The individual accomplishments alone spoke volumes. Two league MVP awards. Five-time All-NBA. Defensive Player of the Year. At just 26-years-old, Giannis Antetokounmpo had already built a Hall of Fame resume coming into this season. Yet immortality is gained by winning championships. Antetokounmpo now stands with the immortals.
His Game 6 performance in the NBA Finals on Tuesday night was one of the most prolific and dominant in basketball history. The 6-11 power forward scored 50 points, gathered 14 rebounds, and had five blocked shots in a remarkable all-around display, and carried the Milwaukee Bucks to a 105-98 victory over the Phoenix Suns in front of a raucous home crowd. The 4-2 series win earned the franchise its second league title and first since the 1970-71 season when Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, led them to a 4-0 sweep over the Baltimore Bullets.
By adding an NBA championship and an aptly named Bill Russell Finals MVP, Antetokounmpo, who won’t turn 27 until December, has accomplished more than any 26-year-old in league history. His profile is unequaled. Antetokounmpo’s 50 piece tied the legendary Bob Petit for the most points in a Finals clinching game. Petit scored 50 for the St. Louis Hawks in 1958 when they defeated the Boston Celtics 4-2.
Ironically, the Hawks were the last team to capture an NBA championship without having a Black player on its roster. The Bucks’ sensational star is a Black player of Nigerian descent who was born in Greece. It reflects the evolution of the game. However, despite his eclectic background, Antetokounmpo is a reminder that in the age of analytics, in which devotees of the seemingly all-consuming algorithmic philosophy worship at the altar of the three-point line, a special big man who does virtually all of his offensive work in the paint can still be the core a title team.
Furthermore, in the offense obsessed culture of basketball on all levels, Antetokounmpo reaffirmed the efficacy and value of a superior two-way player, as his defense in the best-of-series versus the Suns was spectacular. “I started playing basketball just to, you know, help my family,” an emotional Antetokounmpo said following Game 6. “Tried to get them out of the struggle…I never thought I’m going to be 26-years-old playing in the NBA Finals…
“This right here, this right here,” he repeated, “man it’s been––we’ve come a long way…This should be, should make every person, every kid, anybody around the world believe in their dreams. You know, no matter like whatever you feel, when you feel down, when things don’t look like it’s going to happen for you, you might not make it.
“Your career might be basketball; it might be anything. Just believe what you’re doing and keep working. You know, don’t let nobody tell you what you what you can’t be and what you cannot do. People told me I can’t make free-throws, but I made my free throws tonight,” he shouted, “and I’m a freakin champion. I made them when I was supposed to make them.”
Indeed, the man nicknamed the Greek Freak, who has been incessantly criticized by detractors for his poor perimeter and sub-par foul shooting, as the primary reasons they argued he wasn’t, yet, championship molded, had ice in his veins from the stripe on Tuesday, going a Stephen Curry-like 17-19.
From selling DVDs on the streets of Athens as kids to help make ends meet, the Antetokounmpo brothers have now provided the family generational wealth––Giannis signed a five-year, $228 million contract with the Bucks last December––and three NBA championships. Their father Charles died in 2017 at 54, but mother Veronica has seen her sons Kostas, 23, win a title with the Los Angeles Lakers last season, and Giannis and his Bucks teammate Thanasis, 29, get one this week.
Dreams often do come true.