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Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Audacity of Joy

Giannis’s extension proves him, and us, worthy

2013 NBA Draft Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Being a sports fan is an exercise in frustration for the vast majority of us. Only one team can claim ultimate glory each year, and the rest have to content themselves as also-rans. We toil through the losses and disappointments because of a nigh-religious belief that our suffering now will be rewarded by a stroke of good luck in the future.

For small market teams this existence can be even more debilitating. Nobody wants to come to your city, you’re the subject of mockery for simply existing, and anyone worth a damn who does fall into your lap is bound to be blown by the winds of fate to more prosperous lands. The pains of this existence become normalized in time; you become used to the rhythms of expectations dashed by forces far beyond your control. So much so that you kindle a feeling of grim satisfaction that you haven’t bowed to the inevitable. You trudge in to the arena, turn on the TV, or listen on the radio because you’re still a true believer, and this is your way of showing your defiance to the malevolent nature of sports.

Which is what makes the story of Giannis Antetokounmpo appear something akin to a miracle for us, the faithful. And no brief miracle, either, as his five-year, $228 million extension will likely ensure we’ll have been privileged with his presence for over a decade, at minimum.

I need not run through every chapter of his genuinely miraculous arrival and rise to a place atop the heights of athletic preeminence, great though it is. We’ve all collectively internalized this story as part of our DNA as Bucks fans. We all know about the grainy highlight videos, the eagerness and fears of a teenager going it alone in a foreign land, the wild plays, the year-on-year maturation of his skills, his physical presence, and his emotions. It is a tale that, had it come to an end next summer, would stand as one of the most incredible in modern sporting history.

Yet what Giannis gave us, the lowly fans of the lowly Milwaukee Bucks, is the undeniable validation that we are his chosen people. We are more than some folks sticking out brutal winters in obscurity, notable only for a past that no longer has bearing on the present. We are more than the forgotten, the resentful, the hopeless that outsiders paint us as. We are more than a rest stop on the way to somewhere else, somewhere that matters. Giannis chose us, the people of Milwaukee and the people of Wisconsin, and by simply saying “this is my city” he has freed us from the chains that bind.

For the first time in over 40 years, we can revel in the audacity of joy.

This joy is audacious simply because it should not be. It goes against every lesson we’ve been handed from time immemorial: you’re Milwaukee, the best you can hope for is a surprise 50-win season before you tumble back to the wasteland from whence you came. You’re Milwaukee, the best you can hope for is a segment of a generational talent’s playing days before they skip town for the cosmopolitan joys of the coasts. You’re Milwaukee, the best you can hope for is a player who says the right things about loyalty before they turn their back for perfectly logical reasons. You understand, don’t you? It’s nothing personal

Up until Tuesday, December 15th, 2020, we collectively felt the weight of that history on our (sports fan) souls. All those countless minutes, hours, days, months, and years were borne so that this man would arrive as our salvation. We were so desperate for it to be true that the same energy began to crack our sanity. To be so fully invested in the idea that he is different, only to have doubts creep in, is debilitating. It showed in the discourse: did his body language signal that he had one foot out the door already, or were his teammates playing poorly because they knew we were heading for a fall, or, sacrilege, should we consider bowing to our lot in life and trade him? I don’t think anyone can or should triumphantly proclaim that those who were worried were merely false Cassandras; the fate of our fandom stood atop a knife’s edge, and a hint of doom can unnerve even the most ardent believers.

Giannis chose the other route, though, and did the unthinkable in shattering the norms and expectations all had come to believe as fact. The quick pivot by many in the media and other fan bases from “he’s leaving” to “he’ll never win there” or “he’ll demand a trade in two years, tops” reveals just how cynical and avaricious the modern NBA landscape has become. Much of the discussion boils down to this lecture given to small-markets: You are not worthy because of who you are, right down to the very place you call home. Your identity, your personality, your hopes and wishes in this life are, on balance, worthless when compared to the way things work in the real world. Don’t even bother savoring your moment in the sun because that cruel mistress Fate will never rest.

No longer.

I call this the audacity of joy not only because the impossible happened yet again for the Milwaukee Bucks, but because this final hurdle allows us to set our sights ever higher. If we stared into the face of cold basketball death and survived, who is to say that our hopes of a championship, hell, multiple championships are unreasonable? Has Giannis not proven in the most definitive way possible that those silly dreams that he’ll be a Buck for life are far closer to becoming reality than we ever dared imagine? The league and its outriders said this simply could not be and were proven woefully incorrect; how can you not let your dreams run wild when you’ve beaten fearful odds time and time again?

They were wrong and we were right when it mattered most. And if we’ve been right this long maybe we’ll be right about even greater aspirations. The possibilities now seem limitless all thanks to the decision of one man.

In choosing Milwaukee, Giannis has done more than simply prove his loyalty. He has embraced us as his and we have embraced him as ours. Together we arrive at a place of such deep mutual respect, love, and admiration that it elevates us beyond the artificial trappings of sports. We see the best of ourselves in Giannis and he sees the best of himself in us. In that mirror image we have found salvation.

We’ve discovered the audacity of joy.