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.
Antetokounmpo won the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award. He won the award unanimously, making him the fifth international winner, joining Dirk Nowitzki, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan.
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, 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.
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