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Can Giannis Fly?

Deciphering how Milwaukee’s phenom stacks up in the bird world

Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo 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. Part one examined his best fictional comparisons. Today we look at how his acrobatics would stack up in the aviary.

Flight remains a continuing source of fascination for woman-and-mankind. In the early days of our species, it was often associated with Godliness, an ability beyond human comprehension or ability. The fable of Icarus, whereby humans did conquer flight, ended in tragedy. Flight, it seemed, wasn’t meant for humankind, and as the years passed, humanity turned to machines to satiate their flight fixation. Slowly, we settled into the sorrowful realization that human flight was about as likely as world peace, or agreeing on an equitable way to vote for All-Stars. That is, before a few weeks ago, when this happened:

And then this:

Finally, it happened again just a few games ago:

Now, any rational person would say, “I mean, he’s not flying. He’s just jumping you nitwit” And of course they might be right, but I had to find out for myself. After all, how could anyone sleep at night if there was some worthwhile creature out there that might compare to Giannis, and hereby claim him as an NBA player capable of flight. Naturally, I turned to the world of ornithology (the study of birds) in search of some hard-boiled answers from the esteemed members of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University.

My first inclination was the obvious answer: a chicken. They may have about as much lift as the JET himself, Jason Terry, at this point, but they and their ground-bound ilk are still classified as fliers, so why wouldn’t Giannis be able to fall into that category? As it turns out, not only was I wrong, but I was entirely and completely wrong.

John Fitzpatrick, the Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, politely explained, “Chickens are part of a big group of birds worldwide that include the grouse and the pheasants and the quails and those birds all have, ironically, the opposite of what this extreme Greek phenomenon has. Namely they have really short wings.”

Okay, so maybe their dwarfish physical makeup is vastly different from Giannis’ and that distinction enables them to fly. They still can’t travel that great a distance though, so why wouldn’t their “flights” be analogous to Giannis’ own galloping leaps? Turns out, even those birds’ rapid bursts are pretty farfetched to ever envision Giannis accomplishing.

Kevin McGowan is a researcher and instructor at the Cornell Lab, and he extrapolated on these birds’ flight abilities, “Typically you don’t see any of the chicken birds fly very far, things like quail or grouse you know it’s a burst and boom away. And ya it’s usually a flight probably 50 yards or less.”

Here’s a handy chart documenting the flight ability of Giannis as compared to several different birds:

Maximum distance of single “flight”

Creature Distance (ft)
Creature Distance (ft)
Giannis Antetokounmpo 12-15
Chicken 100-150
Peacock 125-150
Turkey 1200-1300
Sandhill Crane ~17,250,000

Depressing yes, but not enough to deter the search. If an answer didn’t lie in the meaty world of ground-bound foraging birds, perhaps I needed to change up my search and look for something who’s since sacrificed the ability to fly. I turned to a bird whose gangly body type Giannis can sympathize with: the Ostrich.

John Fitzpatrick discussed that comparison, “Likening the leg power that this guy requires to do those jumps with an Ostrich is probably actually pretty good, even though the ostrich doesn’t actually use them as a two-legged hop.”

Alas, the Ostrich’s sublime leg power may capture some of Giannis’ court-based motor power, but it comes with the caveat that the bird’s bizarre feet gradually became hoof-like over time, a peculiarly apt comparison for a player on a team named the Bucks. Nowadays, the bird is left with just two toes, disabling its ability to leap and casting more and more doubt upon my winged Greek Freak hopes.

My initial assumptions dashed, I stumbled into less conventional comparisons for the Bucks’ bounder. It turns out, a segment of my answer might lie in a far more diminutive creature: the hummingbird.

Kevin McGraw, a researcher at Arizona State University, has been studying the mating patterns of a particular species of hummingbird using modern, high-speed tracking cameras, not unlike the player tracking technologies now ubiquitous throughout the league.

“They really do these amazingly rapid back and forths, literally like shuttles,” says McGraw. “If you imagine playing on a basketball court, doing this drill where you’re sliding side-to-side from one end to the other, that’s kind of how you’re taught to play defense in fact.”

Perhaps that’s where the comparisons lie, Giannis sidling around defensively like the fluttering of a hummingbird’s wings, not to mention his near ludicrous mid-air acrobatics. Lee Jenkins’ SI story reported that Giannis lives with his girlfriend, but it’s difficult to deny the showboating nature of a double-clutch dunk. There’s an ambrosial quality to it, a hypnotizing delight in its over-the-top splendor and on some level, potentially, a more innate, humanistic intent behind its use. McGraw’s corollary is a bit more...forward.

“These males do these shuttles you know back and forth, back and forth, really rapidly in front of the female and stares at her. She stares at him, and ultimately he’s trying to seduce her for mating, showing off the flashy colors all the while. It’s a real scene.”

You’re telling me.

Hummingbirds clarify a sliver of the canvas, but the prospect of finding a 1:1 bird to basketball comparison for Giannis seemed unlikely at this point. Instead, it appeared more pieces of the solution may lie in a number of little-scouted international species possessing some of the raw skills and upside that make up Giannis’ cookie-cutter athleticism.

Manakins, a bird typically found in South America, act out a peculiar mating pattern analogous to a layup line or teammates running together in transition. Indeed, the triple pass, off-the-backboard alley-oop from Tony Snell just a few weeks ago felt incredibly comparable to this strange ritual. Giannis’ finish only punctuated the similarities.

“It’s sort of like a layup line if you want to get like totally crazy in comparing it to sports but they all, all males get together you know, females are standing there watching in the crowd, and they take turns kind of leaping,” McGraw explains.

Another South American bird sauntered into my life while discussing with the Ornithology experts, drawing similarities to Giannis’ penchant for pouncing. Birds, like most NBA role players, are often defined by the singular trait that makes them interesting, and by extension, valuable. That is, flying. However, there are some birds with additional abilities, ones that may even hold the key to finding Giannis’ avian analogue: the pitta.

Possessing a leaping acumen few birds can rival, the pittas offer another intriguing linkage to Giannis.

“They actually do the honest to goodness two-legged hop. And I would say, that quickly browsing the avian rolodex, they’re the best hoppers, ya,” says Fitzpatrick. “They’re the grasshoppers of birds.”

Lastly, one final comparison flew across my desk, courtesy of Kevin McGowan after we finished discussing whether Sandhill Cranes may be useful to this pursuit. Instead, he suggested an animal with some actual tape showing off its admittedly raw handles.

“There’s a type of bird in South America called a Seriema...these guys have really incredibly long legs, I mean, bizarrely long legs, but a short bill so not like a heron,” explains McGowan. “They’re interesting in that they’re predators, they eat snakes. They kill them by grabbing them by the tail and whacking them on the ground”

McGowan goes on to describe footage of these birds performing similar muscle memory feats with wiffle and golf balls, grabbing them and whacking them against the ground. Sometimes, even they are surprised by their own abilities:

“You look at it and one of them gets a good whack. It’s just like the snap in a wrist for a dunk...that St. Louis video one, there’s a clip of one of them and it looks for the world like someone dunking a ball.”

Just as Giannis defies a 1:1 comparison in basketball terms, it’s similarly difficult to find a bird whose specific makeup matches up with Giannis. Instead, we’re left with an amalgamation of avian proportions, a horrifying mashup that gets us one iota closer to finding a flight-enabled creature whose exploits could relate to the Greek Freak’s.

So the search to discover whether Giannis can fly ends with a whimper rather than a wistful tale about defying physics and escaping the trappings of his fruit by the foot wingspan. The search for a comparison in the animal kingdom for Giannis may continue (it won’t), but in the meantime, the most we have is a dream that will either require years of intensely specific evolution or the creepiest cross-breeding project of all time.

Benny Sieu - USA Today Sports;;;