MILWAUKEE — The story sounds like a great yarn spun from a wild imagination.
A son born in Greece to Nigerian parents who did every little thing they could to pay bills.
Didn’t start playing serious basketball until he was 13 years old. Gifted with size and a raw but promising skillset, yet more mystery than sure-thing to NBA scouts. Selected No. 15 in the 2013 draft by the small-market Milwaukee Bucks.
Maybe he would be OK. Maybe he would turn into a star.
But no one knew for certain Giannis Antetokounmpo would turn into a generational player, a two-time regular-season MVP, the unicorn who remained loyal to the Bucks by signing a five-year, $228.2 million extension before the 2020-21 season started.
“I just couldn’t leave,” he said. “There was a job that had to be finished.”
Antetokounmpo had a game-high 50 points, collected 14 rebounds and blocked five shots in the Bucks’ 105-98 victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 on Tuesday, completing a comeback from down 2-0 and winning the franchise’s first championship since 1971.
It doesn’t happen without Antetokounmpo, the Finals MVP, who turned in a legendary performance.
And yet it all seemed implausible that Antetokounmpo sat at the dais — with the Larry O’Brien championship on his left, the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP trophy on his right — answering questions about his first title.
“I started playing basketball just to help my family,” Antetokounmpo said. “Tried to get them out of the struggle, the challenges we were facing when we were kids.”
On the court in the postgame celebration, he shed tears. What was he thinking?
“The whole journey,” he said. “In order for me to be in this position, how much my parents sacrificed. How much my parents sacrificed. I saw that every day. My mom (Veronica), she worked extremely hard every day for me to be in this position and she never pressured me to do other things. This is for my dad (Charles), that he’s watching from above and he can see it.
“And this is for my significant other (Mariah), also. Every day, she helps me be better, a better person. She let me do what I’m supposed to do, and she takes care of my son (Liam) and my next son. And my brothers (Francis, Thanasis, Kostas, Alex).”
It is one of the greatest, most inspiring stories in sports.
“In the second half it was all Giannis, I’m not going to lie,” Bucks star Khris Middleton said of Antetokounmpo’s 33 second-half points. “He got the ball. He dominated. He didn’t settle. Forced his way to the rim. Forced his way to the free throw line. He held us down for the majority in the second half of the game.”
The historical context is exceptional. He is the seventh player to score 50 points in a Finals game, and he matches Bob Pettit in 1958 with the most points in a closeout game. Antetokounmpo is also the first player to record at least 50 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a Finals game since blocks were tracked starting in 1973-74, and joins Shaquille O’Neal as the only players in NBA history to record three Finals games with at least 40 points and 10 rebounds.
“I don’t know how many words you need to use beyond 50 points in a close out game in an NBA Finals. Pretty much sums it all up,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said. “It’s so indicative of who Giannis is as a player, as a person. He has that mindset always to just take care of business and he’s been our leader throughout my time.”
Playing in his first Finals, Antetokounmpo, who hyperextended his left knee in the Eastern Conference finals and missed the final two games against Atlanta, averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals and shot 61.8% from the field. Making it all the more special, the notoriously poor foul shooter made 17 of 19 free throws.
“People told me I cannot make free throws. I made my free throws tonight and I’m a freaking champion,” he said. “Made them when I’m supposed to make them. I’m joking — actually, I’m not.”
Throughout the NBA Finals, Antetokounmpo was insightful, honest and humorous. He doesn’t always like doing those media sessions, but in the Finals he has no choice. Talk or be fined. But he ended up showing a side of himself that most fans don’t to see.
At 26 years old, he has set aside ego and pride for humility, and acknowledges his flaws as a player. He understands what his journey means to people around the world.
“I represent my country, both countries, Nigeria and Greece. A lot of kids from there. But not just from Nigeria — all Africa and all Europe,” he said.
“Eight years ago, eight and a half years ago, when I came to the league, I didn’t know where my next meal will come from. My mom was selling stuff in the street. Now I’m here sitting at the top of the top. I’m extremely blessed. I’m extremely blessed. If I never have a chance to sit on this table ever again, I’m fine with it. I’m fine with it. I hope this can give everybody around the world hope. I want them to believe in their dreams.”
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JefZillgitt.