Giannis Antetokounmpo's impossible rise from the streets of Athens to Finals MVP, NBA champion

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s night started with a chase down block on Mikal Bridges, swatting him and his layup into another dimension, before galloping straight down to the other end for two points like it was the easiest thing in the world.

The immovable object and the unstoppable force all rolled into one.

It ended, well, we don’t know how for sure, but it almost certainly involved those goggles, that champagne and the Larry O’Brien championship trophy. Imagine the Bill Russell Finals MVP tucked into bed alongside it for good measure.

Somewhere in between was a performance of such magnitude that at points it was hard to tell what was causing the tremors shaking through Milwaukee and the entire Midwest. Was it the 65,000 fans crammed outside the Fiserv Forum erupting after each basket? Or was it the lone force of nature trapped inside it, the basketball player with the same genetic make-up as a tsunami?

There is no writer past or present who could come up with a character this good. The Greek son of Nigerian immigrants who grew up selling sunglasses, handbags, DVDs and CDs on the streets of Athens to support his parents and didn’t touch a basketball until he was 13.

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When he was 15 years old, he wasn’t even amongst the top 10 or so players at his school. At 18 he was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 15th selection in the first round.

Twenty-one, first triple-double. Twenty-two, first All-Star selection. Twenty-four, first MVP.

And on Tuesday night, aged 26, he became an NBA champion and Finals MVP after delivering a 50-point, 14-rebound and five-block opera against the Phoenix Suns.

It’s the kind of otherworldly trajectory that would make a meteor blush.

26 years old
NBA Champion
Finals MVP
2xMVP
Defensive Player of the Year
Most Improved Player of the Year
5x All-Star
5x All-NBA
4x All-Defense

Giannis Antetokounmpo is already an all-time great. pic.twitter.com/qQw0Yd4nTY

During the game, as Twitter fell over itself in disbelief at Antetokounmpo’s staggering refusal to accept a Game 7 decider in Phoenix, many took the opportunity to highlight his physical transformation, from gangly teenager to towering marble Adonis.

It is impressive, of course, something akin to watching Bruce Banner morph into the Incredible Hulk so gradually you don’t even notice until you see his old holiday photos. But then it misses the point.

Steve Rogers before the serum vs. Steve Rogers after the serum pic.twitter.com/IT5EXubDMY

Giannis’ physique was the reason the Bucks franchise took him on as a project all those moons ago, hoping and praying that through hard work in the gym, even harder coaching and a touch of dark magic that tantalising amalgamation of length, speed, agility, height and co-ordination would eventually resemble something close to a capable rotation option in the NBA.

Whatever the most optimistic of those vague projections for Giannis might have been doesn’t matter. It would be a disservice to say he has surpassed them. He has exceeded expectations in the same way that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has done a fantastic job of keeping the rain out.

Giannis has not just added muscles on top of his muscles, grown several inches he didn’t need and started getting haircuts. Eventually that happens to us all when adulthood strikes, just on a less heroic scale. No. If anything his frame is the thing that has undergone the quietest alteration, in comparison to both his skill and intelligence as a basketball player as well as the content of his character off the court.

This isn’t to say he was ever unskilled, or unlikeable. Just that now, having watched him flutter around the confetti-strewn floor of the Fiserv Forum at first in disbelief, then relief, then ecstasy, it’s hard not to take stock of the significant growth of the person, rather than the bones and musculature holding him up.

After all, those who have watched the NBA since 2013 have been on this journey with him, even if we struggle to remember the version of Giannis that wasn’t the most complete player in basketball bar a jump shot, or the face of the Milwaukee Bucks franchise, or quite possibly the most wholesome man in the history of the universe, evidence as follows.

Life lessons with @Giannis_An34. pic.twitter.com/oelTDCQo3E

genuinely don’t understand how anyone could dislike this guy pic.twitter.com/RN4vLf1R0s

The last time the Milwaukee Bucks won a championship, half a century ago in 1971, it was because they had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His generational talent was gifted to the franchise after they won a coin toss for the first overall selection in the 1969 Draft, with pick number two going to the Phoenix Suns.

In other words, it was chance and nothing more. Had it been heads not tails, or tails not heads, then it would have meant Neal Walk, not Lew Alcindor, and an even longer drought than the one they just broke.

With Giannis it’s different. He wasn’t obvious. He was never a sure thing. And it wasn’t luck. The Bucks saw something in him, even if it was just those tentacled limbs and the stride like a long jumper. In return, he also didn’t force his way to the Los Angeles Lakers at the first opportunity.

He stayed in Milwaukee because it was the team that took a chance on him, the place he began to call home and – let’s be honest – because they were giving him $228m to stick around. But also, and I think this is the main reason, simply because he liked it there. They obviously like having him, too. His immaculate development since has been precisely the result of that embryonic relationship, not a happy coincidence of it.

To watch him in Game 6, in fact throughout the Finals, and the playoffs, and the last few seasons, has been both a privilege and a joy. For all his physical gifts – he remains the single most impossible athlete in a league full of impossible athletes – it his determination, spirit and courage that draws those sharp intakes of breath just as often as the world-ending blocks.

He had five of them last night, all enough to smack the Earth off its axis, but the most memorable was the one he didn’t get, missing a Devin Booker layup by a fingertip after swallowing up half the court in hot pursuit. Furious with himself, the body language afterwards said “Damn, I should have got there” not “I’ll get the next one”. For Giannis “I’ll get the next one” goes without saying.

Even free-throws, his major weakness throughout the post-season, were a non-factor when it truly mattered. After averaging 56 per cent at the line he abruptly went 17-of-19 in Game 6, almost 90 per cent. It’d be considered a miracle if it wasn’t Giannis. So too would the first Bucks title in 50 years, and first 50+ points, 10+ rebounds and 5+ blocks game in playoff history.

Giannis Antetokounmpo. NBA Champion. Finals MVP. pic.twitter.com/BFyhBMA0qG

There are athletes you root for because they are the most dominant on the field, or the most affable off it. There are big markets and super teams. There is Zeus and Poseidon, Batman and Superman, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Then there is Giannis. Whatever he is, whatever he might still turn out to be. Across the Atlantic, there is perhaps a temptation to cite him as the shining realisation of the American Dream, the poor Greek kid who rocked up at the Statue of Liberty and saw his fortunes change overnight. He is far more than that.

He is Europe and Africa. Ordinary and extraordinary. A supreme athlete and a street vendor. Above all, he is human. He is Giannis Antetokounmpo, and his very real, scarcely believable, comic book story brings us all that little bit closer.

He is hope for all kinds of people.

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