MILWAUKEE -- Late in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night, with the game well in hand, Giannis Antetokounmpo walked off the floor to a standing ovation from the adoring crowd inside Fiserv Forum. It was a scene that has played out hundreds of times since he arrived in Milwaukee. Only this time it was on the biggest stage of the sport, and he had just led the Milwaukee Bucks to a 120-100 win over the Phoenix Suns to cut the series deficit to 2-1.
It was a moment 17,240 days in the making, as the Bucks notched their first Finals win in Milwaukee since 1974.
In the 47 years since, the Bucks have fielded some good-to-great teams. Marques Johnson and Co. were a real problem in the 1980s, as were the Ray Allen-led squads of the early 2000s, but they were never able to break through. And other than that, things have been dark.
Growing up in Milwaukee over the past 20-plus years, there were times where it felt more likely that the Bucks would leave the city than get back to the Finals. Reasons to see the team were few and far between, and when you did file into the cavernous Bradley Center back in the day it was to see whatever star happened to be in town that night. There weren't many more depressing or dead-end situations in the league.
That all changed when a wiry, bright-eyed kid showed up from Greece in 2013.
It was curiosity at first. Who was this kid who one day wired all his money back home and started running to the arena because he didn't have anything left for a cab, only to catch a lift from a friendly couple.
Then cautious intrigue. Bucks fans had been burned by false dawns before, but this seemed different. The things he was doing in games were unlike anyone in the league had seen, let alone Milwaukee. He had unique physical gifts, and the work ethic to match. After all, he was nicknamed the Greek Freak for a reason.
Finally, a full on love affair. Around 2017, when he made his first All-Star Game and All-NBA team, it started to become clear that there was really something special brewing here. Then came the MVPs, the No. 1 seeds and the playoff runs. The city had waited so long for a superstar, a reason to care and feel hopeful about the team, and it finally had one.
And then he stayed. When he failed in the playoffs, he stayed. When seemingly national media members were questioning his future in Milwaukee, he stayed. When the rest of the league was forming superteams, he stayed. The bond was forged, his legacy in the city cemented. Whatever happened from there on out, he had chosen Milwaukee when few others would. He was their guy.
"The way that this city has supported me and my family has been amazing from Day 1," Giannis said after signing his five-year, $228 million supermax extension. "I was 18, I'm 26 right now. All I know is Milwaukee. When I came here I fell in love with the city, it's a city that loves basketball. It's a place that I want to be, it's a place that I want to raise my kids. I feel good here. My family feels good here. I'm good."
Sitting inside a raucous Fiserv Forum on Sunday, it was hard not to be emotional watching it all come full circle. In today's NBA, relationships like this between player and city are growing rarer and rarer. But here were the Bucks, so often overlooked and disregarded, succeeding in the Finals thanks to their homegrown superstar. The fact that he had nearly snapped his leg in half a few weeks earlier only made the whole thing more surreal.
In Game 3, he was relentless and dominant, looking every bit the self assure superstar he's become over the past few years. He finished with 41 points, 13 rebounds and six assists on 14 of 23 from the field. No loose balls or rebounds were escaping his grasp. No mismatch was going unpunished.
He became the first player since LeBron James in 2016 to score 40-plus points in back-to-back Finals games, and joined Shaquille O'Neal as the only players in Finals history to put up 40-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in back-to-back games. With two more 40-point outings, he would match Michael Jordan's Finals record. What he's doing is quite literally, historic, and he's doing it all in a Bucks uniform.
"I feel like I've come a long way just to be able to sit here, being interviewed by you guys, playing in this game, being with my teammates, thinking I'm going to be out for a year, coming back," Giannis said after the game. "It's been a long journey and I'm trying to enjoy every single moment of it. I've said in the past I know I'm going to be doing this for a while for the next 10, 12, years, whatever my goal is. So, I just try to enjoy each day and try to take as much as possible from each day and try to be in the moment.
"And just being able to be out there," he continued. "Being down or up or whatever the case may be in the series, 20,000 fans outside the arena, cheering your name, cheering for the team and just happy to have NBA basketball at this time of the year with two of the last teams standing after, I don't know, 50 years, whatever the case might be the last time we had an NBA Finals game, that's amazing."
But for all the excitement, there's also the lurking reminder that this was just one out of four. He's always made it clear that his ultimate goal is to bring a championship to Milwaukee, not just a Finals appearance. This has been a great run so far, but the job's not done yet.
The Bucks are going to need, at the very least, a few more otherworldly performances like we've seen in Games 2 and 3, and will have to win at least once in Phoenix. If Giannis can pull that off and bring the trophy home for the first time in 50 years, he will truly be the stuff NBA legends are made of.