DimeMag

Year None: Giannis Antetokounmpo

The 2019-2020 NBA season came to an abrupt halt on March 11 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the season effectively three-quarters of the way through, many storylines, records-to-be, and developing comebacks were left in the lurch; all the bizarre, beautiful, and too-absorbing minutiae of the league halted. This is a look back at the most compelling of those suspended narratives in an attempt to figure out what could have been while reconciling, maybe wrenchingly, that however the season concludes, this will be a year in basketball that never fully happened. Welcome to Year None.

He’s known by his first name because so few can pronounce his last. First, a trepidation, then a laziness, then a shorthand. Only LeBron has the same first-name basis with every sports fan. How Giannis has been made familiar, outside his performance, his crushingly natural athletic inclinations, is by an irony known to any successful newcomer.

For his first eighteen years he was stateless. His parents left Lagos for Athens and Giannis was born three years later. Greek nationality law follows jus sanguinis, right of blood, citizenship determined via nationality or ethnicity of one or both parents. His parents were Nigerian, but without returning to Nigera couldn’t confer their status onto their son. On his own, the path was close to impossible. Until 2015, there were no citizenship provisions in place for second or even third-generation migrants, and the legislation that came that year was bound up in prerequisites of education, a pathway not always available to a country’s most precarious. His blood would never change, but basketball could be its accelerant.

He entered the 2013 NBA Draft as Greek because it would raise fewer flags for entering the United States than as Nigerian. He moved from where would not have him as himself, not yet, to a place, the place if you believe the narrative and the plaque at the foot of Lady Liberty née Libertas or, in Greek, Eleutheria, that would. The American Dream was his, like it could be for so many, if they only placed in it the full weight of their trust, the leverage of their labor.

When Giannis Antetokounmpo returns to Greece now, the people in his old neighborhood who used to sneer at his selling CDs, sunglasses, who didn’t want Africans as neighbors, open their arms wide to welcome him home. His portrait is painted gigantic across the court he used to play on. And he’s Giannis, good natured, watchful as they come, so he agrees. They have no trouble with his last name, not anymore. They always knew how it fit between their teeth, it was the boy it was attached to they couldn’t stomach.

Ever since he declared himself eligible for the Draft, this theme of inversion, of tidy and ancient ideas of lineage still best explained in Latin, has exploded. There is not one team, one GM who doesn’t eye their current roster and indulge in the secret exercise of playing favorites, then offering those favorites up when imaginarily pressed. It is hardly an exercise because, when they ask themselves who they would be willing to lose to gain him, there is not one name that slips suddenly out of reach. If anything they draw imperceptibly closer. And once initiation into that fantasy starts, one toe dipped in forbidden waters where the ripples find everything, there is no way to see their teams as they were, without a 6’11 shadow cast across their best laid plans.

The ease of Antetokounmpo is just that — amicable and fluid, not inclined to throw his weight around beyond the direction that he’s moving in but still, with a ferocity that comes to bear on court as if it were a pointed, deliberate act of revenge. When he moves against someone it is with the propulsion needed to go through them, but not in a way where he’s calculated and added extra energy, more as if they were never there in the first place. His basketball is erasure.

His face changes. Not the cocky mask of James Harden or Russell Westbrook’s flippant ease, Giannis betrays a slight, near imperceptible flicker and then he’s gone, shifted inside himself. Aside from his physical strength, the most frightening thing about him on court is that when he locks eyes with the competition, they find zero recognition there. Off the court, he is the farthest thing from cruel, but out there under the lights, the speed and precision that he can shear personality from player, ability from the threat it poses to him, with the most glancing of reads, is undoing. You might get a bounce on the spot as his body ricochets up from the force of him landing post-block, post-dunk, post-backing a guy all the way to the basket, crowd keening as he makes two fists and cuts a quick bodybuilder pose, face snarling. But by the time that steam valve release of a celebration is done, soul freshly abdicated from the body of the other guy, he’s back gliding silent down the court, a flicker of shadow beside you out in deep water that you never want to see.

Fearlessness is a prerequisite for basketball, but it comes from practice. To better in a league of the very best, anything that looks like reluctance has to be counter conditioned. Nerves become speed, a bad shot is a good second chance. Stacked on top of one another, season after season, these deficits turn into experience and players hone their courage. Not so for Antetokounmpo. His fearlessness comes hauled out of a deep well inside, drawn from the same stratum as the fundamentals of his character. It isn’t a decision to be courageous on court for him as much as it is the absence of fear to begin with. The symmetry of his euro step as he manages to slow it coming downhill onto a defender, the careening blocks he’s already airborne for just as the unsuspecting guy he’s gaining on is going up for their layup, these actions are so deeply intuitive to him. You watch and understand his thought process has never hinged on when or if, on picking the best moment around the flinch of possible failure, it has only ever been I will.

In the playoffs last year, when the Bucks were hobbled by the Raptors for four games straight and fell out of the Eastern Conference Finals, it was not tempering this innate lack of fear with discretion, watchfulness, and the necessary regrouping beat a shrewdly placed pause can gift that gave him and Milwaukee trouble. To win in the every night scrap that is a playoff series, Antetokounmpo has to counter condition his deepest natural impulse, he has to learn a little fear — if only for its useful side effects. Watching him this season, as winter eased up its grip everywhere but Milwaukee, he was gaining on it. His reads were sharper, he showed up to help in the throng of the paint where he could lend his smothering length and physicality to dig out a swamped offense. If he was hounded and shut down early, he would flip the ball away, faking and shaking his defenders only to pop up where his guys needed him and swat the ball in at the end of an alley-oop. He was watchful and it was getting terrifying.

A lot is made of the personal milestones in players’ lives, some of it relevant, or else just lining up with a much-needed narrative. Antetokounmpo becoming a father this season did seem to shift the scope of his work. Four days before All-Star weekend, the bacchanalian pause that propels the last quarter of the season, he held the tiniest person imaginable with his two giant hands and let the full weight of his son settle. Antetokounmpo is already the farthest thing from a mercurial superstar. The icy, imperturbable mantle he slips into during games is easily shed by the scorer’s table when he steps off court. He’s friendly with media, responsive to fans, demonstrative with his teammates, and accessible to coaches. His affability isn’t naiveté, he’s never seemed surprised to be where he is, and after the storied road he’s taken, generational in its journey, how could he be? Before he set foot in the lifestyle of a professional athlete he had been honing an approachability necessary to seem less like the other in a world where his skin was seen first, personality and skills last, if ever.

Players who come up through the linear path of high school-college-declare for the draft have understood that remaining open on request is a part of getting there. That Antetokounmpo’s instruction was initially in survival hasn’t altered the tenderness of him, what seems a wide and smiling approach to life, competition, and now beginning a family. There is suddenly a lot more on the line and that’s including the entirety of what was there before. He has raised his own stakes and multiplied his joy, the two fundamental things that have driven him in tandem throughout his career.

Easily, a large focus of the 2019-2020 season, initially, was on getting through it in order to see if the greatest force in the league would make it to 2021 free agency. The singularity of which isn’t for lack of other prodigious names who likewise stand to be cut loose. His decision this offseason, signing a supermax extension in Milwaukee or not, will determine the fury with which teams gear up for a run at the MVP a year later. There are at least three teams who have factored his choice into what the future of their franchises look like — Milwaukee, Miami, and Toronto — and a handful of others whose intentions seem more sincere than the Knicks’ anarchic strategy of declaring for everybody, all of the time. More might take serious looks at their rosters after this season spent in strange oblivion and once the staggered start of the next one gets underway to see if they have something worth risking it all for. And even the teams that are realistic enough to know they don’t have a shot, or have already secured the players they wanted or needed in recent summers and are smartly walking away, will still cast covetous glances back on what Antetokounmpo will decide to do because he is one of the rare few who shapes the landscape of the league for seasons to come with nothing more than a fresh signature.

Jus sanguinis, right of blood, applied in the microcosm of the league and there is nothing that his name does not inherit him. Whether he goes by first or last or lets the stillness cleaved in the frore of his footfalls on court speak for him, he is his own lineage and we are all just waiting for history.

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