Almost seven years to the day since Giannis Antetokounmpo pledged never to leave Milwaukee until he built the Bucks into a championship-level franchise, the NBA's two-time MVP delivered on his promise.
Asked about his public declaration in 2014, Antetokounmpo joked, "I'm out now. Can I leave now? I want a trade. Who do I got to talk to about a trade? [Bucks general manager] Jon [Horst]? OK, I want a trade."
It was one of many lighthearted moments in the humble superstar's poignant post-championship news conference, one in which Antetokounmpo came as close to throwing shade at his peers as he ever will.
"It's easy to go somewhere and go win a championship with somebody else. It's easy. I could go —," he said, stopping short of getting specific that might narrow down the target of his thoughts. "I don't want to put anybody on the spot, but 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 f***ing did it. We did it, man."
There can be no doubt he embraced a challenge LeBron James and Kevin Durant ran from before him. Where Antetokounmpo remained committed to growing a champion from the small-market team that drafted him, James and Durant respectively left the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder at the end of their rookie contract extensions to form superteams with the Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors.
"I just, I couldn't leave," Antetokounmpo said of his 2020 decision to stay. "There was a job that had to be finished. ... Coming back, I was like, 'This is my city. They trust me. They believe in me. They believe in us.' Even when we lost, the city was still on our side, and, you know, obviously I wanted to get the job done.
"But that's my stubborn side."
That stubbornness led Antetokounmpo from the streets of Greece to a 2013 mid-first-round draft selection, the NBA's Most Improved Player award four years later, two regular-season MVPs, Defensive Player of the Year honors and now Finals MVP — a path of trophies no one has ever taken to the league's mountaintop.
Antetokounmpo may not have meant to diminish the accomplishments of the players he is now chasing at full speed on the NBA's all-time player rankings, but he has a sense of satisfaction nobody on his level but Stephen Curry has tasted since Dirk Nowitzki finally won at the age of 33 with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011.
Antetokounmpo belongs to Milwaukee in a way Durant will not in Oklahoma City, Golden State or Brooklyn. Even the legacy of James, a Northeast Ohio native who returned from Miami to deliver Cleveland's first title, is tied equally to his role in creating the player empowerment era. Antetokounmpo did it the old-school way.
For decades after the ABA-NBA merger and the advent of free agency in 1976, his way was the custom. Some superstars won earlier than others, but battle scars accrued with longtime teammates for their adopted cities made championships so much sweeter for legends that came before the turn of the century.
Magic Johnson won two rings in his first three seasons alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but it was the playoff losses — and the Tragic Johnson nickname that accompanied them — that sent his "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers into another stratosphere after their 1985 Finals victory against the Boston Celtics.
In between, Larry Bird built a mini dynasty in Boston, where he is revered as a basketball god. Julius Erving battled both the Celtics and Lakers for years before winning his only NBA title with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983. Likewise, Isiah Thomas' Detroit Pistons took their lumps against Bird and Magic before emerging victors, and Michael Jordan endured five straight playoff losses to Bird and Thomas before finally winning.
Tim Duncan won his first championship as a second-year star with the San Antonio Spurs in the lockout-shortened 1999 campaign and proceeded to construct a small-market dynasty that felt quaint as Shaquille O'Neal traveled from Orlando to Los Angeles and Miami to deliver titles to Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade.
Paul Pierce's trials with the Celtics before earning 2008 Finals MVP honors were overshadowed by the arrivals via trade of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but every bit as rewarding. Kobe Bryant scripted a unique modern-day NBA saga, fighting against years of flak for not winning without Shaq to return glory to the Lakers and forge a bond with Los Angeles that few individuals — NBA player or otherwise — have ever built with a city. Nowitzki followed suit in 2011, and then the trend finally swung toward the easier path.
Yes, players have the right to choose where they work, and yes, that path is easier. Antetokounmpo is right.
James' Decision to join the Heat bred back-to-back titles before Wade and Chris Bosh had expended their usefulness to his championship aspirations. He returned to the Cavs, who without him lucked into three No. 1 overall picks, which they turned into Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and a ready-made superteam. Once Irving left and Love cratered, James took the next flight out to L.A. to begin recruiting another All-NBA teammate.
That career arc made it more palatable for Durant to join the 73-win Warriors team that had just eliminated his Thunder from title contention in 2016, forming the most ludicrous collection of talent the league has ever seen. His two championships were inevitable, even if Durant earned both his Finals MVPs opposite James.
In between, there was Curry's 2015 Warriors, whose homegrown championship has since taken a backseat to the Durant saga. That Andre Iguodala won Finals MVP over Curry is a testament to how much less that victory felt like the long-awaited coronation of an all-time great. No way Curry does not win that award if his most heartbreaking playoff loss and first championship were flipped in his 2015 and 2016 MVP campaigns.
Curry's first ring was an island in a sea of player movement swirling into a storm that threatened the NBA's grassroots connections to its cities. A year after Leonard left the Spurs to serve as a championship rental for a Toronto Raptors team that had earned a No. 1 playoff seed the year before his arrival, he bounced with Paul George to the Clippers, whose L.A. rivalry with James and Anthony Davis on the Lakers seemed to cement superstar pairings as an accepted norm in a league centralizing its power in big media markets.
Narrative has as much to do with how the public perceives a superstar's legacy as it does with what that legacy means to the superstar. As corny as it may sound, the journey defines how the destination feels.
So, here is Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee's adopted son, delivering the Bucks their first championship in 50 years alongside Khris Middleton, the teammate with whom he had shared every step of his NBA career. That is why his joking trade request came across so genuinely and his point about superteams rang so true.
"Eight and a half years ago, when I came to the league, I didn't know where my next meal would come from," Antetokounmpo said in the aftermath. "My mom was selling stuff in the street. Now, I'm here sitting at the top of the top. I'm extremely blessed. If I never have a chance to sit on this table ever again, I'm fine with it. I hope this can give everybody around the world hope. I want them to believe in their dreams."
It might also give hope to the next superstar considering whether the harder way to chase rings is worth it.
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