The Greeks know a thing or two about heroes -- after all, they invented the word. Legends of ancient lore like Hercules, Odysseus and Perseus were joined on Tuesday night by the latest in the long tradition of mononymous demigods -- Giannis.
It might seem like an exaggeration to put him alongside such mythical figures, but the way Giannis Antetokounmpo performed in the Milwaukee Bucks' 105-98 title-clinching Game 6 win over the Phoenix Suns -- scoring 50 points to deliver the franchise its first championship in 50 years -- was not the work of a mere mortal. Finals moments like "The Block," "The Dunk," and now "The Game," will persist in NBA mythos. And what's a more difficult task, Perseus slaying the Gorgon Medusa or Giannis -- a 61 percent free throw shooter in his playoff career -- going 17-for-19 from the line in the most important game of his life? It truly is the stuff of a fable.
Perseverance. Courage. Selflessness. Giannis, the Finals MVP, displayed all of the qualities of a literary hero over the course of the 2021 playoffs, bouncing back stronger and more determined following a potentially season-ending injury. But there's another heroic quality, one that's become increasingly unique in the modern sports landscape, that perhaps stands out above the rest.
In an alternate universe -- one more closely aligned with recent history -- at this very moment, we wouldn't be talking about how Giannis led Milwaukee to the promised land. We'd be debating whether he'd be signing with the Miami Heat or the Dallas Mavericks when free agency begins in a couple of weeks. He could have tested the waters after this season, and nobody would have batted an eyelash. It's just what superstar players do.
Instead, he signed a five-year supermax extension with Milwaukee a week before the start of the 2020-21 season, posting to Twitter like an etching on a weathered stone tablet: "This is my home, this is my city."
Giannis chose the road less traveled. Five of the previous six NBA Finals MVPs (LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant twice and Andre Iguodala) had won the award with a team that didn't draft them. LeBron won with the Cavs in 2016, but not before a highly publicized four-year detour in Miami. The last Finals MVP to play exclusively for the team that drafted him was Leonard, who won for the first time with the Spurs in 2014. That was a quirky award, however, since at the time Leonard was hardly considered the best player on his team.
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For the last no-doubt, alpha superstar to win Finals MVP while playing his entire career for the team that drafted him, you have to go back to Dirk Nowitzki in 2011, whose championship was truly the end of an era. Prior to Nowitzki, the previous six Finals MVPs (Kobe Bryant twice, Paul Pierce, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade and Tim Duncan) had each won with the team that drafted them.
It was fitting that Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks beat James and the Big Three of the Miami Heat in their first Finals appearance -- a last stand for a loyal NBA soldier against the coming onslaught of superteams. The Heat won the next two titles, LeBron returned to Cleveland and brought them a championship with a new Big Three, Durant was accused of destroying the league by joining the 73-win Warriors, Leonard delivered Toronto its only title, and James won yet another ring, this time in Los Angeles alongside Anthony Davis, whose calculated trade to the Lakers led him to the ultimate prize.
Now, as we gaze at Giannis flanked by a pair of trophies he was determined to win in Milwaukee, the rarity truly sets in.
"It's easy to go somewhere and go and win a championship with somebody else. It's easy," Antetokounmpo said after winning his first NBA title on Tuesday. "I could go to a superteam and, you know, just do my part and win a championship. But this is the hard way to do it and the way we were going to do it. And we did it. We f---ing did it."
Every hero's journey is fraught with peril and setbacks -- Giannis' was no different. He didn't play organized basketball until he was 12 years old while being raised in Greece, where he and his brothers sold DVDs and CDs on the street to help out the family. He was drafted outside the lottery as a relatively unknown 18-year-old who had yet to grow into what would become a muscular, uber-athletic frame.
"Eight and a half years ago, before I came into the league, I didn't know where my next meal would come from. My mom was selling stuff in the street. And now I'm here, sitting at the top of the top," Antetokounmpo told reporters. "I'm extremely blessed. Even if I never have the 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 and allow them to believe in their dreams."
No wonder he was brought to tears, and nearly to his knees after the final buzzer sounded.
Even this postseason, after winning two MVPs and a Defensive Player of the Year award, questions about Giannis' supposedly fatal offensive flaws resurfaced. When his two best teammates, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, struggled at times, we wondered whether they were good enough running mates to actually win a title.
In the conference semifinals, the Bucks were down 0-2, and later inches away from being eliminated by Durant and his latest superteam, the Brooklyn Nets. Then Giannis was forced to miss the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals when his knee bent backward and he feared he would be out for a year before the MRI miraculously came back clean. Milwaukee went down 0-2 again in the Finals, as Giannis heard the familiar cries of "can't win a title" echo throughout the corridors of NBA symposia, before rattling off four straight wins to silence all the critics.
A hero's journey, indeed.
Does Giannis' feat put an end to the superteam era once and for all? Almost certainly not. Despite the Bucks' championship, the Nets will likely be the title favorites to begin next season. Damian Lillard, as loyal as they come, may flee Portland for greener pastures with more decorated teammates. That just makes Giannis' journey even more inspirational.
With one herculean performance, he's reminded us that the player empowerment era doesn't only empower players to change teams. It empowered Giannis to choose his own destiny, and eventually deliver on a promise to his loyal and grateful fan base.
"This should make every person, every kid, anybody around the world to believe in their dreams," Antetokounmpo said. "No matter, whatever you feel, when you feel down, when things don't look like it's going to happen for you, you might not make it in your career -- might be basketball, might be anything. Just believe in what you're doing. Keep working.
"Don't let nobody tell you what you can't be and what you cannot do."