Midsummer Musings: The Milwaukee Bucks’ Improbable Rise to the Mountaintop

The life stories of the “skinny prospect from the streets of Greece and his best friend in the NBA” are worth reflecting on in the wake of their victory.

by Will Ennis | 7/23/21 2:00am

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by Alexandra Ma / The Dartmouth Staff

It was just last week that I spent 1,000 words of ink in this very column extolling the virtues of Giannis Antetokounpo and his Milwaukee Bucks after they fought back to even their Finals matchup with Phoenix at two games apiece. Since then, everything has changed.

Well, maybe not quite everything.

Over the four games in a row that Milwaukee took after falling down 0-2 in the series, Giannis’s prodigious ability was on display on the biggest stage in the sport, and that, at least, stayed the same in Game 6. The Milwaukee Bucks are your 2021 NBA champions, and they did it on the back of one of the most dominant individual Finals outings NBA fans have ever seen.

Let’s start with the numbers: 50 points (on an otherworldly 74.9% true shooting), 14 rebounds, and five momentous blocks. Giannis posted the second ever 50-point Finals closeout game, and the first since Bob Pettit did it in 1958. He notched only the seventh 50-point game in Finals history. He became the first player in Finals history to score at least 40 points to go along with at least 10 rebounds and five blocks, and the first NBA player ever to go for 50-10-5 at any point in the playoffs. By NBA columnist John Hollinger’s game score metric (which aims to determine how impactful an individual player was in a given game), Giannis’s Game 6 was the second-most dominant Finals performance of the last 40 years — trailing only LeBron James in Game 6 of his 2016 comeback against the Warriors.

Let’s talk about the impact. Giannis’s outrageous performance brought the city of Milwaukee its first NBA championship since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar suited up for the Bucks in 1971. Sixteen thousand fans witnessed this victory in Fiserv Forum, with another 65,000 in attendance at the watch party in Milwaukee’s “Deer District” right outside the stadium. With his dominance in this victory, Giannis gave Milwaukee arguably their greatest night in sports history.

Let’s talk about Giannis’s place in history. With this win, and the Finals MVP trophy that Giannis rightfully took home at the end, Giannis joins an exclusive list of players to have won that award, a regular season MVP (of which he has two) and a Defensive Player of the Year trophy. The others? Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. End of list.

After capping off one of the most incredible Finals runs of all time with a title — comparable in recent history only to Shaquille O’Neal in 2000 — Giannis has cemented his greatness. But I’ve written about what makes him so special. What I want to do now, at the end of an incredible 2021 NBA season, is look back. As astounding as Giannis’s performance and this title are at face value, they are even more so for how improbable his story was.

On December 6, 1994, in Athens, Greece, a boy was born to two Nigerian immigrants. His parents named him Giannis.

Life was hard for Giannis and his three brothers. Work was difficult to find for their parents, so he and his older brother Thanasis  —also a member of the Bucks’ championship team today — would help their family by hawking trinkets, watches and handbags in the street to make money.

In 2007, a 12-year-old Giannis started playing basketball in youth leagues in Greece. In 2018, Giannis recalled a game where he and his brother shared the same pair of shoes. Thanasis would sub out and take the shoes off, then Giannis would lace them up and get in the game.

For the first 18 years of his life, Giannis didn’t leave Greece, but never received Greek citizenship. Paperless, essentially stateless, this lanky, gifted but raw prospect started catching the eyes of NBA scouts while playing for Filathlitikos, a semi-pro Greek basketball team. Less than two months before the 2013 NBA Draft, Giannis was issued his Greek citizenship and he travelled to the United States for the very first time.

Having the 15th pick in that draft, the Milwaukee Bucks took a swing on an unheralded, relatively unknown kid from Greece. Suddenly, those skinny shoulders were holding up the weight of a franchise that hadn’t won a title in nearly 50 years. Eight years later, those shoulders aren’t nearly as small, and they have proven themselves capable time and again of carrying that weight.

Also arriving in Milwaukee that summer eight years ago was Giannis’s championship running mate, Khris Middleton. But if anyone had claimed then that this player was capable of being a second option on a championship team, they would have been laughed out of whatever room they were in.

Middleton entered the NBA the year beforehand, taken by the Detroit Pistons with the 39th pick in the 2012 draft after three years at Texas A&M. That December, he spent time in the NBA’s developmental league with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. After a rookie season in which he played just 27 games for the Pistons, averaging 6 points per game, Middleton was included in a trade with Milwaukee. The Pistons and the Bucks swapped point guards, Brandon Knight (along with Middleton as a throw-in) for the Bucks’ Brandon Jennings. Middleton was such an afterthought in this trade that some reporters and aggregators didn’t even include him in write-ups about the transaction.

Since arriving in Milwaukee, Giannis and Khris have grown up alongside each other. Giannis became the MVP-caliber player we know today, while Middleton developed the shotmaking skills he showed off throughout the playoffs, becoming the first NBA G-League alum to make back-to-back All Star Games. 

Now, that skinny prospect from the streets of Greece and his best friend in the NBA — a second-round draft selection and later trade filler — have climbed the mountain as the first and second options on their team. There are no words to describe how unlikely this was. No words to describe how much it meant to them to do it together, the hard way, putting in the work together until everything fell right. I can’t say it any better than Giannis himself did after that long-sought victory in Game 6.

Clutching his Finals MVP trophy, turning to Middleton, who held the team’s championship trophy, in the midst of a moment long in the making after playing together for eight years: “Khris… We did it, huh? We fucking did it.”

That they did.

Two of the unlikeliest success stories in the NBA today have finally returned the Bucks to the mountaintop. It’s what Giannis pledged he would do after his first year in Milwaukee, what the late Kobe Bryant challenged Giannis to do after he won his first MVP, and what these two players have worked at together for the better part of the past decade.

Their hard work, their loyalty and their deep, driving determination to win brought the Bucks to this one, beautiful, perfect moment. All that’s left for these unlikely heroes now is to enjoy the champagne.

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