The Milwaukee Bucks were fairly quick champions after their inception. The team was founded in 1968, won a coin flip (ironically against the Phoenix Suns) for the right to draft Lew Alcindor a year later, and in 1971, they captured the franchise’s first championship. With their star big man in place, Milwaukee seemed likely to continue adding rings to its collection for years to come. That’s not how it happened.
Alcindor, who by then had changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, asked to be traded and ultimately landed with the Los Angeles Lakers. Marques Johnson and Sidney Moncrief came up short. Ray Allen and Sam Cassell came up short. The Bucks had the No. 1 pick three more times after landing Alcindor, but passed on Bernard King in 1977, Jason Kidd in 1994 and Chris Paul in 2005. Their 2013 selection of a young forward from Greece looked like an afterthought for a team that could never quite make it over the hump.
But that unassuming young forward grew into an MVP. So dominant was Giannis Antetokounmpo that fans began to worry that, like Abdul-Jabbar before him, he would seek out greener pastures. But before the 2020-21 season, Antetokounmpo signed a five-year extension with the Bucks that signaled a commitment. He didn’t just want to win the championship. He wanted to win it in Milwaukee.
That dream became a reality on Tuesday as the Bucks won their first championship in 50 years as the Greek Freak made history with 50 points in a 105-98 Game 6 win, arguably one of the most historic performances we’ve seen in a clinching game. They defeated that very Suns team they flipped for Alcindor with decades earlier thanks to another strong outing from Antetokounmpo. That he got to win the title in front of his home fans in Milwaukee was the icing on the cake for a player who has become synonymous with the city he plays in.
Antetokounmpo grew up poor in Greece, and his acclimation to the United States was on full display after he was initially drafted by the Bucks. He enthusiastically tweeted about trying smoothies for the first time. He tried to run to the arena for a game after realizing he’d sent all of his money — including cab fare — back to his family in Greece only to hitch a ride from a pair of fans. Those experiences helped shape him as a player, and when he re-signed with the Bucks in December, he made it clear that he didn’t want to play anywhere else. “This is the place I want to be,” Antetokounmpo said. “This is my home. This is my city, I want to represent Milwaukee.”
He’s done just that, not only in winning the championship, but in eight full seasons with the Bucks. In an NBA landscape typically dominated by superteams, Antetokounmpo won his first title without ever changing zip codes. At only 26 years old, he’ll have plenty of chances to add to his jewelry collection, but just as many rivals looking to dethrone him. Perhaps they’ll follow his example and try to do so in one place.
That would be an appropriate footnote for one of history’s least likely champions. Antetokounmpo reaching this stage seems almost inevitable compared to some of his teammates. Khris Middleton was a second-round pick included as a trade sweetener in the 2013 Brandon Knight-Brandon Jennings swap. P.J. Tucker went undrafted and had to become an Israeli MVP, Ukranian All-Star and German champion before he could even make his mark in the NBA. Brook Lopez signed in Milwaukee for pennies on the dollar when the market gave him no other opportunities. Pat Connaughton could easily be playing professional baseball right now.
It’s a group of players that were well worth the 50-year wait, and one that won’t soon be replicated in the modern NBA’s mercenary market. After all, it took Milwaukee less than five years to win its first title, but five decades to get its second. Teams like this are rare, and this one will be treasured in Milwaukee forever. For the first time since 1971, the Bucks are NBA champions.