From poverty to champ, Bucks star aims to inspire

Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo celebrating after defeating the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday to clinch the championship. The forward averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and five assists in six games as the Bucks won
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo celebrating after defeating the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday to clinch the championship. The forward averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and five assists in six games as the Bucks won the best-of-seven series 4-2.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MILWAUKEE • As a two-time Most Valuable Player (MVP) and captain in the last two All-Star teams, Giannis Antetokounmpo was already one of the best players in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

The only blemish in his career had been his inability to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to the league title in seven previous seasons, but that was erased on Tuesday night when he earned not only his maiden championship ring but was also named the Finals MVP for the first time.

Antetokounmpo, who was born and raised in Athens to Nigerian parents, joins Germany's Dirk Nowitzki (2011), Frenchman Tony Parker (2007), Tim Duncan of the United States Virgin Islands (2003 and 2005) and Nigeria's Hakeem Olajuwon (1994 and 1995) as the only non United States-born players to be named the Finals' MVP.

It was a remarkable Finals debut for the forward, considering that he missed the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals after suffering a hyperextended knee injury.

But the 26-year-old managed to play all six games, during which he averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and five assists.

Antetokounmpo saved his best for last as he recorded a play-off career-high 50 points in the championship-clinching game at home to go along with 14 rebounds and five blocks against the Phoenix Suns.

He even went 17-of-19 from the line - free-throw shooting has long been his glaring weakness - leading to universal praise.

Milwaukee centre Brook Lopez said: "He's so impressive night in and night out. Completely awe-inspiring. His performance tonight, this whole series, this whole year, there are no words for that."

His teammates have enjoyed seeing him grow from a skinny prospect out of Greece who was the 15th pick in the 2013 draft and could barely speak English to become the team's leader.

On the "Greek Freak", Bucks guard Pat Connaughton said: "He has always been a freak.

"The things that he does in the weights room, in physical therapy to put his body in a position to go through the beating he goes through on a nightly basis.

"And then for him to do what he did throughout this Finals was incredible. It's awesome to have a front-row seat to it."

Antetokounmpo, who carried the Bucks on his back en route to four straight wins for a 4-2 Finals victory, was floored by his achievement after proving to be a dominant force worthy of the massive five-year extension worth an estimated US$228 million (S$311.9 million) he signed last year.

"I never thought I'm going to be 26 years old, with my team playing the NBA Finals," he said.

"I was just happy being a part of this journey. When I came to the league, I didn't know where my next meal will come from.

"My mum was selling stuff in the street. Now I'm here sitting at the top of the top. I'm extremely blessed.

"I hope this can give everybody around the world, from Africa, from Europe, hope it can be done. I want them to believe in their dreams."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2021, with the headline 'From poverty to champ, Bucks star aims to inspire'. Subscribe