We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother
Sports are cruel. By their nature, they test your willingness to invest your heart and soul into a venture that promises you nothing. Professional sports are cruelty of another degree. They dare you to abandon the principles of sport as we are taught them as bright-eyed kids who still believe in a just world where playing hard, playing for your teammates, and playing for love of the game is reason enough to be proud.
It is hard to take a look at the professional sports landscape and not come out the other side jaded, cynical, worn-out at constantly giving and getting nothing in return. All of those things we naively put our hearts into as kids have been twisted beyond the point of being grotesque. Competition was supposed to beget respect, and instead it normally only delivers heaps of bitterness and mean-spiritedness.
Which is what makes the Milwaukee Bucks, your 2021 NBA Champions, all the more special. They embody everything we cherish in sports. They are as pure a champion as we’ll ever hope to have in our lifetimes.
Everything begins and ends with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the undisputed king of our little kingdom. He is in every way the dream athlete. He has worked his ass off for years to push himself from an unknown to one of the greatest players this sport has seen. Last night, he took not a single play off, running the length of the court at a full-out sprint every possession to make sure Phoenix got not a single uncontested look while simultaneously reaching a transcendent level in which no defense can hope to contain him for more than a single possession. All this off an injury that would normally have broken a lesser player physically or caused him to play conservatively to save his body. When all the chips were down and the highest stage called, Giannis miraculously walked out there and immediately launched himself into a stacked defense to try an alley-oop on the very first possession of the Finals. When it comes to playing hard and for the love of the game, he has no equal.
On top of that, he is almost singular in the world of professional basketballers for his unwavering loyalty to the city of Milwaukee. Last December, fresh off his supermax extension, I wrote about how he had inaugurated an era where we lived with the audacity of joy. Everything in the intervening months and, joyously, the mere hours since we cemented glory has shown that his declaration that, “This is my home, this is my city” was almost unfathomably sincere. He looked at us and in his heart he decided that we are worthy of sharing his years on top of the world with. For Giannis, we are enough. I’ve gotten emotional a number of times thinking about it.
That same dedication Giannis showed reflects back on the rest of the team as well. When things looked their most dire, the Milwaukee Bucks never cracked, but believed that they could still find a way forward, find a way through even while the NBA shifted its star lineup around again and again.
Khris Middleton: Co-star, teammate, brother. For a brief moment early on in his near-decade with Giannis he had aspirations of being the lead guy in Milwaukee. He scrapped, fought, and bled in an environment that encouraged players to view their teammates as adversaries. Now, at the mountaintop, he and Giannis have fully realized that theirs is a partnership of equals, the hammering yin to the flowing yang. With trust borne of life’s shared burdens, Khris moved beyond the shy-of-the-moment play of years past and, when we needed him to take and make a shot, did so in the face of unbelievable stakes. Vindication doesn’t come sweeter.
For coach Mike Budenholzer, this is the culmination of decades of grinding through the coaching ranks, years of having to constantly hear about how it’s his head if things don’t pan out, and when it mattered most finding ways to push and prod his team into winning position. It takes more than veteran players to weather some of the storms Milwaukee faced this playoff run, and Budenholzer should get an enormous amount of the credit for keeping the team in the right mental place to respond when their backs were against the wall. Take a bow, coach. You did it.
GM Jon Horst had an outsized role to play here, too. This team is his to own. What looked like a sure-fire winner of the past two years turned out to be something less than the sum of its parts. It would have been understandable if Horst struggled to scrape up enough assets to swing one last throw of the dice, and yet he thought he knew exactly the kinds of players this team needed to take that final most-difficult step. The time was now, and it takes an executive the quality of Horst to find ways to obtain a Jrue Holiday, to sign a Bobby Portis, to outmaneuver opponents for a PJ Tucker. For every doubt thrown his way he has answered in thunderous reply and, somehow, someway, had his finest team building season yet. I’m ecstatic to see what he’ll cook up from here.
Up and down the roster, the same rules apply to everyone here. Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez, PJ Tucker, Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton; each one was asked to do the things we were taught make us worthy of our dignity. Play hard, play for your teammates, play for the love of the game, and trust that the universe will reward you, the sport’s righteous few.
This team will go down in the annals as one of the most special we’ll ever have the immense privilege of being part of. Their success was our success. Their purity of competitive drive matched our own. Their title is our title.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.