MILWAUKEE — Eight years ago, a skinny teenager stood between his parents on the court inside Bradley Center here and gazed up at the rafters, where the retired jerseys for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson hung in the rafters.
“Maybe in 15 years, 20 years,” the young man said, “maybe my name is up there next to Kareem, Oscar Robertson.
“I hope I’m there.”
That young man was Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off being drafted 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2013 NBA draft. And Tuesday night, with more than 80,000 people crammed in and around Fiserv Forum, Antetokounmpo capped off a spectacular NBA Finals with a legendary performance to do what, until now, only Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson had ever done: Lead the Bucks to an NBA title.
Behind 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks from their superstar forward, the Bucks held off the Phoenix Suns, winning 105-98 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to capture the franchise’s first championship in a half century. They did so in front of a madhouse sellout crowd of more than 17,00 fans inside Fiserv Forum — along with a truly remarkable 65,000 more fans crammed into the “Deer District” surrounding the building.
In the years to come, 10 times that many people will likely say they made the trip to downtown Milwaukee to witness Antetokounmpo have one of the greatest closeout performances in the history of the sport to deliver the Bucks to the promised land.
His 50 points were tied for the most all-time in a closeout game of the NBA Finals, per ESPN Stats and Information research, equaling Bob Pettit’s 50 points for the St. Louis Hawks at home in Game 6 of the 1958 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. And the Bucks needed every one of them to beat a game Suns team that stormed back from an early double-digit deficit to take a 49-42 halftime lead.
But with Milwaukee 24 minutes away from a championship, Antetokounmpo came out after halftime on a mission to make sure this opportunity didn’t get away from him. With one rampaging drive to the rim after another — along with going a remarkable 16-for-17 from the foul line — Antetokounmpo scored 32 points in the second half to carry the Bucks back in front for good.
Fittingly, it was a stretch of six straight Antetokounmpo points midway through the fourth quarter – on a layup and four straight free throws – that pushed Milwaukee out to a six-point lead that the Bucks would never give up, setting off a celebration a half-century in the making.
Milwaukee was led to their first title 50 years ago behind two members of the inner circle of all-time greats: Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson. The two players who led Milwaukee to its second championship, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, couldn’t have had a more different path to basketball’s mountaintop.
Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson entered the NBA with expectations of greatness, on the backs of two of the greatest collegiate careers of all-time. Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, was a gangly teenager from Greece when the Bucks drafted him 15th overall in 2013, and a completely unknown quantity. Middleton, meanwhile, was an unheralded second round pick by the Detroit Pistons in 2012, before he was thrown into a trade a year later — a few weeks after Antetokounmpo was drafted — that was headlined by Detroit swapping guard Brandon Knight for Bucks guard Brandon Jennings.
The irony of Middleton being traded for Jennings, who was in attendance for Game 6, is that it was Jennings’ off-hand comment that the Bucks would beat the massively favored Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs in 2013 — although the Bucks would eventually be swept — that created the “Bucks in 6” chant that has become a rallying cry for the team’s fan base in recent seasons.
That was especially the case Tuesday night, as it boomed throughout the arena — and among the tens of thousands of fans outside — over and over again.
In the meantime, however, Antetokounmpo and Middleton blossomed into All-Stars – and, in Antetokounmpo’s case, into a two-time Most Valuable Player, as well as becoming just the third player in NBA history (along with Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan) to win both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
Still, playoff success eluded them. It took four trips to the playoffs for the Bucks to finally win a first round series with Antetokounmpo and Middleton as their leading men, when they broke through and reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2019 in coach Mike Budenholzer’s first season with the team. But then, after having the NBA’s best record and winning the first two games of that conference finals series with the Toronto Raptors, the Bucks dropped four in a row to see their season come to a sudden halt.
Then came last season, when the Bucks had the East’s best record once again in the pandemic-shortened campaign — only to get summarily dismissed from the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, in five games by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
After those successive failures, the Bucks decided it was time to make changes. Budenholzer kept his job, after some deliberations over whether he would, but was instructed to put less emphasis on excelling in the regular season, and more on preparing his team for the trials and tribulations that had tripped them up in the playoffs.
More importantly, the Bucks made a massive change to their roster, sending guard Eric Bledsoe and the rights to several draft picks to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Holiday, one of the best two-way players in the NBA. While Bledsoe has long been an impressive defender in his own right, his complete collapses offensively in the playoffs were a significant part of the sudden endings to Milwaukee’s seasons.
His addition, as well as that of P.J. Tucker, who arrived in a midseason trade with the Houston Rockets, infused the Bucks with a steel they didn’t possess in prior seasons. That, combined with the lessons learned from prior seasons, had the Bucks entering the playoffs with a calmness around the franchise that hadn’t been there over the past two years.
“I don’t know if this year is gonna be different,” Antetokounmpo said before the playoffs began, when asked what about this year’s team would lead to different results in the playoffs. “I’m not gonna lie to you. It might be the same. Who knows. The results are gonna talk for themselves in the end. But at the end of the day, I don’t get too high, don’t get too low.”
The same could also be said for his teammates. Milwaukee found itself down 2-0 to the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and then down 3-2, before winning Game 7 in overtime in Brooklyn to advance. They dropped Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Atlanta Hawks, and then lost Antetokounmpo for the rest of the series with his terrifying hyperextension of his left knee.
And, of course, they dropped the opening two games of the NBA Finals to the Suns, as well.
Each time, though, the Bucks were able to overcome those deficits in ways they were unable to in years past. They did so because of the zen-like leadership of their star, who never seemed fazed by anything that happened — good or bad — throughout Milwaukee’s run.
“When you talk about the past, that’s your ego talking,” Antetokounmpo said when asked about his iconic block of Deandre Ayton late in Milwaukee’s Game 4 victory. “It’s in the past. It’s over with.
“I got to move on. I got to keep making winning plays. I got to keep competing. I got to keep finding ways to help my team be great.”
He did that — and then some — over the past two months. And, as a result — and after 50 years of waiting — the Bucks can finally celebrate winning an NBA championship.