Milwaukee Bucks, NBA Playoff Preview, NBA Playoffs

NBA Playoffs 2019: The Bucks are not just happy to be here

I am currently at the library. The library is named after some local hero. His last name is or was Porter. I don’t know if he’s living or dead. I don’t know anything about him. What does any of this have to do with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the number one-seeded Milwaukee Bucks?

I don’t know.

I do, however, know that when I leave here I will do so with Jon Agee’s Lion Lessons and Il Sung Na’s The Dreamer tucked under my arm. These are children’s books. The pictures as much as the words tell the tale. I just returned a long overdue audiobook, Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success, which is something of a road trip novel about the illusion of success in the United States, how the world is always changing, how the distance between the penthouse and rock bottom is both far and near. I dunked Lake Success into the ‘Returns’ bin. I did so with maybe a bit too much aggression and authority. The protagonist in the book is Barry Cohen. He wears expensive watches — is obsessed with expensive watches — and he is also a fraud; a grown man who is extremely naive in his pursuits of happiness.

I am also in the library because I cracked the family laptop’s screen. I am something of an adult, but I am childish too. I am approximately LeBron’s age, which means most of my adult life is still ahead of me. The athlete in me, however, is retreating. I played in a faculty versus students basketball game yesterday. I had not played fullcourt basketball in quite some time. I run a lot. I ran a 5k about two weeks ago and covered the miles at a pretty decent clip. My vertical, though, no longer allows me to touch the rim, to dream of dunking. I can barely clear a children’s book.

Lion Lessons is about a kid who tries on a lion suit. For the last however many years, the only real lion in the Eastern Conference has been LeBron James. LeBron, though, is on hiatus in Los Angeles — who knows if and when he’ll reclaim his kingdom? His choice in destinations is something of a self-imposed exile, as if he chose to be the Tiger Woods of the NBA minus all the offcourt drama in the form of Thanksgiving car wrecks. Then again, last night I watched a replay of Tiger climbing the leaderboard at Augusta National. Success is always on the horizon.

The kid in Lion Lessons learns from a real pro. He studies under an actual lion in order to learn real lion moves. Some of these lion moves are surprising. They’re not ferocious, but graceful. He stretches and does yoga. Giannis Antetokounmpo has always been fierce. He is longer than most players. He jumps higher. He is strong. He calls other players babies after embarrassing them physically and there’s not a whole lot they can do to counter. His Milwaukee Bucks also lost in the first round last year to a Boston Celtics team lacking in star power. In other words, the team still needed to stretch and learn some real lion moves. Specifically, Giannis probably needed to stretch his game beyond raw athleticism. I mean, that’s the narrative, right? So it was for Jordan. So it was for Kobe. So it was for LeBron. And so, too, shall it be with Giannis.

Hailing from Greece, there has always been some mythic cloud surrounding the Greek Freak’s origins. Tic-tic-ticking, CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a feature on Giannis’ journey from the Sepolia neighborhood in Athens to NBA stardom. Primarily, the feature displayed this journey through contrast in structures. Seen from the sky, Sepolia is clustered mass of gray buildings, but in the middle of it are two flat basketball courts. On one of the courts, sponsored by Nike, is a depiction of Giannis rising from out of the great blue yonder. In Milwaukee, Fiserve Forum has been under construction since June 18, 2016, with the Bucks playing their first season in the new arena this year. Taken together, Giannis’ leap is a journey out of flat earth antiquity and into roundball modernity. He is his individual story and experiences, but, he is also a personification of the American mythos, from the westward born sailing ships to democracy and perpetual paradigm shifts. His athleticism and personality inspire both nostalgia and awe. At least, that’s where all his momentum appears headed, back to a Golden Age, back to Kareem and Oscar and a first-rate Milwaukee.

For Giannis and the Milwaukee Bucks, now is the time to put away spelling jokes.

The team is somewhat ahead of schedule. After all, Giannis is still only 24, which is traditionally an age when most NBA stars are still playing hide-and-go-seek and renditions of Mother-coach-may-I. But the team no longer features a fuzzy reindeer mascot and has opted instead for a war machine too serious to be called a Buck and should instead be referred to by its Latin nomenclature. Gone are head coach Jason Kidd and the players John Henson, Jabari Parker, and Thon Maker.

Cuteness is dead. In its place are grizzled veterans such as George Hill, Nikola Mirotic, Brook Lopez, and Pau Gasol. Some of these men are Phoenician in age and stature. The old gods are waking.

Still, a trip to the Finals or even the Eastern Conference Finals would be quite a leap for a franchise that hasn’t ventured outside the first round since the days of Ray Allen and Sam Cassell in 2001. Even for a player such as Giannis, who can cover the court in a single bound that would be a journey at light speed.

During the NCAA Tournament, I watched a couple of University of Virginia games with some older family members and friends. This older cohort and their views on basketball often play into generational stereotypes. They praised the college game, especially Virginia’s commitment to team and hustle and fundamental teamwork. They bemoaned the pro game. Perhaps the pros and cons they saw in each were code for some political ideologies and the struggle for ideal purity. I don’t really know. I do know that when one older gentleman complained about how “some of these guys in the league today cover the court in just a couple dribbles” he had to be referencing Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ability to resemble the Colossus at Rhodes. Or, in short, he was acknowledging the problem Giannis poses for men of a certain age. Ironically, though, Giannis is as much of a problem for elder statesmen as he is for the amateur. The oldest player on Virginia’s championship roster is only a year younger than Giannis.

Ol’ LeBron will be watching from his couch or posting about his offseason regiment on social media. The Golden State Warriors, even if fragile in their ennui, lurk on the far coast, in all its western fog and digitalia. Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving pose local threats. But the task of winning a championship seems to be a task for doing now.

I still remember a couple of years ago when a student walked into my classroom wearing a Milwaukee green Thon Maker jersey. This moment is memorable to me for three reasons. One, I teach in Virginia and no one wears Thon Maker jerseys in Virginia. Two, Thon Maker is no longer a Milwaukee Buck, but at the time, this student swore Maker would be pivotal to the Bucks winning the next dozen NBA titles (the student’s prediction, not mine). Three, the proclamation this student would make about his beloved Milwaukee Bucks and specifically Giannis were both obnoxious and anachronistic.

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The former I can’t do justice except to say that Stephen A. Smith and Barstool Sports have birthed a monster: insert necessary W.B. Yeats allusion. As to the latter, this student was an early driver of the Milwaukee bandwagon. His boldness had already climaxed at the time of Tim Duncan’s retirement when Kawhi Leonard was the reigning Finals MVP and LeBron James was reinventing the continent, when the Golden State Warriors were still ascendent when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were still a product of prophecy. And yet, all this kid in the Thon Maker jersey could fathom was a future attached to Giannis and Giannis’ unfathomable talents.

It’s about having next, whenever next occurs, because the court is always being vacated. It’s in the by-laws of the legislature and the ocean current. It’s long overdue. It’s so obvious the moment has already been celebrated by the true believers before the act has even occurred. It’s happening now. It’s always been happening, and it may never end. Such is the magic of illusion in all its ancient realities.

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