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Giannis Antetokounmpo's journey to NBA champion done 'the hard way'

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrates winning

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrates winning the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award after defeating the Phoenix Suns in Game Six to win the NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum on July 20, 2021. Credit: Getty Images/Justin Casterline

In the moment, when Giannis Antetokounmpo was doing everything, spinning through multiple defenders with agility, speed and explosiveness that just shouldn’t be possible for someone his size, soaring above the rim to swat away shots and, yes, even making free throws, it’s hard to imagine how unlikely this all once seemed.

Antetokounmpo was not only the clear-cut MVP as the Milwaukee Bucks finished off a six-game NBA Finals run with a 105-98 win over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night, but also his performance was one for the ages, a 50-point, 14-rebound, five-block masterpiece.

That made it so hard to think of all of the ways that it might not have happened.

For the more than 18,000 fans screaming inside Fiserv Forum and the estimated 65,000 crowded outside in the Deer District just to be near this moment, it was magic and destiny, 50 years from the last title for the Bucks. For Antetokounmpo, first, there was a moment of rest as he took a seat courtside and let a few tears flow.

"The whole journey," Antetokounmpo said was what he was thinking while he let the emotions go. He was thinking about his whole life, his late father, his mother doing whatever she could to provide for Giannis and his brothers. But there was so much more from those most humble beginnings to this moment.

He was a shell of himself in Game 1 of the Finals after missing the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals following a horrific-looking hyperextended left knee injury. His immediate thoughts as he was helped off the court by his brother, Thanasis, was that his season was over. But the team managed to win and advance to the Finals without him.

The series before that, it took an inch — maybe less than an inch — to make the difference whether his season would end in disappointment again as the Nets' Kevin Durant’s potential game-winning three-pointer instead was a two with a toe on the line, sending Game 7 into overtime where the Bucks would survive and advance.

You can look back to the summer when Antetokounmpo signed his extension to remain in Milwaukee, defying what every other hopeful team had believed — choosing to build to a title with the team that had developed him rather than opting for a ready-made title contender in some glamorous spot. It was a lot more believable that every team had a plan to swoop in and steal him for their roster than he would convert 17 of 19 free throws while downtown Milwaukee turned into a celebration of him and his team.

But he was different than the other stars who shifted cities and developed superteam allegiances, different than the players who cherished sneaker deals and media production companies over loyalty to a team that had taken a chance on him.

"It's easy to go somewhere and go win a championship with somebody else," Antetokounmpo said. "It's easy . . . I could go to a superteam and just do my part and win a championship. But this is the hard way to do it and this is the way to do it and we did it . . . We did it, man."

Whether you wanted to see Chris Paul win his first championship ring, were rooting for Monty Williams and you loved the stories of Devin Booker and Kobe Bryant’s connection or Deandre Ayton’s path, was there anyone who could root against Giannis? The critics can point to this Finals and wish that there were fewer injuries or COVID-19 hadn’t ravaged the season and maybe Brooklyn would have been here if not for Kyrie Irving’s ankle or the Lakers could have been the opponent if Anthony Davis was at full strength. But Giannis became must-see TV with defensive stops that will live on in history and lob finishes that could become the new logo for the NBA.

And maybe the league is better for having Giannis and a team built from the ground up around him as its face. While some resist the role-model task, Giannis embraces it. His talk about ego and pride during this series might have gone as viral as any of his on-court performances.

"I know I'm a role model," he said. "But this should make every person, every kid, anybody around the world believe in their dreams. No matter whatever you feel when you're down, when you don't think it's going to happen for you or you might not make it in your career — might be basketball, might be anything — just believe in what you're doing and keep working.

"Don't let nobody tell you what you can be and what you cannot do. People told me I cannot make free throws. I made my free throws tonight and I'm a freaking champion. I made them when I'm supposed to make them . . . Eight years ago, eight-and-a-half years ago, when I came to the league, I didn't know where my next meal will come from. My mom was selling stuff in the street. Now I'm here sitting at the top of the top. I'm extremely blessed. I'm extremely blessed. If I never have a 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. I want them to believe in their dreams."

That’s the big picture. But you can realize, too, if you’re one of the kids coming into the league next week with the NBA Draft, if you’re the 15th pick you can still be a two-time MVP. If you’re outside of the lottery, you can still win a title. And if you keep working you can grow from a lanky, skin-and-bones raw project to the best player on the best stage.

And maybe it won’t happen. The oddsmakers have already named the Nets as the favorites for next year’s title with their trio of ring-chasing stars at the helm. But for now, Giannis Antetokounmpo proved he can beat any of them.

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