On Wednesday night in Milwaukee, a young man whose childhood was spent peddling tourist junk in his native Athens, jumped through a crowd of the world’s best basketball players to finish what has already been named as one of the great plays in the history of sport.
When Giannis Antetokounmpo was a boy, he officially came from nowhere: not from Nigeria, his parents’ country and unable to obtain citizenship despite being born in Greece after his parents emigrated there.
He was officially stateless during the decade Greece was in the economic dryer but also in an impoverished house teeming with love and good energy. His main asset was his size and the grace of his long limbs which allowed him to dominate the local boys’ leagues in Athens.
Blocking is one of the smartest skills in basketball; Getting a clean hand on the ball of an opposing player leading hard to the ring and repelling the perfect shot requires all that is good in the sport of ball: timing, athleticism, hand-eye coordination and a fresh mind in the game. one moment.
When the participants are both over 7 feet tall, the spectacle enters another realm. In less than a second, Antetokounmpo sort of reacted to a lob pass thrown by the Phoenix Suns Devin Booker to turn around and block Deandre Ayton as he stood up to dunk the ball. Both men are so tall and endowed with extreme jumping ability.
For a split second they were suspended with their arms vertical and one foot over the edge, Ayton trying to roll the ball into the basket as Antetokounmpo forced him back. There was just over a minute left in a scruffy and bruised game and the block sealed the game for Milwaukee.
The NBA Finals will reach their final stage this weekend. This year’s finalists are the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks, two steadfast basketball towns whose fanbases have been loyal to their humble teams since the 1960s.
Phoenix never won an NBA championship: Milwaukee’s only star year was 1974, when the team was led by young Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The teams are tied at 2-2 in the best of seven series.
You can see the novelty written on the faces of the crowd; they are delirious and a little stunned that their team has made it this far. The headlines reduced the Finals to a fight between Chris Paul, the Suns’ shrewd and murderous playmaker, and Antetokounmpo, the towering Greek who had a transformative effect on the city of Milwaukee and basketball culture.
Every now and then professional sport surprises itself by unveiling a brilliant story in which everyone behind the scenes performed impeccably and just did the right thing.
It’s impossible to watch Antetokounmpo play without realizing how fabulous and unlikely his presence is. He started playing basketball in 2007. Six years later, he flew to New York for his very first visit to America for the 2013 NBA Draft, where he was selected as the 15th pick by Milwaukee.
He was 18 that night and looked about 14 years old. In October, Milwaukee’s first game of the new season was at Madison Square Garden. Antetokounmpo is literally a boy among men: wide-eyed, dazzled by the opulence of the environment as much as by the play – but not intimidated.
He is skinny and curious and commentators carefully advertise his name around. A few years earlier, Antetokounmpo had followed the NBA by paying for half-hour slots in an internet cafe. It must have looked like a fantasy world to him. And now he was propelled into it. In his first season in America, he was so lonely that he sometimes slept in the gym – a habit he had had since his years in Athens with his brothers.
He was lucky because his agent, Alex Saratsis – “as close to me as anyone without a blood tie can be,” said Antetokounmpo – is of Greek origin and is fluent in the language. He supported Antetokounmpo before anyone realized the immensity of his potential.
The NBA scouting system is impressive but it didn’t spread to the Greek League Second Division, which was Antetokounmpo’s only real experience in men’s basketball. Saratsis understood what it was like to be an Afro-European in a new world where everything – how to get a permit, how to furnish an apartment – was a special ordeal. And he understood the boy’s need for family – just like the Bucks.
In less than two years, the Antetokounmpo family had moved to America. Giannis’ older brother Thanasis was signed by the Bucks: he rarely leaves the bench but has become a big part of the story.
If the speed of Antetokounmpo’s rise was dizzying for the player himself, then how must it all have sounded like his father Charles? There are footage of the family attending their first Milkwakee match, sitting together and trying to ignore the strangeness of a camera pointed at them.
By the time Antetokounmpo won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2019, his father had passed away, having suffered a heart attack at the age of 54. Everything the player had shed in the past ten years came out in a speech that night which he delivered through tears. . He looked like a fat kid at the time. He looked like what he was: a well-behaved boy.
What is striking about Antetokoumpno is that no one – former teammates, rivals on the pitch, officials, the media – talks about him in other than glowing terms. There has never been any vanity, boastfulness or wickedness; he competes and respects and it’s a pleasure to be around.
If you happened to see Antetokounmpo in those NBA Finals, you might be thinking, well, what would someone like him do other than be a world-class basketball player?
Now that he has the strength of a grown man to match the size, he’s become unstoppable, with a quick and dazzling footwork that facilitates his characteristic spinning motion towards the baskets that smaller men are thrown into like 6-foot-5 bowling pins. He is causing a sensation.
Milwaukee has smartly evolved on its precious asset, building a new arena in which home games are booked, season after season and around which new restaurants and apartments have been built; it was a boon to the city’s economy.
The Bucks took their chances and, last December, Antetokounmpo rewarded them, resisting the current ruinous trend of joining one of the super-teams led by LeBron James or Kevin Durant and signing a five-year contract with Milwaukee. The $ 228 million extension makes it the richest contract in the NBA.
The expectation, of course, is for the Greek Freak, as he’s inevitably been dubbed, to bring the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to Wisconsin. This summer could be their best chance, with a string of bizarre injuries rocking the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, both of whom will return with vengeance next fall.
If the Bucks can win Game 5 in Phoenix on Sunday night, then they’ll have a chance to play for the NBA Championship in what will be a live Milwaukee on Wednesday night. It is far from being pre-established and the pressure is immense.
No player has risen so high from such a dark base. Antetokounmpo is unlike anything the world has seen before. It’s tempting to say he’s unique. But he and his partner now have a baby, Liam Antetokounmpo, whose mother is Mariah Riddlesprigger, the 6-foot-3 former Olympic volleyball player. If the Bucks haven’t signed it already, it’s only because they’re not licensed.
Commentators, meanwhile, are keeping their fingers crossed that the little boy does not cut off both parents’ surnames in the years to come.