In 1996, Game Freak introduced Pokemon, a game where the player catches mystical Pocket Monsters-freaks of their own. Millions of children have had hours of fun catching Pokemon. Alas, these freaks are not real. As stimulating as the recent Pokemon Go app has been, the subjects of that service aren’t real either. But in the humble NBA outpost of Milwaukee, there’s a freak that’s 100% real, albeit even less believable than Pokemon. He is Giannis Antetokounpo, and he’s a star who’s blossoming into something very fearful.
Sociologists groan about so-called “Horatio Alger myths”. These are atypical stories about very poor youths who rise to wealth through sheer willpower and determination. Well, to the disappointment of these analysts, Giannis is a true example of such a feat. Before Giannis was born, his family emigrated to Greece from Nigeria in search for a better life. But just as many immigrants to America have found a very difficult time adapting to a new culture, Giannis faced hardships and discrimination growing up. Even to this day radical Alt-Right Greek politicians villainize the family, arguing somehow they aren’t “really” Greek. Perhaps this is why he has always seemed to play with a chip on his shoulder on the court, playing with a determined passion very rarely seen at any level of ball.
The most refreshing thing about Giannis’s rise to fame is how he stands out from other stars. Lebron and Kobe were over-hyped so early that they went straight from high school to the NBA. Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant toyed with fans at Memphis and Texas, then predictably departed to the pros. (Apparently schools have outstanding 100 level classes today). But this isn’t they way things have always been.
In pro ball’s early days virtually everyone had humble beginnings. Although Bill Russell had a very sound track record at San Francisco, no one would know his name today were it not for a nearly blind gamble from an ambitious scout. Larry Bird was hauling trash in French Lick, Indiana before Indiana State representatives convinced him to give college another try. Cynics say that fans are so blinded by talent and loyalty that background stories don’t matter. However, I think fans eventually tire of mercenaries being shipped in and out of town. Authentic and loyal members of a franchise help to build goodwill with a town, leading to a deeper and heartfelt connection.
Giannis’s blue-collar upbringing has proved to be a perfect fit for the Bucks. Milwaukee is a team that has been riding on past glories for far too ling. No one younger that 40 remembers their only title, and the squad hasn’t won a playoff series since 2001. The Bucks were especially bad in 2014, winning just 15 games. The Cavs then somehow leapt them in the lottery. But with the hiring of Jason Kidd and a few young pieces to compliment Giannis, Milwaukee is finally facing a better turn on Eastern Playoff Street. To beat other contenders, Giannis needs to round out his game to beat the shape-shifting defenses in seven game series. If he can do this, the Bucks won’t be a joke any more, unless it’s the other team that’s the punchline.
In the end, it seems all Game Freak did was turn children into Game Boy zombies and cause fans to walk into trees. But the Greek Freak promises to be a very inspiring example to American youth. He can dunk, spin, and go coast to coast in four long strides. And if opponents can’t figure out how to slow him down, soon he and the Bucks will be a slam dunk of a different sort: consistent championship contenders.