball before coming down with a case of lycanthropy. However, his team hadn’t won a game in three years, and his best human comp is probably Matthew Dellavedova with less Corona and more thigh-high shorts. Once transformed into Teen Wolf, Howard dominates the hardcourt, pummeling past defenders and displaying acrobatic moves that probably served as the template for some of the MonStar’s moves.
He is able to singularly dominate a game and is a transition terror. His dunks in the open court make it look like he’s gunning for a 10 in a slam dunk contest, a trait Antetokounmpo flashes from time to time. His perimeter shot remains shaky though, preferring to find his way to the hoop. That was, of course, a product of the movie being made in the 80’s when three-point shooting still wasn’t instituted in high school basketball, but he still preferred to take it to the rack in a similar fashion to Giannis. The only knock against Teen Wolf is his selfish nature, which starts to erode the team’s chemistry as the season wears on. There are times Giannis could stand to be more selfish, but Teen Wolf veers even beyond peak-Kobe territory.
After intense reflection, it’s clear the answer is Teen Wolf. From the similarities of rapid, immense growth to the way he improves his teammate’s net rating while on the court to his endearing personality that dominates the town, Teen Wolf is the obvious winner and closest fictional comparison we have to Giannis’ actual basketball skills.
So the next time you feel like calling Giannis an alien, an extraterrestrial, or anything of that nature, pause, reflect and simply type: he’s a Teen Wolf.
Any ideas for the most fitting fictional character to describe Giannis’? Leave them in the comments below.