MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo allowed himself a moment to bask in the glory, letting the thirsty crowd at Fiserv Forum salute the newest king, the NBA’s newest champion — finally able to accept the accolades, completing the vision many didn’t believe was possible several months ago.
A lone missed free throw prevented him from surpassing Bob Pettit in standing alone in the record books, as he had to settle for tying the best scoring performance in a closeout game in NBA history.
A 50-ball to polish off the resilient Phoenix Suns in Game 6, which felt more like a coronation given how intense and anxious the crowd was throughout the entire day.
Not Michael, not Kareem nor Kobe nor Shaq put the ball in the basket like he did with the Larry O’Brien Trophy at stake. The guy who couldn’t shoot scored more than just about anybody, the player mocked by Chris Paul for missed free throws swished nearly all of them in the clincher.
And he did it in Milwaukee, which will be much to the delight of the NBA’s league office and commissioner Adam Silver.
An NBA title for these Milwaukee Bucks seemed as far away last December as it was when Antetokounmpo was a skinny, relatively unknown draft pick fighting with Khris Middleton for minutes on a 15-win team.
Too many obstacles stood in Antetokounmpo and the Bucks’ way, many believed to be internal more than anything. The disappointments from previous seasons became anvils, and Antetokounmpo’s unorthodox game was supposedly proof the Bucks couldn’t become champions.
Not this player, with this franchise and this coach.
But it was to be, with a performance for the ages that can’t be disqualified by Kevin Durant’s feet being too big or Trae Young stepping on an official’s foot. Or LeBron James’ absence. Antetokounmpo stands nonpareil (35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds) with no qualifiers, no excuses — whatever breaks the Bucks caught, they earned through sweat equity of the past.
The fingerprints on the Larry O’Brien Trophy belonged to so many, but as he whispered sweet nothings to it and the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy, cradling it like a newborn child and never letting go, only he knew the value of his journey.
“I just I couldn't leave,” Antetokounmpo said. “The bubble did not pay us justice. Give credit to the Miami Heat [last season]. They played great. But they did not pay us justice.”
There he stood amid the dull roar, justice raining down on him. In a building that wouldn’t exist if not for his basketball excellence, not terribly far from a makeshift parking lot full of 65,000 screaming fans who couldn’t get in but made their presence felt for a first time that would never feel this pure again.
Antetokounmpo called it “unfinished business,” staying and seeing it through with the franchise he grew with and grew up with, as opposed to having this season be one long, sad marathon of speculation about his future.
“But coming back, I was like, this is my city. They trust me. They believe in me. They believe in us,” Antetokounmpo said. “Obviously, I wanted to get the job done. But that's my stubborn side. It's easy to go somewhere and go win a championship with somebody else. It's easy. I could go ... I could go to a superteam and just do my part and win a championship.
“But this is the hard way to do it and this is the way to do it, and we did it. F***ing did it.”
There’s a competitive stubbornness Antetokounmpo exudes, one he readily admitted to that kept him in Milwaukee — not as a shot to the player empowerment movement that has shaped the way teams are formed but his own way, one the NBA and its partners would be wise to embrace in the near future.
Not only is he a made man, but his approach is almost a throwback to the way NBA players used to be, building a story, step-by-step and bringing the fan along for the ride, the pain and triumphs with a collective tissue even the casuals can embrace.
Fans will know he isn’t a marketing creation, that he has a game that’s recognizable and bankable, which will subsequently put Milwaukee on the television map for the foreseeable future and positions this organization as a place players will gravitate to in free agency as it tries to improve on the fringes.
He became the hardest-working man in basketball business, his signature plays in this series a product of effort more than freakish athleticism, his cape flying because those legs churned in critical moments, playing through pain and earning extra layers of respect.
When Antetokounmpo spoke throughout this Finals run, he opened up and bared his soul in sound bites the league will package for years to come. He didn’t close up as the goal got closer or even hit its roadblocks — Antetokounmpo became the league’s ambassador for transparency, not brooding or complaining but operating with the full understanding this opportunity may not come again, because it certainly didn’t come easy.
As the NBA prepares for the next generation to step in, Antetokounmpo is not a stopgap between LeBron and Luka. Space-fillers aren’t two-time MVPs by 26, with a Defensive Player of the Year award under their belt and now, adding a Finals MVP to the trophy case.
Perhaps the league didn’t know what it wanted in prepping for a post-LeBron world, but it knew what it didn’t want to see. Antetokounmpo helped paint the picture and filled in the blanks, not just as a rags-to-riches story but the player who’s intimate and mold-breaking, unashamed in the face of failure.
“I know I'm a role model. But this should make every person, every kid, anybody around the world believe in their dreams,” Antetokounmpo said. “People told me I cannot make free throws. I made my free throws tonight and I'm a freaking champion. I made them when I'm supposed to make them. I'm joking — actually, I'm not.”
He recalled and named everyone who aided in his development, almost a reminder to the world whatever his flaws are currently pale to the raw talent who was still growing and physically maturing as a rookie, a player without a position or defined game but one you couldn’t keep off the floor.
From John Hammond to Jason Kidd to all the steps in between, he needed to pull from that tissue to stake his claim as a champion.
“I've done it all, man. I did anything that I could just to be on the court, just to be in this position,” Antetokounmpo said. “I've not played. I've come off the bench. When I was 18, I started on the team. I went to the front office and told them to send me to the G League. I've played point guard. I've only defended. Slashed from the corners and everything. In my fourth year, I was able to lead as a ball handler.”
Mike Budenholzer was able to come in and shepherd Antetokounmpo to his MVP seasons, even in the face of postseason failures. General manager Jon Horst kept tinkering with this Rubik’s Cube until the damned pieces fit — no guarantee until the confetti flew as the clock hit zero Tuesday night.
The NBA wants someone it can wrap its arms around, not as a standard for perfection but one of consistency and authenticity, someone who’ll allow the league to hug him and guide as part of its glorious story.
Just so long as Giannis can carry those two gold trophies with him, he’ll go wherever they want.
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