Since James Harden and Paul George were nowhere to be found, it was a mere formality that Giannis Antetokounmpo—the only MVP finalist on hand at Monday’s NBA Awards—was going home with the hardware.
What wasn’t expected—by the MVP or the rest of the basketball community on hand for the annual gala at the Barker Hanger in Santa Monica, California—was the raw emotion pouring out of the 24-year-old superstar as he accepted the league’s highest individual honor.
In a shockingly poignant speech, Antetokounmpo couldn’t keep it together as he thanked his family—including his late father—friends, teammates, the Bucks, and all his supporters in an unprepared speech that sent chills through the crowd and produced all the feels. The 7’ giant, who looks like he’s carved out of stone and physically overwhelms everyone in his presence, was finally overwhelmed himself.
“I was talking with my family [Sunday] and they asked me if I had anything prepared and I said, ‘No, I didn't have, I'm just going to talk from the heart,’” Antetokounmpo said, “and they asked me if I was going to get emotional and I was like, ‘There is no way I'm getting emotional.’ But when you hear your name up there on the stage and then you realize these years of hard work, what you did in the past, then you start getting emotional.”
Antetokounmpo didn’t quite deliver a memorable line like KD did back in the day, but his rawness was, I’ll contend, way more memorable than any of the hundreds of ferocious dunks or ridiculous blocks we saw from him during the 2018-19 season.
It was also, arguably, his most memorable moment from the 2018-19 NBA season.
That’s not to shade Antetokounmpo in any way, shape, or form. Let’s get that straight before we go any further. While I could personally make a case for James Harden being just as, if not more, deserving of MVP honors, Antetokounmpo was an absolute beast this past season. He took his game and team to a new level averaging 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game as he led the Bucks to the franchise’s first 60-win season since the 1980-81 regular season, the top seed in the East, and the Eastern Conference Finals. He earned 78 first place votes from the 100 media members who voted for the award.
But in a season in which he gave us what felt like too many incredible individual performances to count, why did it feel like what we saw out of Antetokounmpo Monday night will be his most memorable moment yet?
Maybe that’s just recency bias talking, but Antetokounmpo had an incredible human moment in front of the NBA world that even he didn’t see coming. Ball players are supposed to be tough guys and not let the moment render them sobbing messes. But the highly personal, off-the-cuff speech that lasted nearly five minutes was awesomely humbling. Antetokounmpo was tearing up nearly from the moment he started to deliver it, the weight of it all and what it took to get there hitting him at his most vulnerable moment. The guy who preaches it’s all about the team was forced to talk about himself on a gigantic stage—just him, the mic, and a massive audience captivated by this monster of a man—and he struggling to keep it together from the get-go. Then he talked about his father, Charles Antetokounmpo, who died at 54 of a heart attack in 2017, and how he's still his biggest motivator. He moved onto how his family will forever be his ride or die and they started sobbing before finished things off by calling his mom is his “true hero." His coach, Mike Budenholzer, looked like he was about to lose it listening to his best player. Things got heavy real quick.
Now that speech is part of Antetokounmpo's basketball legacy, just like Kevin Durant’s MVP speech in 2014 become part of KD’s. Ask your average fan to name a moment from Durant’s incredible season and chances are they’ll probably have an easier time recalling how he named his mom “the real MVP” than anything he did on the court that year.
Antetokounmpo didn’t quite deliver a memorable line like KD did back in the day, but his rawness was, I’ll contend, way more memorable than any of the ferocious dunks, ridiculous blocks, or 40-point performances we saw from him during the 2018-19 season. “I didn't expect myself to get emotional,” Antetokounmpo said after his tears dried up. He genuinely couldn’t believe he couldn’t hold it together. For the first time this past season the Greek Freak lost control. And it was unforgettable.