The unspeakable greatness of Giannis Antetokounmpo

‘I’ve never seen anybody like him. It’s almost like he’s from another planet’

Michael Redd averaged 26.7 points per game at the height of his Milwaukee Bucks career. Redd earned a $91 million contract as a Buck, won an Olympic gold medal while a member of the Bucks and stood as the Bucks' lone NBA All-Star for a span exceeding a decade.

You could thus make the case that Redd, based on his resume, knows better than anyone else in the basketball universe how it feels to be Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The problem: Redd couldn’t suppress a laugh when that idea was presented to him. As he stood on the floor of the Bucks’ first home, in anticipation of watching the Antetokounmpo show at an arena unforgettably known as the Mecca, Redd made the claim that none of his predecessors – from this franchise or otherwise – could truly identify with the prodigy affectionately known as the Greek Freak.

“I’ve never seen anybody like him,” Redd said. “We’ve never seen anything like this.

"The numbers he's getting right now are almost an accident. Once he learns how to play play – unstoppable. It's almost like he's from another planet."

This is the sort of breathless praise Antetokounmpo routinely inspires in his fifth NBA season. Building on a 2016-17 campaign in which he became the Bucks’ first All Star since Redd in 2004 and won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, Antetokounmpo zoomed to averages of 31.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists entering Friday’s play – bench marks no player in league history had ever hit, in unison, through the season’s first eight games.

Yet it is the manner in which he operates, on top of the sheer statistical delirium, that makes the 22-year-old from Greece such a phenomenon. The NBA is famed for the comparison game it triggers any time a new star emerges, but no one has quite figured out how to size up this 6-foot-11, 106kg athletic specimen who occasionally needs just one dribble from midcourt to swoop to the rim and does all that scoring without a dependable perimeter stroke to open up the rest of his game.

Is he a budding Magic Johnson – albeit with more athletic ability? Is he the next LeBron James – only blessed with much more size and length? Can we call him a full-fledged point guard now? Is it more accurate to say he’s more of a point forward?

What, exactly, is he?

"Point all," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said, after a lengthy pause in search of the proper summation.

Veteran Bucks guard Jason Terry, referring to his former longtime team-mate Dirk Nowitzki, the revolutionary power forward, explained the conundrum this way: "Dirk, in my eyes, is the best European player to ever play this game," Terry said. "He literally changed the way his position is played. But Giannis doesn't even have a position. He does it all, and he's still learning what to do out there."

To the Bucks’ delight, “all” includes a trait that tantalises team officials as much as his 60 per cent shooting from the field so far, or anything else the league’s hottest individual force does with a basketball in his hands: Antetokounmpo unabashedly loves Milwaukee.

It’s a city that, despite a string of successful teams in the 1980s and a squad that fell one win short of the NBA finals in 2001, has never fully shed its “unfashionable” label, which was affixed when the best player in Bucks history – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – forced a trade to the perennially glamorous Los Angeles Lakers in 1975.

But Antetokounmpo, in a recent interview, went so far as to assert that where he plays directly influences how he plays.

"I'm a low-profile guy," he said. "I don't like all these flashy cities like LA or Miami. I don't know if I could be the same player if I played in those cities."

NBA teams saddled with Milwaukee’s small-market, glamour-shy profile generally live in fear of big-market behemoths signing away their brightest talents at the first free-agent opportunity. Antetokounmpo is in the first year of a four-year, $100 million contract extension – $11 million less than the maximum he could have signed for – but the Bucks are well aware that teams out there are plotting their recruiting pitches for the summer of 2021.

Visitors to Milwaukee, however, quickly discover that it’s no exaggeration to describe Antetokounmpo’s future as the least of the Bucks’ concerns in their bid to become a credible contender for the first time in nearly two decades. It also doesn’t hurt that, by virtue of his speedy ascension to All-NBA status and contention for other top individual honours, Antetokounmpo is on a course to be eligible for a so-called “supermax” contract extension from the Bucks via the league’s new Designated Player Exception during the 2020 offseason, which would put him in line for a new deal well in excess of $200 million.

As he tweeted in July, to the presumed glee of every Milwaukeean, “I got loyalty inside my DNA.”

The connective tissue that links this star, team and city runs as dense as you'll find on the NBA map, perhaps surpassed only by Nowitzki's two decades' worth of roots in Dallas or maybe the deep bonds shared in San Antonio by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Milwaukee hasn't simply been the backdrop for Antetokounmpo's fairy tale rise to American stardom; it has been home for virtually his whole family for all but the first few months of his NBA life.

Antetokounmpo admits, furthermore, that the unexpected death of his father just over a month ago has him leaning on his adopted hometown more than ever. Charles Antetokounmpo died of a heart attack on September 29 at age 54.

“I can feel the love from the city every day I step on the floor,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “For me, what I’m going through now, I appreciate it even more.”

Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo, who moved from Nigeria to Greece as unauthorised immigrants in 1991 in search of a better life, secured the necessary paperwork to relocate to Milwaukee along with Giannis’s two younger brothers halfway through his rookie season.

Kostas Antetokounmpo is a redshirt freshman at the University of Dayton now, but the rest of the family moved into a new downtown complex before this season, with Giannis and Alexandros Antetokounmpo (a high school sophomore) housed on the fifth floor and Charles and Veronica on the fourth.

After years of well-chronicled struggle for the family in a northern section of Athens known as Sepolia, they have found Milwaukee as idyllic as it was portrayed to be in the sitcom Happy Days where not even the frigid winters can detract from the comfort they've experienced as a unit.

Only now, as they confront Charles’s death, even more responsibility has been heaped on the ever-widening shoulders of the Bucks’ phenom. Veronica Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, has moved up a flight to be with her sons on the fifth floor in the wake of her husband’s death.

“Leading your family is a lot tougher than basketball,” Antetokounmpo said. “Especially right now. But I’ve got to be strong for my family. “Things,” he continued, “are going to get better.”

The areas for on-court improvement are obvious for Antetokounmpo even as he stuffs box score after box score. His outside shot still needs copious amounts of work – he is not close to trusting it in times of need – and there is room for growth in reading the game at both ends, consistently making his team-mates better and refining his decision-making.

Yet it’s also ridiculous, and rather cold, to nitpick what is missing from Antetokounmpo’s blossoming game given the level he is consistently hitting with that 7-foot-3 wingspan of his. Doubly so at a time of profound grief.

“He’s like a plane that just started taking off,” Kidd said. “He’s at 10,000 feet.”

When he arrived in Wisconsin, via the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, Antetokounmpo was measured at 6 feet 9 inches and weighed less than 90 kilos. A half-decade later, he is closing in on 110 kilos, and coaches and team-mates routinely refer to him as a seven-footer.

Milwaukee assistant coach Frank Johnson, noting Antetokounmpo’s bulked-up body and added strength, said, “He gets bumped now and he loves it.”

As for his perimeter game, Johnson preaches patience, pointing to the countless nights of extra shooting he is getting alongside the mentoring “Coach Sweeney” – Bucks assistant coach Sean Sweeney. The way Johnson talks about the work-in-progress jumper is reminiscent of what league observers said for years about Shaquille O’Neal’s persistent free-throw woes.

“If he had that already,” Johnson said, “it wouldn’t be fair.”

Terry, the Bucks guard, said: “Of course he has to keep working on his outside game. But Giannis just has a peaceful confidence about himself. You can see it. Last year, he didn’t have that.”

Kobe Bryant, now in his second season of retirement, had seen enough coming into training camp to challenge Antetokounmpo via Twitter in late August to make a bid for the league's Most Valuable Player Award. Asked why he set such a high target, as part of his #MambaMentality campaign, Bryant said last week via email that he was moved by Antetokounmpo's "rare physical gifts that are matched by a rare inner passion."

Bucks staffers do worry that Antetokounmpo is occasionally too hard on himself, having watched him head straight for the practice floor on the same night as a frustrating loss more times than they care to remember. One example of his blame-me tendencies: He said last week, on the morning after a home setback to the Boston Celtics, that he was still angry “for personal reasons”, implying that the 96-89 defeat was all his fault.

But the Bucks do not try to influence Antetokounmpo’s thinking too much. They prefer to let him figure things out as they come – except when he decided during the summer that he wanted to have a garage sale as a part of his recent move. He wanted to stage the sale to pay homage to his Athens youth, when he and his brothers had to peddle knockoff watches and sunglasses to help his parents and siblings survive. The Bucks’ front office and Veronica Antetokounmpo ultimately talked him out of it.

“I’m a great seller – that’s one of the other talents I have,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “I wanted to do it so bad. But they told me I couldn’t because three or four thousand people would show up.”

Sounds like a safe estimate given the Bucks’ rising popularity in Green Bay Packers territory and Antetokounmpo’s central role in that rise.

At the Milwaukee Brat House near the team's current Bradley Center home, manager Jennifer Fellin said she saw more patrons wearing Bucks gear now than at any other point in her eight-year stint at the restaurant. It is a fashion trend she attributes largely to the Giannis Effect.

The Antetokounmpo-led Bucks, Fellin asserted, have risen to “cool” status.

"They have breathed new life into the city," Gino Fazzari, owner of the nearby Calderone Club restaurant, said.

Team executives, mind you, are realistic. They know Antetokounmpo will be fiercely pursued by rival teams (and, perhaps more worryingly, stars from rival teams) at the earliest opportunity. They know those future suitors will point to a three-headed Bucks ownership structure that has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months and paint the arrangement as a potential source of instability.

They know, even as construction proceeds swiftly on an impressive $524 million arena scheduled to open next fall and complement Milwaukee’s gleaming new practice facility across the street, that Antetokounmpo might find it hard someday to resist looking around if the Bucks cannot fortify their roster and rediscover playoff success.

After all, even Bryant and Tim Duncan – two legends whom he hopes to emulate in terms of never switching teams, as Antetokounmpo recently told Time Magazine – flirted with leaving their teams before opting for the increasingly rare only-one-jersey approach.

“I really don’t see Giannis going anywhere,” Redd said. “Even in the future. “With what he’s doing on the court, it’s going to automatically draw people to come play with him. I know people have that stigma about Milwaukee. But it won’t be hard for him to attract talent here. I just want a ring when they get a ring.”

Outlandish as the retired Redd sounds at the moment – given, for starters, Milwaukee’s lack of a consistent second scoring option as well as a need for more speed and more shooting – Antetokounmpo encourages the lofty talk. He is convincing when he says he thinks he “can take this organisation to the next level and bring that championship,” undoubtedly projecting so much confidence because he’s so aware of how far he has come.

In the month since his father’s death, Antetokounmpo revealed that he often found himself looking at a picture on a private Instagram page he maintains. The image shows Giannis, Kostas, Alexandros and their older brother, Thanasis, who currently plays for Panathinaikos in Greece after a brief stint with the Knicks, all sleeping in the same bed.

Giannis estimates that he was 10 or 11 at the time. One bed for the four children was all Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo could manage. The parents slept in a small nearby den, as Giannis recalled, behind “like a curtain”.

“It’s an unbelievable story,” Antetokounmpo said. “Good stuff.”

Memories like that leave little doubt why the only NBA city that the Greek Freak has ever known can feel like the promised land.

“There’s a lot of things you can do in Milwaukee, too,” he said proudly.

The whole league can see that now.

(New York Times service)

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