Following the first NBA championship of his career, 26-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo commanded the podium with pure joy, philosophical introspection and comedic relief. He had the basketball-watching world in the palm of his hands. He was Disney's Air Bud come to life, if only it warranted best original screenplay.
We are running out of reasons to embrace Antetokounmpo, a Greek national born to Nigerian parents who sold DVDs on the street to help provide for his family and shared shoes with his brothers as they learned to play the sport he now dominates. He was a relative unknown in 2013, drafted 15th out of Greece's second-tier basketball league, solely on the potential of his athleticism — wrapped in a 6-foot-9, 196-pound frame.
He is now listed at 6-11, 242 pounds. His accolades include the Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year awards, a Finals MVP, two regular-season MVPs, five All-NBA selections and four All-Defensive nods. He turns 27 years old in December. Antetokounmpo's ceiling is so high, not even he can envision it. Top-10 all-time is within his reach, and he may already be the most beloved superstar in history.
If you do not like Antetokounmpo at this point, your heart is two sizes too small or you are from Phoenix.
There are many MVP-level talents who delivered on the promise of their greatness on the game's grandest stage, synonymous with the sport's pinnacle, as Antetokounmpo is now, but those whose personas transcended basketball are far fewer. Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett and Willis Reed spring to mind as guys whose legends are contained within the game. Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West are all-time greats who shied away from being branded as the face of the league.
Dwyane Wade was too often overshadowed by more powerful personalities. As a 24-year-old Finals MVP, he is a cautionary tale not to leap to too many conclusions about Antetokounmpo. Hakeem Olajuwon was criminally underrated his entire career. Isiah Thomas was a bridge between far more popular superstars, playing for a team that loved to be hated. Julius Erving spent the first six years of his professional life in the ABA and did not reach the NBA mountaintop for another eight seasons. Injuries cut short Bill Walton's prime, and what a world it might have been if his aura had taken hold of the league for longer than it did.
So, we're down to this shorter list of all-time greats who elevated above everyone and seized the reins of the NBA: Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Bob Pettit and George Mikan.
Cross off Mikan and Pettit as faces of a nascent game. Russell is a monumental figure whose prolific career was sadly marked by his stoicism in the face of racism. Chamberlain was a larger-than-life character whose popularity within the sport suffered from two trades and Russell's championship dominance. Bird and Magic divided loyalties between a fan's bent toward "The Hick from French Lick" or "Showtime."
This brings us to Jordan, whose legend lifted the league to unprecedented heights. There was a time when he was considered the most recognizable person in the world — for his confidence and killer mentality, often publicly critiqued, fairly or not, as conceit and destruction. He was at times too good for his own good. There came a point where his greatness was accepted as much as or more than it was appreciated. He is the Greatest of All Time, revered as a deity, robbing him of the humanity Antetokounmpo embodies.
Shaq was a 7-foot-1, 325-pound behemoth who took the game by sheer force from the moment he entered the league. His personality was as prolific as Antetokounmpo's, but not so profound, and his success was predicated on a reluctant willingness to put dominance into practice rather than a drive to master his craft.
Bryant is a giant, but the reasons he was never so beloved as a national icon during his playing career are many, and just the one in Eagle, Colorado, is enough to warrant disqualification from this conversation.
James has his haters. He will gladly remind you of that fact each time he takes a new team to the title, which puts off almost as many fans as he has picked up on his path to immortality. To a lesser degree, Durant's propensity for superteams and his online defense of them removed "beloved" from his profile.
That leaves Curry, who most recently wore the championship belt for Most Beloved Superstar in NBA History. He lost some of that sheen when Durant transformed the Warriors into a monolith, allowing for unwarranted criticism of his failure to win Finals MVP. His story as the son of a great NBA shooter who became the greatest to ever do it is laudable, and his below-the-rim skill set is incredibly relatable.
It also is not the real-life rags-to-riches tale that is Antetokounmpo, who rose from the streets of Greece to earn the biggest contract in NBA history. Granted, he is ludicrously long and athletic, but there are flaws to his game that accentuate how much work he has put into becoming the game's most dominant force. They were on full display at the free-throw line throughout the playoffs, and he let the world in on his struggle. There is reason to believe he will get better, because it is all he has known and all we have seen from him.
Antetokounmpo has willed himself into skill. He is an international superstar at a time when the NBA's global reach has never been greater, and his persona — from an unadulterated passion for smoothies to his perspective on humility, ego and pride — translates in every language. This world can use his positivity.
The Nigerian-born Olajuwon told The Undefeated in 2019, "I know from his last name that we are from the same tribe, the Yoruba tribe. His last name, which in Yoruba is spelled Adetokunbo, means ‘the crown has returned from overseas.'" The coronation took place Tuesday. Here's hoping royalty does not change him.
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