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A Giannis Pilgrimage

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

We’re proud to feature this guest post from Tyler Lashbrook. You can find more crisp, sparkling gems for Tyler at Warriors World, Orlando Pinstriped Post and SBNation NBA. He’s also on Twitter, @lashy.

There’s bar music and then there’s good bar music and then there’s Memphis bar music. The blues infused rock-and-roll hybrid sounds from a guitar of an artist on Beale Street is unreal. It doesn’t sound like any other genre and it really can’t be replicated on any LP or album that is recorded in a studio because a studio can’t capture those impromptu riffs that tear through a bar like the radiating vibrations are painted with colored dye.

I know this because I was so infatuated with a guitarist named Jeff Jensen’s live show that I bought his album during the performance. He, and his incredible bandmates, put on a hell of a show and though I went to Memphis to watch the Grizzlies, I left more with a newfound appreciation of the city’s undying musical prowess.  But the CD, one me and my friends listened to on the way home, couldn’t replicate what we witnessed the night before: the fusion of man and guitar and hands and drums, performed behind a thick cloud of cigarette smoke that nearly replicated the blurry, yet cohesive, blend of music and passion and drunkenness that you’ll find in any of the bars that decorate Beale Street.

The Grizzlies, in a weird way, were almost like the music that litters the streets directly outside of FedEx Forum. Without Mike Conley and Tony Allen, they are a mish-mash of gritty players who seemingly play to the very outer limits of their natural talent. Nick Calathes looks like a failing insurance salesmen; Courtney Lee is a north-south ball handler who understands his role; James Johnson is a high flier who nearly never runs out of energy. They are the harmonicas and keyboards and trumpets and electric guitars that drive Memphis’ sometimes unstable beat.

Milwaukee doesn’t play this way. The Bucks are the league’s worst team and they look the part, even in warm ups. There’s very little energy among the team, the kind that says “we promised mediocre but instead we’re miserable.” But there’s some fun in watching teams like this. Watching a bad team—trust me, I’ve watched every single Orlando Magic game—it’s very much like watching Sharknado, except there’s a ball, a hoop and some referees. You never really know what’s going to happen, but you know it’s going to be bad. Every blip in the offense or miscue on defense is like a poorly written punch line in a low budget Sci-Fi flick, but that’s what makes it fun, or funny depending on your sense of humor.

In that sense, I was very much excited to watch the Bucks. I find myself sympathizing with Brandon Knight and I hope that LARRY SANDERS! returns from whatever weird binge that has turned him from one of the very brightest young players in the league to a depressingly overpaid, underachieving 25-year-old. But I was most excited to watch Bucks rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo; he’s young, finding his way in a brand new country and has one of the weirdest, yet intriguing skill sets in the NBA.

In seeing Giannis for the first time, the first thing you notice is his arms. They aren’t real. They are wiry thin and run parallel along an equally long set of legs, contrasting starkly against a short, undeveloped torso. Those arms play a part in Giannis’ mystique: they provide hope to a Bucks fan base that is fully invested in this year’s summer more than this year’s actual Bucks team. Those arms take up a huge amount of space in the lane; they can deter an opponents’ line of sight and they nearly swallowed Courtney Lee whenever the Grizzlies guard engaged them in a triple threat position.

There was one play in which Giannis caught the ball from near the three-point line and took two dinosaur-like strides towards the basket. He stretched his arm towards the rim—like Michael Jordan hitting a game-winner against the Monstars—and finished the shot just above the cynlinder. It was a simple play, one that Milwaukee fans hope he makes routine, but it displayed his unique blend of length and coordination and touch.

The second thing you notice about Giannis is just how young he looks. His face is clear of wrinkles and he doesn’t seem to be physically stained by age or growth or the stress that is inevitable in living an NBA lifestyle. He looks like a 19-year-old, gullible and maybe even naïve. He looks so young that one my friends asked if he was old enough to even play in the league. It’s a fair question—albeit a dumb one—because, well, he looks like a high schooler.

It’s clear in watching him that even he doesn’t quite understand yet how to deal with the body he’s been given. He runs clumsy, almost like a puppy with paws that it needs to grow into. That clumsiness gives him some trouble at this stage in his young career. In one series, Giannis threw a bad, mistimed and misplaced pass that led to a wide open transition Grizzlies bucket. On the Bucks next possession, he air-balled a questionable three-point attempt. When he runs, sometimes, it takes him a couple of extra steps to cut one way or the other, but when he gets out in stride, you begin to understand just how physically dominant he will one day be.

And it’s really unclear whether he fully understands the capabilities of the body he was given. He’s most noticeably gullible. He didn’t go through warm ups with the same drear and blandness of his teammates. He smiled and laughed and worked on one-on-one moves and attacked the rim and shot floaters and just looked like a kid in a playground that he knows is too big for him but he’s just happy to get the chance to play with the older kids. On one play, Giannis spotted up and drilled a three-pointer. He ran back down the court smiling. This isn’t rare in the NBA. Players are happy when things go right, but there’s innocence to his smile, like he can’t help but be happy that he’s playing the sport he loves in a new, exciting country that has shown him nothing but positivity and smoothies and love on social media.

That’s what makes Giannis so refreshing, to me, at least. His innocence is a noble vulnerability that is rare in professional athletes. He tweets at the Bucks official Twitter account to tell them that they make him want to be a better person and he tweets photos of his family and he tweets about playing basketball as if it is a genuine passion rather than a job. He blogs about his adventures and his feelings as if he’s a freshman in high school, learning that he’s actually enjoying his scary new environment. Watching Giannis is like watching your little brother that you know is going to be really good at sports one day, yet he doesn’t quite understand that. But instead we’re watching a recent millionaire who shows nothing but happiness and thankfulness. It’s refreshing because it’s different.

That’s why few of my friends and I actually made the trip to Memphis: because it’s different. Because they all recently graduated college and a nice mini-vacation to eat some barbecue and listen to great music and drink beer and watch some basketball is the perfect way to break up the monotony that is finding a career. I left Memphis with a newfound respect of blues music and the artists that make it. I also left with some memories of a 19-year-old who is, one day, going to be a very good basketball player.

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