NOTE: This story was updated on Jan. 18, 2022, to make it free to all readers.
An unattended phone broke the silence of an empty locker room in the winter of 2016, and Jason Terry peeked inside Giannis Antetokounmpo’s locker. Seventeen years his new teammate’s senior, Terry was taken aback by the 22-year-old’s screen saver: The Larry O’Brien Trophy.
“This kid is different — he ain’t playin’ for money. He ain’t playin’ for fame. This kid wants to win,” Terry thought to himself.
Months after Terry vowed to himself he would do anything Antetokounmpo asked, the Milwaukee Bucks’ budding superstar found out just how similarly built Khris Middleton was.
During their first-round playoff series against Toronto in the spring of 2017, Middleton came down with an illness that didn’t allow him to eat, sucked the fluids from his body, and sent him to the hospital.
“He gave everything for the team and for us,” Antetokounmpo said of Middleton, who still averaged 38½ minutes a night in that series. “You know, that's when I realized, yeah, that's the guy I want to be on the line with and go through the journey with.”
They had already beaten up each other in practices for three years to prove to the organization, to teammates — and to each other — what they already knew of themselves. From there, no longer was it one-on-one but a pair of calloused craftsmen.
That thing — call it heart, work ethic, the competitive spirit — became the steel cable that not only bound the two men but became the foundation laid in the basement of a 15-win first season together up to the penthouse of an NBA championship.
“Khris is the heart of this team,” Jrue Holiday said. “I feel like Giannis is the soul of this team, and without them, man, we really wouldn't be here.”
Blood and guts before hugs and tears
The enduring image of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton’s partnership occurred on July 14, with 7.3 seconds left in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns.
Antetokounmpo dropped his head on Middleton’s left shoulder, their arms wrapped around one another.
“I mean, just love those moments,” Middleton said. “I know how much he put into that game. He knows how much I put into the game and we knew how much everybody put into the game.”
On Tuesday night, with Middleton squeezing the Larry O’Brien Trophy, Antetokounmpo turned to him.
“Khris. We did it, huh? We f---in’ did it.”
And they hugged again.
They were natural, private moments seen by millions, born out of hundreds of uncomfortable hours seen by few and truly understood by fewer.
Over eight years, multiple contract extensions and all-star appearances, the stories of Antetokounmpo and Middleton’s post-practice one-on-one sessions in the early going of their partnership are well worn.
But no one — even members of the Bucks front office, coaches, teammates — could know what the result would be.
All they had were hints, trails of breadcrumbs. It’s just that Antetokounmpo’s were of focaccia laid on a straight line while Middleton’s were more of the Butternut variety, winding here and there before the trails linked.
Middleton was a power forward at Texas A&M and then a knee injury sent him tumbling to Detroit in the second round of the 2012 NBA Draft. With the Pistons, after every practice or before every game, he and fellow rookie Kim English would go head-to-head, one-on-one. Three dribbles only. Unlimited dribbles. Give a bucket, damn sure he was getting a bucket.
“It was in his DNA. It’s all he knew,” said English, now the head coach at George Mason University.
Middleton and English were sent to the Developmental League (now the G League) in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for three games a week, just to get some playing time. By the end of that season, it was Middleton getting rotational minutes in Detroit over English.
“With Khris, for me, it’s the unseen hours, it’s the stuff you don’t see,” English said. “He was ready. He was ready.”
But not ready enough.
In a July 2013 trade headlined by Brandon Jennings and Brandon Knight, Pistons general manager Joe Dumars reluctantly sent Middleton over to the Bucks to make the money work. By training camp of head coach Larry Drew’s first and only season, Milwaukee knew it had a player. In a span of months, he went from being considered a role player to the team’s sixth man to starting to the guy Drew schemed last-second scenarios for.
Within that, were the hours at the Cousins Center.
Veteran teammates — bigger forwards and centers or the smaller guards — took notice, whether they were giving or getting in one-on-ones. They learned Middleton was stronger than he looked, specifically, the power of his forearms leaning into their bodies. They learned he was quicker than his frame belied, getting position with a burst. Then they watched him finish out the day with his shooting routine.
“I'm not going to try to waste my time by just half-assing it,” Middleton said. “I'm going to give it my all. I'm going to work to be the best I can. I may not be the greatest, but I feel like I can be the best version of myself.”
Antetokounmpo was a frequent sparring partner for Middleton.
Now, nearly a decade later, those sessions are well known. But Middleton was better than the 19-year-old rookie. He beat him in one-on-ones and in their shooting drills. But again, and again, Antetokounmpo wanted to keep pushing, keep trying to get one over.
“He didn’t want to leave until we threw him off the court,” said Scott Williams, an assistant coach on that team. “ ‘Dude, no, you’re going to take this ‘L’ home with you tonight. We’ve played all the games we’re going to play tonight, we’ve got to save something for the game tomorrow.’
“At some point you had to throw him out of the gym. That’s how it was — ‘You have to go home. No, we’re taking the balls.’ And he’d get mad. He’d stomp, he’d eventually stomp off to the players lounge or stomp off to the locker room, but you have to take that ‘L’ today. ‘Sorry buddy. Try again tomorrow.’ ”
Oh, he did. Over, and over, and over.
“He was fighting everybody,” a member of that Bucks front office said. “I don’t mean physically, but on the court, to prove that he belonged.”
Yet it was more than that.
There’s a story, as there often is with Antetokounmpo.
In September 2013, a few months after he had been drafted, sitting in a car with a team official, Antetokounmpo said, “I want to be great …”
But it was what came immediately after.
“… How can I be great?”
Tears were streaming down his face.
“That's the objective,” a 26-year-old Antetokounmpo said during his first NBA Finals. “That's the plan. Now there's steps to it, you know? You have your plan: I want to be great, I want to help my team win, I want to do this. Every day you wake up, now you do little things that take you to that, right? Imagine a line …”
He drew one in the air with his hands.
“This is where we are,” he continued, using his other hand to signify the signposts along the way. “This is the objective. This is the end. Now there's little things you do, which this is the present. Being in the present allows you to do those things in order for you to get there.
“If you try to jump, you're going to fall in the cliff.”
In those early days, no one could know what the two would do individually let alone how they could develop together. Front office members, coaches, teammates — even now no one takes the opportunity of hindsight to say they saw this.
Yet no one is surprised.
Because while Antetokounmpo may have been quite literally skipping out of the Cousins Center with a grin on his face and extra shoes in his bag, it wasn’t until he was done for the moment. Same with Middleton.
“They never wasted a day,” former Bucks center Zaza Pachulia said.
Owning their future together
It’s easy to look back now and believe this is how it was meant to be, Middleton dropping a 17-footer with just under four minutes left in Game 6 to put the Bucks up 96-90 on the Phoenix Suns, effectively crushing their comeback hopes. Or Antetokounmpo scoring 50 points and blocking five shots to help the Bucks win their first title since 1971.
But in the spring of 2014, no such thing was certain. And if a championship was part of the long-range goal, there wasn’t the immediate thought that it would be Antetokounmpo and Middleton as its core.
In fact, they were about to be drafted over.
The newly minted ownership group of Marc Lasry, Wes Edens and Jamie Dinan made a splash by trading for Jason Kidd as their new head coach, and general manager John Hammond and his staff zeroed in on Duke’s Jabari Parker to select No. 2 overall in NBA Draft.
Maybe Antetokounmpo and Middleton would continue to develop in their second and third years, respectively, but the 19-year-old Parker? He was going to be a cornerstone.
“I’m trying to describe the look,” recalled Billy McKinney, the Bucks’ director of scouting at the time. As Parker worked out before the draft, McKinney saw Antetokounmpo pedaling away on an exercise bike, watching every step.
“It’s like this, ‘I know you’re coming in as the No. 2 pick and you’ve got all these accolades, but we’re gonna go at it in practice and we’re going to be competitive, we’re going to be great teammates, but I’m going to be the top dog,’ you know?,” McKinney said. “He’s never changed that. You understand that about the great players.”
Kidd and his coaching staff saw what they had in Antetokounmpo in July at summer league.
Against Utah, Antetokounmpo ruthlessly attacked Rudy Gobert time and again. It didn’t matter if Gobert swatted him, bodied him, if shots went in or not. Superficially, it could have been interpreted as a stubborn display of ego.
Kidd, a Hall of Fame point guard, saw something else.
“He doesn’t care about being embarrassed,” recalled one member of Kidd’s staff. “He doesn’t care about failing. He doesn’t care about effort. He is not going to stop. That’s when Jason especially, but the whole staff, were like we can push this kid to do whatever we have to because he will be pushed. We just had to stay on him.”
And they had to find out different ways, too. They pushed his skill development, his conditioning, the film sessions. But there was more.
There’s a story for this, as there often is with Antetokounmpo.
One practice in 2015, Kidd had enough. Multiple times he had told the 20-year-old Antetokounmpo to do one thing — only to see the stubborn player do it his way. So Kidd put the entire team on the baseline and sat Antetokounmpo down.
He then watched his teammates run for his mistakes.
“This guy was burning inside of him,” Pachulia said. “Burning. Again, character, man. It was year two this happened. Year two, a (20)-year-old kid caring this much and owning his mistake this much and caring about his teammates. That was an amazing moment. Since then, Giannis was so much careful and paying attention to details.”
But who was going to run alongside him?
In their Cousins Center duels, Middleton was still the better player.
“Oh, they were not friends,” the staff member said of the one-on-one sessions. “I mean, when they played. Obviously off the court they were great but, I mean, they competed against each other. Khris was better than Giannis. He was playing better than him the first two years.”
But the games were a different story, at least early on. The staff member said Middleton was very close to being demoted to the G League again, making mistakes, and Kidd rode him hard. But Parker was lost for the year with a knee injury about a quarter of the way into the season and, when the team moved on from leading scorer Brandon Knight halfway through the season, Middleton got his shot.
“Khris from then on carried us,” the staffer said.
And on March 24, he made it — a game-winner against Miami.
“That was like, this dude has a chance to be good. Like good-good.”
Middleton and Antetokounmpo averaged about 30 minutes per game the rest of that year before losing to Chicago in six games of the first round of the playoffs — the first time the pair experienced the playoffs together.
After that season, in the summer of 2015, Middleton was rewarded with a five-year, $70 million extension as a restricted free agent.
It also marked a new milestone in his ongoing duels with Antetokounmpo.
After signing the deal, the pair squared up in Las Vegas for one of their usual one-on-one sessions. Antetokounmpo had been working hard while Middleton had to make sure he stayed healthy.
Antetokounmpo got him — and got him good. And he let Middleton know about it.
“Part of it was the money thing,” the staffer said. “Giannis wanted to be the best player on the team but Khris was the highest paid. All the competitive juices. They didn’t dislike each other. It was just, alright, we’re both going to work now.
“Giannis was able to hold him accountable and he could hold Giannis accountable and that was where they really, really grew and that’s where it’s interesting to see them now talk because you remember when it used to be, ‘I can’t talk to this guy, I can’t talk to this guy.’ It was just the growing of the relationship.”
In 2015-16, Middleton led the team in scoring at 18.2 points per game and Antetokounmpo was second at 16.9. Parker returned to play 76 games and averaged 14.1 points per game, and the competition was heated. Yes, Antetokounmpo and Middleton waged their epic one-on-one battles, but Parker was part of the mix, too. As a team, the Bucks missed the playoffs.
“So now Khris, Giannis and Jabari are all fighting for, well, who’s the guy, who are the two guys? Well I’m not the third guy, you’re the third guy,” a second member of Kidd’s staff said. “And we’re trying to manage how to help these young players grow together and there’s growing pains.”
In 2016, however, Antetokounmpo had taken a leap.
“There was no doubt Giannis was the alpha,” said Terry, who signed as a free agent at the start of that year. “Definitely growing pains trying to figure out those three but you knew who the alpha was. It was Giannis because he had taken such a great leap in his development and Khris right there with him.”
But then Middleton suffered a major hamstring injury in training camp and Parker averaged 20.1 points per game on 49% shooting in 51 games. But Parker then was lost for the season with another injury on Feb. 8 against Miami — the same game Middleton returned.
The Bucks finished 20-11 and made the playoffs, setting the stage for that six-game series loss to Toronto and what Middleton put on the line.
Terry, now an assistant coach at the University of Arizona, says he can recall Middleton’s gaunt, worn, look as vividly as Antetokounmpo’s screen saver.
“He dug deep and he looked inside himself and said I’ve got to do this for my team,” Terry said of Middleton. “I mean, we literally thought he was not gonna make it. He was that dehydrated. Man, he fought through it.”
And the switch flipped for Antetokounmpo.
“I was like, yeah, that's the dude, that's the dude I want to build a legacy with and be with him,” Antetokounmpo said. “Just be a part of his own journey and he can be a part of my journey, and do this together.”
It’s a feeling that made perfect sense to Terry.
“When you’re the leader of a team and you’re out there and you know you’re giving maximum effort every single night and then when you see one of your guys do the exact same thing you would’ve done, you get a newfound respect,” he said. “Not that there was a lack of, it was just confirmation that I’m not the only dog in the fight. I’ve got another guy alongside me that I can count on when times are adverse and when he’s needed most.”
A member of the Bucks support staff at that time isn’t surprised by Antetokounmpo’s realization, either, for another reason: That playoff effectively closed the book on Parker’s time in Milwaukee.
“That’s post-Jabari,” he said flatly.
Before the 2017-18 season, Antetokounmpo signed a $100 million extension and was evolving into a superstar. Parker played in just 31 games. Kidd was fired during that season, but the Bucks made the playoffs and pushed Boston to seven games.
Antetokounmpo saw “the wall” for the first time and Middleton took his first star turn, averaging 24.7 points per game and shooting 61% from behind the three-point line in that playoff series.
“Khris and Giannis have just been the constants,” said the second member of Kidd’s coaching staff. “Those are the guys that, man, they’ve been through it together. And so, I think Khris, to me, for other series that he might have had prior to that Boston series, he might have had some good games, but in that series, he was as special as anybody. Khris and Giannis were the guys.”
Two seasons and two all-star appearances later, Middleton extended a second time in Milwaukee for $170 million. It would be Middleton and Antetokounmpo meeting with head coach Mike Budenholzer over breakfast to talk about the future of the team, and the mission at hand.
“I mean, we had — we formed a bond, a brotherhood since that first year we've been together. We struggled. We struggled together,” Middleton said of Antetokounmpo. “But we both saw in each other there was no give-up. It was all motivation to be better and not be embarrassed. Year after year we challenged each other to be better. Challenged each other to be better leaders, better teammates.”
He smiled, sheepishly. He ran out of words.
“Yeah, I mean — yeah.”
Trials by fire forged a golden trophy
In signing his supermax extension in December 2020, Antetokounmpo acknowledged that decision did not mean he would be spitting out pieces of a cigar he said tasted awful, cradling the Larry O’Brien and Bill Russell MVP trophies.
But he assuredly believed it could mean it.
The vagaries of injury, circumstance, luck — and frankly sometimes not being the better team — had far more to do with what happened Tuesday night than the singular act of signing a piece of paper.
What he did know, however, were the steps he and Middleton had taken to get here. The fruits of the unseen hours have been on full display, making their culture one that attracted others.
“Watching them play in the playoffs in big moments, they pretty much rise to the occasion. That’s what I want to be a part of,” Holiday said. “I feel like I want to be in those types of situations where I want a chance to put a ring on my finger. I feel like you can see it in their eyes, that they want that, too.”
Make no mistake, the one-on-one sessions, the extra work after practices continued. Newcomers P.J. Tucker and Bobby Portis noted the standard that was in place once they walked in the door — and how that had to be met.
But it was set thousands of hours over many years ago. It’s why Middleton’s 20-point quarter in the Eastern Conference finals and 40-point game in the NBA Finals didn’t surprise Antetokounmpo.
“I told him, ‘Hey, the day you retire is going to be the toughest day in my career because, like, I've been with you the whole time,’ ” Antetokounmpo said. “And it's been an unbelievable journey. It's great seeing this guy, man, the way we started, the way we are, the way he started and the way that he is right now, just closing games.”
Similarly, it’s why Antetokounmpo’s comeback from a sprained knee in just a week to lead the Bucks to a championship didn’t make Middleton blink.
“To see him do this for a while now, and now it's on the biggest stage and now everybody is getting a chance to see what he goes through,” Middleton said. “How he's hurt and he still finds a way to go out there and compete and be productive and be dominant at the same time.”
For nearly a decade, countless teammates and members of the organization built up a reservoir of “Giannis stories.” His humor, his smile and his life journey, quite literally, is the stuff of Hollywood. His game is vicious, high-flying. Middleton’s stories are for those in the game, personnel men, coaches and teammates who can point to the benefits of perseverance, work ethic and self-belief. His game is strong yet understated.
“What a perfect story both guys have,” Pachulia said. “It’s just beautiful.”
On the surface, they will always appear an unlikely pair: A Greek teenager who skipped into town and hearts with limitless potential, boundless loyalty, and a vision of greatness. A South Carolina Lowcountry kid who was a transactional throw-in, quietly putting it on the line each day. Discounted and overlooked, maligned and questioned. Until they couldn’t be.
In the sea of people filling the court, the arena vibrating, they found one another again. One-on-one. Champions.
That is their story.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton power Bucks' run to NBA title