It is the night of the 20th of July 2021. The Bucks have managed to pull off a massive upset in the NBA Finals, coming from 0-2 down to hold a 3-2 lead, have gained home advantage and are expecting the Suns for Game 6. There are one hundred thousand delirious fans inside and outside the Fiserv Forum, the Bucks win and Milwaukee experiences an unforgettable night, which only those who were there will ever be able to fully comprehend.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is crowned the new King of the NBA, the absolute leader, the brightest example of a basketball player who started from zero and through methodical hard work, no short-cuts, and without asking for help, used 110% of his own powers to reach the top of the world.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has become the life and soul of Milwaukee; a city with a small market, which used to be ranked 30th in the NBA, and a place no one particularly wanted to travel to, let alone live in. From 2013 to 2021 a lot has change in the heart of Wisconsin. The “Giannis effect” has not only provided a boost for the Bucks, but also for the economy and society as a whole.
One day before the Bucks hosted the powerful Brookline Nets at Fiserv Forum, SPORT24 met Giannis Antetokounmpo at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Sports Science Center, the state-of-the-art Bucks training center.
After a lengthy session including personal and team training but also treatment, the Greek Freak welcomed us at his second home, the gym where he spends countless hours even during the regular season when others are resting.
The road that took him places and his return to Greece
He has grown to love Milwaukee. It is the city that welcomed him in the summer of 2013, the fans who saw hope in his arrival, the team that proved to be the ideal fit for an inexperienced boy from the 2nd Greek Division, with the Hawks expecting him a little later at the NBA Drafts. As a Hawk it would have been difficult for him to advance in the way he did. Mike Budenholzer who was in Atlanta at the time, is definitely not know as a coach with a soft spot for rookies and especially for completely inexperienced players like Giannis was at the time.
In Milwaukee the combination of a bad roster, coach Larry Drew and the GM at the time John Hammond, meant that Giannis was thrown in at the deep end and all he could do was swim.
“I enjoy working in Milwaukee. When I go to Athens, it is to see my friends, spend time with my family and relax. But when I am here I can blend into the background; it is a peaceful city with not much going on, so I can concentrate on basketball and that is what I love. Above all though, it is the city that embraced me from day one” said the reigning champion when asked what it was that made this place special for him and his family.
He likes the fact that he can walk the streets without being hounded by fans, he enjoys going to the supermarket late at night and visiting restaurants without all eyes being on him and the people around him. Milwaukee is definitely his city, but does he intend to stay on throughout his career? Will he stay here after he stops playing?
His answer in fact, comes as a bit of a surprise.
“Well, I don’t really think so. It’s too cold. I will definitely come here during summer maybe even in winter; who knows I could even end up working for the Bucks. I don’t know, this is very premature , but I know that I want to live in Greece, to be near my friends.”
I don’t care about what is being written and said
A few hours prior to opening night, and according to betting companies and analysts, the Bucks are the third favorites for the championship.
Despite the Bucks having kept their core team, despite their Big Three only being aged 31, 30 and 27, despite having a full bench and a deep roster, Americans believe that it is the Nets who are the favorites in the East, the Lakers in the West and that these two teams will fight it out in the NBA finals in June.
For Giannis, the predictions are of no importance whatsoever.
“I don’t even care what is being written and said. Every time I am out there, I just do what I have to do, I have fun and enjoy the game” he told us, and these words have a deeper meaning. Antetokounmpo firmly believes that a combination of hard work, enjoyment, modesty, smart choices and emotional balance following great victories or heavy defeats is what it takes for a team to reach the top.
I appreciate players who stick with their teams. That is what I did, I don’t like running away from tough situations
For Giannis, staying in Milwaukee and winning the title with the Bucks was a goal achieved. The agreement for the supermax extension was not reached overnight. Deliberations lasted several days in the winter of 2020, but eventually player and team came to an agreement and together reached the pinnacle of world basketball.
“The truth is that it was not just me who made it, loads of other players did too in their own way. Both those who stayed with their teams and those who left. Even players who changed city, won the championship in their own way. I appreciate players who stick with their teams. That is what I did. I don’t like running away from tough situations, I prefer focusing on ways to overcome them” he explains.
So, what methods does he employ? In a recent interview on Cosmote TV he revealed that he worked with a sports psychologist during last year’s season. A few days ago after the match against Dallas, he said that during the first seven years of his career each game was a matter of life or death for him.
Now for Giannis, each and every 48-minute game is an mind and body experience of enjoyment, concentration, situation management and decision making. He has found absolute balance which is why he scored 50 points in Game 6 against the Suns and is currently the top NBA player, despite not saying it himself and not wanting to hear it from anyone else.
The young player who will make all the difference
On Monday, SPORT24 featured an analysis of why it was judgment day for Grayson Allen. The young shooting guard had been waiting to find out if he would be given an early extension or would enter the market as an unrestricted free agent next summer and, with training over, negotiations entered the final stage. Finally the Bucks offered Allen 20 million for the next two years and kept him in Milwaukee with Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is confident about his new teammate.
We asked him which of the new players would help the Bucks the most and his answer came in a split second!
“Grayson Allen! I have great faith in him as a player” he told us. “You lay the pressure on a bit don’t you” we replied, having seen Giannis shout at him to take shots in the game against the Dallas Mavericks, only for him to protest that: “No, no, it is not a matter of pressure. It is just that because he is such a tremendous shooter, we want him to shoot. He is a tough guy. The others will help too, Otzelege and Hood, and George Hill is back too. They will all be extremely helpful and they all must play”.
Are the Bucks better than last year?
In theory, which is often a far cry from reality, the Bucks have a stronger and fuller roster than they did last season. They have one empty roster spot to be covered as they see fit, when the need arises or when the ideal athlete is found, or if a new P. J. Tucker comes along, who Horst and Budenholzer consider to be ready to help take the team to another level.
For Giannis things are slightly different.
“I don’t know if we are better than last year or whether we have more depth. We’ll have to find out during the season. Time will tell, As long and we are well (and here he knocks on wood) and avoid injury and paly good basketball. We were a really well-bonded team last year. We may not have had a good start to the season but we bonded.”
Just for the record, the one-dimensional Bryn Forbes has been replaced by Grayson Allen, who will have to compete with Donte DiVincenzo for a place on the first team when he returns from his injury and the operation on his leg, P. J. Tucker’s place has been taken by Semi Otzelege, and there is backup ace George Hill in the place of Jeff Teague and Rodney Hood a shooting guard and small forward who may well become the 7th or 8th player on rotation. Pat Connaughton isn’t going anywhere, Bobby Portis stayed in Milwaukee, Jordan Nwora is making progress and it must be said again, on paper, the Bucks seem to be even stronger than last year.
What shooting improvement are you talking about? I haven’t shown anything yet.
Back in 2018, when it was announced that Giannis would be the face of NBA 2K19, we had asked him which attribute he would like to have at 99 in real life. He replied stamina “so I could play for 48 minutes without needing time on the bench. I would like to be able to play an entire match”
Today, three years later, he has been awarded two Regular Season MVPs and one Finals MVP so perhaps his priorities have changed.
“I would like to have enjoyment at 99. Anyone who plays basketball would wish to shoot like Steph Curry. I’m not a fool. There is a lot I would like to improve but of course I want my shots to go in. Two-pointers, three-pointers, foul shots”.
Giannis stubbornly refuses to listen to a word anyone has to say about the fact that already this year, after only three preseason matches, he is showing significant improvement and increased audacity when executing mid and long distance shots.
“What improvement are you talking about? I haven’t shown anything yet. At the moment I have zero two-pointers, zero three-pointers, and zero foul shots in the regular season. We have 82 matches ahead of us and then the playoffs, so time will tell” was his disarming answer.
Discontent over free throws, booing and motivation
One of the hottest topics of last year’s NBA season was Giannis’ free throw routine which took 10, 11 and even 12 seconds to complete. James Harden would grumble, coaches spoke of him with contempt, the crowd would count seconds mockingly, while Chris Paul infamously said that “even Giannis walks up to the foul line knowing he is going to miss”, before seeing him make 17/19 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
The whole situation has made the Greek Freak even tougher, although he does not seem to agree with this since for him everything starts and ends in his hands.
“Look, everyone has an opinion and I respect it. Yours is that the whole situation helped me. What I’m saying is that I wasn’t focusing on the shots, and I mean that in a good way. It didn’t hold me back, I didn’t obsess over it. I was putting in the work and since I was, I knew they would eventually go in. And they did go in when they had to. Obviously I worked on my free throw during the year and I will continue to do so”, he said.
It is Giannis’ philosophy that any disapproval or derision directed towards him, can be deflected and transformed into motivation.
“The whole discussion about whether I was going to stay in Milwaukee or leave Milwaukee, whether I would win or lose, or whether I was only a regular-season player, actually motivated me. For me this is not pressure this is incentive. I don’t even bother reading about it, things just reach my ears. I did what I had to do, we made it and right now everything seems a lot easier. For me it is important to enjoy. When that stops happening I shall have to go home”.
The next day for Giannis Antentokoumpo
Tonight, the once lanky boy from Sepolia, is starting the 9th season of his professional career. Who would have guessed, when we used to watch him in the Greek Youth League or when we attended his last game in Greece in April 2013, that on the 19th of October 2021 Giannis Antetokounmpo would be kicking off his 9th season as a two-times Regular Season MVP, a one-time Finals MVP and All-Star Game MVP and most importantly as a champion.
Who would have thought, on 15 December 2013, when after a Mavericks – Bucks game we wrote in NBA Greece about how “Milwaukee has found their next franchise player”, that this boy was to become the top player in the world.
Yet, Antetokounmpo has achieved a lot more than we realize. He has done wonders outside the courts too, and is poised to leave behind an ever-growing legacy which, at the end of his career, will be equal to his legacy as a basketball player.
For Giannis what matters the most now is enjoyment. As long as he is having fun then good things are bound to come along. For him, for us, for you, for Greek basketball and for world sport in general. In a few days’ time the NBA is to announce the list of the top 75 players in the history of the league and Antetokounmpo’s name is going to be on that list.
For some, he is one of the top 25, 30, 35 players ever to set foot on the courts. The way we see it, the Greek Freak is heading straight for the top ten and has a full decade ahead of him before we can start other discussions that may now seem premature.
For the time being, we are holding on to the memory of his spontaneous gesture to hand us the championship trophy just a few minutes after the end of Game 6 against the Suns and preparing for opening night and the ceremony that is sure to bring tears to his eyes. And to ours too since, as long as he is living the dream and getting enjoyment out of the game, we too can continue to live our own dreams, from a different perspective, but with the same love of the sport.
We are by his side for whatever may come next.
SPORT24 in Milwaukee
Accredited SPORT24 journalist Harris Stavrou is in Milwaukee to bring us the atmosphere from the Bucks’ home games against the Mavericks for the preseason and against the Nets for the premier of the new season, prior to the commencement of which Giannis Antetokounmpo and his teammates will be given their champions rings.
The mission to the US was sponsored by the Italian and global construction material colossus Mapei. When passing by an impressive home we admire it from top to bottom. When we live in the same home we admire it from top to bottom if it features Mapei insulation. Mapei offers a wide range of insulating products for basement areas, floors and roofs with top products for rooftops and green roofs. Mapei construction materials can be found in specialized stores and on mapei.gr.
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