The other night, in the wake of the Milwaukee Bucks 118-116 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, I commented that, “[Giannis] might’ve secured both MVP and DPOY in a split-second. Just an utterly transcendent and, frankly, legendary player.”
Silly me. I said all that without considering that he might go on and do himself one better just two nights later.
I’m writing this because Giannis Antetokounmpo remains the most inspirational force in sport today. What we are bearing witness to now is, we will see in hindsight, the leap of a superstar towards that most sanctified ground of a legend. That he was a special talent was obvious five years ago. That he is poised to put together one of the most ferocious decades in all of basketball’s venerable history seems obvious today.
The first marker is his having definitively taken the mantle as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer; one of the last records from Milwaukee’s long history that he’d yet to eclipse. For some, this is merely further validation that Giannis is the franchise, choosing as he did to remain in our city to try and do the impossible. It is a moment to celebrate in many ways, but part of what makes Giannis a legendary player is how he has become the living embodiment of the Milwaukee Bucks’ glorious past. There’s been nothing overweening about his ascent up the leaderboards – instead, he often displays endearing humility and respect for those who have worn the uniform before him.
I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s been shown highlights of guys like Marques Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sidney Moncrief, and said with unfeigned awe how great they were as artists of their craft. His journey to becoming Milwaukee’s icon is not an erasure of the past, but rather a heartfelt embracing of it, celebrating those who have achieved great things in this city in such a way that allows the decades to find renewed validation in him.
From what came before, his legend looks now to the present and what is yet to come. Frankly, the rest of the conversation just hasn’t kept up with the landscape shifting beneath us. When looking at the breadth of the NBA, it is hard to reach any conclusion other than that this league will be his, if it isn’t already. The greats of five years ago are gradually aging out of dominance, the dominant players in his own age group fail to offer his implacable dominance of both ends of the court, and the generation coming up behind him lacks a big man who can feasibly measure up to what he is capable of. Even after the three-point revolution, the game of basketball remains one whose transcendent talents are big men capable as they are of imposing a different sort of physical will on the court. Giannis Antetokounmpo is just the latest force proving that rule.
As Giannis grew into superstardom, his consistent comparison was as a lither Shaquille O’Neal: Strong, aggressive, and brave enough to use their gifts to simply dominate everyone on the court. But Giannis’s personal revolution isn’t over, and comparisons to Shaq now feel restrictive or small-minded, legendary player though he was. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a new kind of player, taking bits and pieces of all the greats and fusing them into one.
The strength of Shaq, the relentless work ethic of a Kobe Bryant, the will to win at all costs of a Michael Jordan, the orchestration of an offense of a LeBron James, the rebounding chops of a Dennis Rodman, the finesse and touch of a Hakeem Olajuwon, the turnaround big-man jumper of a Dirk Nowitzki, the authentically humble demeanor of a Tim Duncan, the commitment to one city, one franchise of the most revered figures in sport anywhere in the world. Last night, when the Bucks needed a three to cap a furious comeback against the Brooklyn Nets, it wasn’t one of the team’s reliable sharp-shooters who took the shot: It was Giannis Antetokounmpo, grabbing the ball off a busted play, and fearlessly taking a step-back and nailing a three in a sequence that puts to bed yet another of the countless doubts about what he is capable of.
Fools, all of us. He’s capable of everything.
This year alone we’ve witnessed his becoming a nightly triple-double as he did close to literally everything for his team to score, defend, and create for others while Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez missed time to injury or illness. He’s been drafted into more true center minutes than ever before in his entire career, a role that asked him to not only bear the brunt of halting 255-285 pound men for 30+ minutes, but to then also turn, sacrifice his body once more, and engage in glorified trench warfare to corral rebounds. His personal control on offense has never been this refined combining as it does the knowledge that he’s faster and stronger than anyone on the court with the artistry of a basketball mind who shifts entire defenses into his favor through a growing list of shot types he can routinely sink.
And when he’s off the court, he is leadership incarnate: Constantly talking to every player from starter to end of the bench to let them know we need you. As joyous and full of glee watching his teammates succeed as when he himself adds another highlight to his hall of fame career. In short, he has been everything when his team and his city needed him to be everything. That we are on the cusp of the best record in the conference in spite of everything that’s plagued us this season is thanks solely to him.
Still, this very morning the navel-gazing upper crust of basketball seems to be whistling past its own graveyard. The Brooklyn Nets have been a multi-year psychodrama all for the pleasure of having to survive play-in single-elimination games to make the playoffs. The Philadelphia 76ers have had James Harden for, like, two weeks and the team has already been split between two camps that deeply loathe one another. The Miami Heat get to watch a 32 year-old man loudly threaten a 41 year-old man and a 51 year-old man with physical violence in what is supposed to be the most professional organization in the sport. The Celtics have been a powerhouse, but they just lost a key big man in a conference whose best player is a 7’0“, 242 pound death machine. The Los Angeles Lakers will probably miss the playoffs entirely. The Phoenix Suns are… doing pull ups and posting about it like it’s the title they lost nine months ago.
And yet, amid all this truly unimpressive babbling, there seems to be a strange lack of awareness that the league’s fate for the next ten years is gradually being sealed by a Greek man in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. More’s the pity for them.
They’re about to become yet another chapter in the legend of Giannis Antetokounmpo.