MILWAUKEE – Eight years ago, a skinny teenager stood between his parents on the field inside the Bradley Center and stared at the rafters, where the retired jerseys of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson hung in the rafters.
“Maybe in 15 years, 20 years,” said the young man, “maybe my name is there next to Kareem, Oscar Robertson.
“I hope I’m there.”
That young man was Giannis Antetokounmpo, is fresh in the draft Milwaukee Bucks in the 2013 NBA Draft. And on Tuesday night, with more than 80,000 people crammed in and around the Fiserv Forum, Antetokounmpo concluded the spectacular NBA Finals with a legendary performance to do what only Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson have done so far: Lead the Bucks to the NBA title.
Behind 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks from his superstar forward, Bucks held on Phoenix Suns, victory 105-98 in the 6th game of the NBA Finals to win the first franchise championship in half a century. They did it in front of an audience sold out of a madhouse of more than 17.00 fans within the Fisher Forum – along with a truly extraordinary 65,000 more fans crammed into the “Deer District” that surrounds the building.
Antetokounmpo won the award for the most respected player in the NBA Finals, Bill Russell. He won the award unanimously, making him the fifth international winner, joining Dirk Nowitzki, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan.
In the years to come, ten times more than many people would likely say they traveled to downtown Milwaukee to witness Antetokounmpou, they had one of the greatest close-up performances in the history of the sport to deliver Bucks to the Promised Land.
His 50 points were tied for the most time of all time in a tied NBA Finals game, according to ESPN statistics and information research, tying Bob Pettit’s 50 points for St. Louis. Louis Hawks at home in the 6th game of the 1958 NBA Finals against Boston Celtics. And the Bucks needed each of them to beat the Suns ’playing team who came back from an early double-digit deficit to take a 49-42 lead at halftime.
But with Milwaukee 24 minutes away from the championship, Antetokounmpo came out after half-time on a mission to make sure this opportunity didn’t go his way. With one savage drive to the edge after another – along with knocking out an outstanding 16 for 17 from the foul line – Antetokounmpo scored 32 points in the second half to bring the Bucks back ahead forever.
Appropriately, a move by Antetokounmpo’s six straight points in the middle of the fourth quarter – on schedule and four consecutive free throws – pushed Milwaukee to a six-point lead that the Bucks will never give up, launching a half-century celebration in the making.
Milwaukee was brought to his first title 50 years ago, behind two members from the inner circle of all time: Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson. Two players who led Milwaukee to the second championship, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, couldn’t have had a different path to the top of mountain basketball.
Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson entered the NBA with expectations of greatness, on the backs of the two greatest collegial careers of all time. Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, was a gangant teenager from Greece when the Bucks missed him in 2013 by 15th place and a completely unknown amount. Middleton, meanwhile, was an unprecedented second-round pick Detroit Pistons In 2012, before it was thrown into a store a year later – a few weeks after Antetokounmpo was assembled – led by Detroit’s replacement guard Brandon Knight for the Bucks guard Brandon Jennings.
The irony of Middleton trading for Jennings, who was present in Game 6, is that Jennings ’direct comment is that the Bucks will beat the mass favored Miami Heat in the first round of the 2013 playoffs – although the Bucks would eventually be swept away – this created a “Bucks in 6” chant that has become a gathering cry for the team’s fan base in recent seasons.
This was especially the case Tuesday night as it flourished around the arena – and among tens of thousands of fans out there – over and over again.
Meanwhile, however, Antetokounmpo and Middleton have flourished in the All Stars – and, in the case of Antetokounmpo, double the most useful player, as well as becoming only the third player in NBA history (along with Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan) in the same season. win both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.
Still, their success in the playoffs eluded them. It took four trips to the playoffs for the Bucks to finally win the first round series with Antetokounmpo and Middleton as the leading men, when they made it to the 2019 Eastern Conference finals in the first season of coach Mike Budenholzer with the team. But then, after scoring the best record in the NBA league and winning the first two games of that series of conference finals with Toronto Raptors, The Bucks dropped four in a row when they saw their season come to a sudden halt.
Then came last season, when the Bucks once again had the East’s best record in a pandemic-shortened campaign – to be briefly released from the NBA balloon at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, in five games since Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
After these successive failures, the Bucks decided it was time for a change. Budenholzer kept his job, after thinking a bit about whether he would, but he was instructed to put less emphasis on excellence in the regular season, and more on preparing his team for the trials and tribulations that stumbled them in the playoffs.
More importantly, the Bucks made a big change in their lineup, sending a guard Eric Bledsoe and rights to several draft choices for New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Holiday, one of the best two-way players in the NBA league. Although Bledsoe have long been an impressive defender in their own right, his complete collapses in the playoffs offensive have been a significant part of the sudden endings of the Milwaukee season.
His appendix as well as the appendix PJ Tucker, which arrived in the off – season trade with Houston Rockets, poured Bucks steel they had not owned in previous seasons. That, combined with the lessons learned from previous seasons, brought the Bucks to the playoffs with a calm about the franchise that hasn’t been there in the past two years.
“I don’t know if this year will be any different,” Antetokounmpo said before the playoffs began, when asked what he would say about how this year’s team will lead to different playoff results. “I’m not going to lie to you. It could be the same. Who knows. The results will eventually talk for themselves. But at the end of the day, I don’t get too tall, I don’t get too low.”
The same could be said for his teammates. Milwaukee found himself at 2-0 for Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals, then 3-2, before winning the 7th game in overtime in Brooklyn to advance. They dropped the 1st game of the Eastern Conference finals on Atlanta Hawks, and then lost Antetokounmpo to the end of the series with terrifying left knee hyperextension.
And, of course, they dropped the opening two games of the NBA Finals and the Suns.
However, each time the Bucks managed to overcome those deficits in ways they couldn’t in years past. They did so because of their star’s Zen leadership, which never seemed swung by anything that happened – good or bad – during Milwaukee’s run.
“When you talk about the past, it’s your ego conversation,” Antetokounmpo said when asked about his cult bloc Deandre Ayton late in winning Milwaukee’s Game 4. “It’s in the past. It’s over with.
“I have to go further. I have to keep winning games. I have to keep competing. I have to keep finding ways to help my team be great.”
He has done so – and then several – in the past two months. And as a result – and after 50 years of waiting – the Bucks can finally celebrate winning the NBA championship.