ATHLETE OF THE YEAR GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO
GQ India|December 2021
His fairy-tale rise made him a sensation. But now, after turning the once-dismal Milwaukee Bucks into champions, he’s becoming something of a legend. Inside the next whirlwind chapter for the NBA’s most dazzling global star—who’s deciding what he intends to conquer next.
ZACH BARON
Not long ago, Giannis Antetokounmpo watched his partner, Mariah Riddlesprigger, give birth to their second son, Maverick, and when he saw Maverick he immediately burst into tears. This happened with Antetokounmpo’s first son, Liam Charles, too—that Giannis wept. “But I thought maybe it was because he was my first one,” he told me. He doesn’t think of himself as someone who cries, he said; he’s survived too much deprivation, too many provocations, to be reduced to tears by just anything.

We were in the living room of his red-brick house in the Milwaukee suburbs, hiding out from the August sun. Mariah was napping in the other room. Liam, big now and curly haired, was wandering around saying hi to everything that moved. Mav was in Giannis’s lap. Giannis was trying to explain just what these boys did to him when they arrived.

Giannis and Mariah named Liam in part after Antetokounmpo’s father, Charles, who passed in 2017, and so Giannis thought that might have been part of it, too, at the time—that maybe he was crying out of delayed grief. Ever since his dad died, he’d felt an emptiness he didn’t know how to fill, he said. Then all of a sudden here was this new being with his father’s name. I lost somebody that I loved, Giannis thought, and now I’ve got somebody back that I love a lot. But his mother told him: Let the memory of your father be the memory of your father. “You cannot fill that void,” Giannis realized. He still thinks about Charles every day. When his team, the Milwaukee Bucks, won the NBA Finals in July, one of the first things Giannis did after the buzzer sounded was find a quiet place in a very loud arena to sit and talk to his father: “ ‘Man, we’ve come a long way. I wish you were here to see this. Please watch me.’ You know?” But Liam, Giannis decided, would be his own person, not a replacement for the father Giannis lost.

Then Giannis was in the delivery room again this past summer, marvelling at what Mariah had to endure. “Seeing what the body has to go through in order to bring this beautiful, sweet thing into the world, it’s insane,” he said. Giannis is one of five boys; looking at Mariah, he thought of his mother, who gave birth to her first son in Nigeria and then to four more after she’d emigrated to Greece, doing so without most of the painkillers or other comforts Milwaukee hospitals use to help mothers ease children into the world. In Greece, they were undocumented, citizens of no nation. No one helped them. “Six months before I came to the NBA, I was selling stuff in the street,” Giannis told me. “My mom was in the market. I used to go help her. People don’t know about this, but I did it.” Epidurals? Extended hospital stays? Post-partum doulas? “She definitely didn’t have access to any of it,” Giannis said. “I’m like, ‘Mom, you went through this for all five of us?’ ”

And then Mav emerged, and to his genuine surprise, Giannis started sobbing again.

By now, much of his story is known. How he was discovered as a gangly kid running around an Athens playground; how he didn’t touch a basketball until he was 13. How he had yet to become even the best player on his second- division Greek team when he was drafted in 2013 by the Milwaukee Bucks, who picked him at 15. Who was this guy? Would he be any good? Well, this is what happened next: Most Improved Player (2017), Defensive Player of the Year (2020), two MVP awards (2019, 2020), and an NBA championship this past July. A journey unfathomable in its sheer improbability, its storybook ending, an ending that may in fact be just the beginning of something even more grand and unlikely. He is already back out there, defending his title. Got handed his championship ring and went right out and scored 32 points in 31 minutes against the Brooklyn Nets in the first game of the season.

Some players seem haloed in greatness from the moment we lay eyes on them. They don’t always attain it, but you see it with athletes like LeBron James or Kevin Durant within seconds: They are playing a different, easier game; they are competing more against history, against gravity, against spectral forces in the dark, than they are against the regular guys around them. Guys who are talented but not great. I’d argue that Giannis was one of these guys, first: a curio, an intriguing combination of traits and potential, but no more than that. He was regarded, in his early NBA days, as capable, not destined. “He looked like a guy who was going to be a project,” his long-time teammate Khris Middleton said. Giannis will tell you himself: “What I am today, nobody saw it. You know why nobody saw it? Because I didn’t see it. Ask my mom. No. ‘I thought you would be an NBA player and have a better life. Not what you are today.’ ”

What is he today? Something remarkable. Singular. One of one. All summer I’d be walking around, and flashes of the Finals, in which the Bucks beat the Phoenix Suns 4-2, would come back to me, unbidden. These moments are lore now. Giannis’s block on Deandre Ayton at the end of Game 4, a feat of athleticism so impossible and otherworldly that it’s even more confusing in slow motion, how he did it. Even to Giannis himself: “I look at the block—How the fuck did I do this shit? ” This is a player who had fallen to the floor two weeks earlier in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals with a left-knee injury so gruesome that he told me his knee looked like an elbow afterward. “My leg was the opposite way,” Giannis said. “To this day, I feel the effect, the traumatic stress. I still feel it, and I think I’m going to feel it until I die.”

Somehow he played in all six games of the Finals anyway. And when he jumped to block Ayton’s shot, that was the leg he jumped off. How the fuck is that possible? He was in one place and suddenly he was in a completely different place in about a millisecond.

In the shower, after the next game, he started cramping; his lips turned purple; his hands got white. “I’m naked, I only have my towel,” lying on the trainer’s table, he remembered. “I ask, ‘Can you give me that trash can?’ Throw up five times.” They gave him an IV—he was so dehydrated it took them 45 minutes to find the vein. Then he went back to the hotel and got a second one. This happened again after Game 6, he said: that he needed an IV. In that game, he scored 50 points, even while there were possessions in the fourth quarter where it looked like he could barely walk up the floor. Went 17 of 19 from the free-throw line when all series he could barely make one of two. As pure an exercise of concentration and will as you could ever, or will ever, watch. Greatness achieved.

So: How does a now 26, formerly stateless kid from Greece become…this? A champion. One of the two or three best players in the league. Some of it, he said, is just luck, genetics. He is 6 feet 11. He’s 242 pounds. He moves so gracefully around his own house, even with the leftover limp from his knee injury in last year’s playoffs, that you are forced to reevaluate how poorly you’ve been getting around all these many years on this earth: Am I walking…wrong? Is there a better way? But the NBA is full of men who are tall and acrobatic. The body, sure, whatever, it’s impressive, but if you ask him how all this happened, what he’ll say is: “I’m going to work as hard as possible. God gave me that gift.”

Even the night his father passed. “I went to the gym,” Giannis said. “He was there with me.”

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