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Giannis Is Ready for Liftoff

The best part about watching the Bucks’ MVP candidate is seeing him start to realize just how good he is

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tomas Satoransky lost the ball. He had dared attack George Hill and he’d failed. Understand, this is the George Hill. This isn’t just some dude. This is the Great Wall of Broad Ripple. The Isinglass Curtain of IUPUI. He went to the same high school as David Letterman. Ever heard of him? He’s been on television. Multiple times. On multiple channels. You have to be a big deal to be on television. There’s a huge screening process. They’re not just going to put whoever on there. This is the lineage George Hill comes from. Young Tomas, arrogant and brash, head over boots in love with himself, was displaying a boatload of hubris. John Wall made me write that last part.

The play took place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with a little under six and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter of an early February 2019 game between the Bucks and the Washington Wizards. The damage to the Wiz had already been done—they were down 21 at this point—but there was time left on the clock for partying, and the ball was just bouncing there. Then it wasn’t.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, arms like wind turbines—and these would be yoked wind turbines. Some real Cansecos. These wind turbines have a bench and some free weights in the garage but also a membership at the Healthplex Fitness Center over by where the old K-Mart used to be. They know all the people that work at the GNC across from the pet store in the mall and they almost exclusively wear sleeveless shirts with oversized arm holes and they have a custom weightlifting belt they bought online and they do meal prep for the entire week on Sundays. Fourteen chicken breasts will be grilled. Fourteen sweet potatoes will be baked. Low-fat cottage cheese will be scooped into Tupperware containers. Beef jerky will be placed into sandwich-size Ziploc baggies. Seven of the meals will include an apple. Seven of the meals will include a banana. Apple one day, banana the next. Apple. Banana. Apple. Banana. This keeps the body on its toes. This keeps things fresh. Antetokounmpo, though. He had the ball, and he began to make his way toward the other end of the floor. He moved with the utmost confidence in himself, certain. His shoes were the color of orange Starbursts and his legs churned away, his feet blurring into a lighter hue, bright tangerine circles spinning on the wood.

The orange Starburst is the greatest of all the original Starbursts. Red is second best. Pink is third. Yellow is last, dead last, a total loser. It has nothing to offer. The other Starbursts make fun of it constantly. They’re relentless. They cut to its core. They call it gross. They call it pathetic. They call it dime-store trash. Orange, red, and pink will walk along the sidewalk and make it so yellow has to walk behind them. It can’t contribute to the conversation. They shut it out. They laugh at it. At dinner, the booth squeals underneath yellow when it scoots over. The other three Starbursts act like yellow farted. The waitress comes over to take their order. She asks them what they want. Orange points at yellow and says, “Um, yeah. Yellow will have the bag of fried dicks, please.” The waitress laughs. She points at yellow—many in the restaurant have turned to watch—and she laughs.

But Giannis. For a couple of seconds after the steal it’s just him on a one-man fast break, the strides of a giant, picking up steam. There’s really nothing like him in the open floor. He’s listed at 6-foot-11 and 242 pounds. You could tell me he was a Transformer and I would ultimately know you were joking but it would take me a bit to get past thinking that that’s not the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. He’s the size of a moose and he moves like a dancer. An alien with brooms for arms and thumbs the size of corn dogs. That’s not overstating it. His thumbs are the size of corn dogs. He’s so physically gifted it’s confusing. It’s confusing seeing someone that big do the things he does. It’s confusing seeing someone have hands the size of lobster traps. It’s confusing seeing someone leap into the air and touch the edges of the mesosphere. The man is a spaceship. He’s science fiction. In this world, but not of it.

Jeff Green had been trailing the play. When the turnover happened he turned and ran, brave and true, tried to head off Antetokounmpo. Young Mr. Satoransky sprinted back, too, desperate for revenge, for justice, trying to stop a train. Satoransky is really stupid and ugly. Sorry. John Wall again. The Milwaukee crowd began to rumble in earnest, got louder and louder in anticipation. On replay you can see different people deciding that now would be a good time to stand, one after the other, rising up out of their seats, ready, waiting for the magic show.

Some waves are just too tall. You cannot stop the future from happening to you. Miles of limbs but every move looks smooth.

Antetokounmpo started his gather around the 3-point line. Huge shout-out to the word “gather” for making a major comeback over the past year. I know I’ve enjoyed watching its ascent to the top of the charts. The game’s better off for it, too. One hundred percent. The word “gather” is truly the cat’s pajamas. It is the bee’s knees, the snake’s hips, and the dog’s bollocks. Green went for the steal. He failed. He was a failure. Giannis ripped the ball up over the top of him, split Green and Satoransky, got fouled, then dunked in their general direction. It was one of those dunks where he didn’t technically dunk on either of them, but he definitely dunked at them, if that makes any sense at all, which, let’s be honest, I’m sure it doesn’t. The building, collectively, went berserk. Antetokounmpo took in the adulation like a bullfighter dodging roses. He pointed to his chest, shouted things the telecast couldn’t make out, appeared to glow. As he strutted—and this really was just a top-of-the-line, well-earned, totally understandable, deeply rad looking strut—the camera caught Eric Bledsoe. He beamed, looked so happy, like he was having so much fun, finally a million miles away from that awful hair salon.

Jay Bilas was part of the announcing crew calling the game. It was one of those things ESPN does where some of the NBA announcers go cover a college game and some of the college announcers go cover an NBA game. Bilas was bursting with joy the entire time, clearly thrilled to get to watch Antetokounmpo in person. As he shot his and-1, Bilas began, again, to compliment him. One of the last things he said was, “and once he gets to the rim, forget it.”

This is trite and obvious. I don’t care. I feel that it’s true and I want to say it. He runs like a deer. He runs like a big, fast deer.

I love Milwaukee. I love the city. I lived in Chicago for five and a half years in my early 20s and me and my now-wife would, every now and again, drive up north, go see a Bucks game, eat at Odd Duck, get some Spotted Cow before we crossed back into Illinois. She and I were at the Bradley Center for Game 4 of the Bucks’ first-round series against the Heat in 2013. It was a closeout game for Miami, the final score a hilarious-looking 88-77. LeBron went for 30, 8, 7, 3, and 1. Dwyane Wade didn’t play. Larry Sanders played 31 minutes. Monta Ellis played 39. He led the Bucks in scoring that night with 21. Mike Dunleavy Jr. poured in 17. He poured those points all over their heads. Gustavo Ayon was still around, hanging out, loving life. Sector 7 was getting after it. This was the year Milwaukee traded for JJ Redick at the deadline. My wife and I saw him at Odd Duck after the game. He wore a sweater. I remember thinking, “Man, JJ Redick’s really wearing the hell out of that sweater. What a good looking guy. I feel like he’s better than me.”

Another time we were there during the Wisconsin State Fair so we went and checked that out. There was a reptile house and beer and fried food and grilled food and beer and music and beer and a bunch of cows and pigs and goats and beer and rides and games. Carnival games. We walked by the one where you throw the darts to try to pop the balloons. The guy working the booth shouted at us, tried to get us to play. He called me Big Country. I felt like he really understood me.

Another time I drove up to Milwaukee with some friends to watch the Bucks play the Suns. At some point during the game, Brandon Knight dunked on P.J. Tucker. Great screams of joy from the crowd. Sector 7 reached nirvana. You’d have thought the building was coming apart. This was Knight after the DeAndre Jordan baptism, after Kyrie filleted his ankles. If you type “Brandon Knight” into the search bar on YouTube, the first suggestion that pops up is “Brandon Knight fails.” If you hit enter when those words are inside the search bar, the first four videos that pop up are titled, respectively: “All Of Brandon Knight’s Worst Fails (Funny Moments),” “Brandon Knight is the un-luckiest player in the NBA,” “22 Worst Moments of Brandon Knight’s Career,” and “Brandon Knight Blows WIDE-OPEN Game-Winning Layup.”

The Milwaukee fans knew Knight had been on the bad end of too many highlights. They got out of their seats and roared for him, let him revel in the light of the poster he made. I’m happy Bucks fans get this team, this player to cheer for. They seem to be having a great time with it.

With six minutes and 40 seconds left in the third quarter of the Massacre at Fiserv Forum or Game 1 of the first-round series between the Bucks and Pistons, Antetokounmpo dunked from a step inside the free throw line. That’s not hyperbole. That’s not a stretch. He dunked from a step inside the free throw line, on a fast break, like a freak of nature, with a guy chasing him. Please watch it.

If you’re someplace where you couldn’t listen to it and had to watch the video with no sound, first, that sucks. I’m sorry about that. I’ve had that happen to me before and it’s always incredibly frustrating. Second, here’s a brief transcript of what the announcers said to each other after the dunk.

Spero Dedes, who is the man: [Face melting, heart exploding, ascending to heaven.] And the Greek basketball god, raining down on the Pistons.

Greg Anthony: [Watching a replay of the dunk.] Look at this guy take off. Just, my goodness … oh, man, that guy is just incredible.

Dedes: [Still watching the replay of the dunk, his voice filled with hope, heavy with dreams.] Majestic.

Anthony: [Realizing that was the exact word he was looking for, probably sort of nodding his head a little, an air of gratitude in his voice.] It really is.

Sometimes people talk about Antetokounmpo like he’s saved them from something. Other times they talk about him like he’s a bald eagle or Bigfoot or a talking lion or Beyoncé or a running back.

You hear the word “downhill” a lot. A few examples: “You just can’t let him get downhill on you like that.” “And when he gets going downhill he’s really tough to stop.” “If they can’t stop him from getting downhill it’s going to be a long day for their defense.” “Once he’s downhill on you, that’s it.” “If he gets downhill on you you might as well jump into a vat of acid because it’s all over for you, dude. That would hurt so much!” “It’s almost like he uses that cushion the defense is giving him as a runway of sorts, and once he gets going downhill, let me tell you something, you’re a dead man, you idiot. You’re dead. Your team is dead. Your fans are dead. He overwhelms you with your own mortality, suffocates you with your own limitations.” “You can’t always get what you want.” “The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

People watch him and use words like devastating, calamitous, forceful. It’s artful destruction, really, his dismantling of a defense. Antetokounmpo, at the top of the key, surrounded by shooters of all shapes and sizes, attacking some poor guy off the bounce and either blowing right by him or backing him down until he puts him in the rim. He’s a minimalist and an entertainer. Some games he looks so much bigger than everyone else it’s like a grown man playing 21 on a 7-foot goal against a bunch of second-graders.

Sports fans can become inured to a player’s accomplishments if that player is so consistently great—they pull off something historic so often—even the wildest of achievements start to seem a little ho-hum. People begin to take them for granted. The numbers and highlights have been so wild for so long the viewer becomes desensitized to the absurdity of the performance. Giannis isn’t the first player this has been true for and he won’t be the last, but there is something about him that pops in a special way.

Basketball players are at their most interesting when they’re a proper one of one, unique on the court and off in a way that nobody before them has been. There are shades of past players in Giannis’s game—dashes of Magic, Kirilenko, Steve Smith, Dirk, LeBron, Shawn Marion, Durant, plenty more—but what makes him so interesting and so fun to watch, is this is the first time people have seen something exactly like this. Joel Embiid is one of the greatest athletic freaks the game’s ever seen and Giannis went full-on Stuart Scott–Kenny Mayne Big Buddy SportsCenter commercial on him on multiple occasions.

There’s something thoughtful about him. He’s judicious. Why shoot from all the way back there when shooting from closer in is both easier and far less stressful? Why not just dunk everything? I seem to be pretty good at it and people really like it when I do it. Maybe I’ll just try to do that every time.

Hang his shot charts on the fridge. Send your loved ones the clip of him hugging the 11-year-old girl who presented him with a purple folder full of art projects she’d been working on for a year and a half.

One of the great things about watching basketball is getting to see a player become fully operational and realize it. They know what they are, what they’re capable of, and just how difficult they can be for a defense. There’s a video making the rounds of Antetokounmpo, after an entirely different bucket against the Pistons this past Sunday, saying, “I’m fucking unstoppable.” I believe him.