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SHOHEI, GIANNIS AND THE ONE-NAME WORLD SPORTS TAKEOVER
Between Ohtani, baseball’s two-way phenom, and Antetokounmpo, who might win an NBA title by himself, the planet’s athletes are showcasing domination that is shrinking traditional U.S. exceptionalism
The stage isn’t ours anymore. America has been reduced to a sporting bystander, elbowed away by spellbinding athletes who actually hail from — gasp! — somewhere else. The evolutionary Shohei Ohtani can crush Richard Branson’s space plane with a lunar home run, then hit 100 mph on a radar gun in the same inning. Novak Djokovic has spent the year rearranging history, becoming tennis’ greatest player ever. Jon Rahm is the planet’s premier golfer, lapping the field and COVID-19. Naomi Osaka, when feeling right, is the predominant female athlete.
And U.S. exceptionalism has been swatted away in basketball, where Nigeria and Australia shamed our budding billionaires in pre-Olympics exhibitions, Nikola Jokic reigns as the NBA’s most valuable player, Luka Doncic represents the shock-and-awe future … and Giannis Antetokounmpo threatens to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy all by himself, even after a knee injury that would have most contemporaries tethered to a walking boot.
What’s fascinating about this takeover is how the new superstars, from so many faraway places, are exploding a myth. They aren’t supposed to want IT as badly as we do in the States — IT defined as superiority and legacy — but try telling Ohtani, who overcame serious health obstacles including Tommy John surgery to reboot as a slugging/pitching weapon unlike any in baseball history. And try telling Antetokounmpo, who snarls and bears mean teeth after every dunk and whose recent animated pep talk to his Milwaukee teammates is replayed every five minutes.
Tonight, in an All-Star Game suspended in time, Ohtani will start on the mound for the American League. When finished, he’ll remain in the game as a designated hitter, inspiring more dual-threat poetry about this 21st-century Babe Ruth — without the hot dogs and debauchery and, for now, at a higher and more sustained two-way level than The Bambino. ‘‘We all romanticize what it would have been like to watch Babe Ruth play. He pitched? Really?” said Joe Maddon, who enjoys Ohtani daily as manager of the Los Angeles Angels. ‘‘You hear this stuff, and it’s a larger-than-life, broader concept. Now we’re living it. So don’t underestimate what we are seeing.”
The only one underplaying it is Ohtani. ‘‘I was not expecting to be chosen as a pitcher at all,’’ he said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. ‘‘It’s a huge honor, and I’m going to try my best.’’ His pitching start was made possible when AL manager Kevin Cash said he ‘‘begged’’ Major League Baseball to shed a traditional rule, allowing him to preserve Ohtani as a DH after his mound duties are done. ‘‘This is what the fans want to see. It’s personally what I want to see,’’ said Cash, manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. ‘‘And to have the opportunity to do something for a generational talent is pretty special.’’ The only concern is fatigue after taking dozens of wild swings in Home Run Derby, only to fall to his knees while losing to Juan Soto in a third ‘‘swing-off.’’ Baseball must protect its golden child, not burn him out in July.
I wrote about ‘‘Sho Time’’ last month. I’ll write about it this month. And next month, as will all writers who live to record life. ‘‘I thank God I’m on the same field as him,’’ All-Star teammate Salvador Perez said.
‘‘He is one of one,’’ said Aaron Judge, the prolific slugger who works in Ruth’s Bronx.
‘‘It’s really amazing,” J.D. Martinez said. ‘‘I walked up to him, shook his hand and said, ‘Hi, Babe Ruth.’ I mean who else is he?’’
Freddie Freeman, the National League first baseman, captured it best. ‘‘I don’t understand how the brain can flip-flop from, ‘I’ve got to get three outs and then I’ve got to go and score a run for myself,’ ``’’ he said. ‘‘You’re just amazed he has the mental energy to handle all that. He’s got like literally a 12-hour day every day. And when he pitches, then you have to do your arm care the next day, you got to get all the lactic acid out out of your body. And then you’ve still got to DH at night.’’
The only modern sports comparison is Bo Jackson, who played baseball and football in different seasons. ‘‘Sho Time’’ involves double-edged force in a single ballgame. ‘‘At one time, he’ll have the most power and top velocity of anyone on the field,” said Gerrit Cole, the sport’s highest-paid pitcher.
Still, of all the international breakthrough artists, it’s Antetokounmpo who has the opportunity to leave the most lasting impression on our shores. Why him and not Ohtani, Djokovic or the others? Oh, because basketball, beyond football, is the most popular and rhapsodized of American sports in 2021. And he is positioned to control a league that always has been lorded over by our own one-name legends — Michael, Kobe, LeBron, Steph, Shaq, Magic and Larry, Kareem and Wilt and Bill and all the rest.
How can an interloper known as the Greek Freak, who once supported his impoverished family by hawking bags and sunglasses on the Athens streets, ascend to two MVP awards and the starring role in the NBA Finals before his 27th birthday? How can he remain upright and continue to dominate, after hyperextending his left knee in a vicious fall during the Eastern Conference finals, when so many top players have succumbed to injuries in an attrition-clogged postseason? Oh, maybe because it’s xenophobic to think the rest of the world can’t produce all-time fearsome greats in our sports leagues. Just shy of 7 feet and built like an Acropolis statue, Giannis is a blizzard of nature, melding skill and power with in-the-paint mastery stoppable only if the Suns import a row of cactus. His teammates are accustomed to the show.
‘‘I've seen him do a lot of stuff like this. It doesn’t surprise me,’’ Khris Middleton said. ‘‘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; 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."
‘‘I just think whoever gave him the nickname ‘Greek Freak’ did a great job of that, for real,’’ Bobby Portis said. ‘‘It's amazing how he's playing out there and doing all these different things and just being himself. I'm saying, that's just rare."
If not transcendent.
The spectacle, you sense, is just getting started. The Bucks remain three victories from a title, down 2-1 to a Phoenix team guided by the savvy and soul of sentimental favorite Chris Paul. But the Suns clearly will have no answer in this series for Antetokounmpo, who joined Shaquille O’Neal as the only players to produce at least 40 points and 10 rebounds in successive Finals games. And if the teammates at whom he screams keep showing up every night — namely, Middleton and Jrue Holiday — the Bucks will celebrate the franchise’s first championship in 50 years, and Giannis will take one more size-16-shoe step toward what ancient Greece called a pantheon, or a temple of the gods. For fans in the Arizona desert, the onslaught is reminiscent of the last time their team was in the Finals, in 1993, when Michael Jordan put up at least 40 points in four straight games. This factoid was mentioned to Antetokounmpo, who didn’t want to hear it.
‘‘I’m not Michael Jordan. I’m not Michael Jordan,’’ he said after Game 3, all but whispering. ‘‘All I care about right now is one more game. One more win.’’
His humility is no act. Unlike many American hoops icons, Giannis can do without the Finals’ media mobs and the league’s monstrous hype in general. He should be endearing in that sense, preferring to remain in a small market instead of using his supermax-deal leverage to form another NBA obnoxious superteam, as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving did in Brooklyn. Though the outcome might have been different had Irving and James Harden remained healthy, the Bucks won one for the traditionalists in eliminating the Nets. Antetokounmpo’s performances are loud, heard around the world, but his personality is muted. That’s refreshing. He loves interacting with media members one-on-one, the way it’s done in Milwaukee, where a few reporters show up for a practice.
‘‘I just don’t like this,’’ he said, motioning to cameras during a packed Finals press conference. ‘‘I never did. But, yeah, if you guys want to have a conversation in the hotel or whatever …’’
Giannis is just a dude from Europe living the American dream. He will not bury himself beneath self-induced pressure to prove he can win a ring, nor will he bury himself in social media to read and answer critics. ‘‘You know, obviously, I know it's the Finals. Like tomorrow, we all understand what kind of game we are getting ourselves into," Antetokounmpo said. ‘‘So, we know what we got to do. But at the end of the day, you got to keep it light. You cannot tell yourself, ‘Oh, it's the Finals. You got to do this. There's so much pressure, man.' No, like, it's still basketball. It's easy to say, hard to do, but at the same time, you have to try to approach it that way. Just got to keep it light. Got to keep the ball light. You got to keep the atmosphere light.
‘‘Once we go out there and see the fans, you understand what kind of game you're into. Keep it light and enjoy that. Knowing I enjoy things, I really, like, put my heart into it. If I don't enjoy it, I'm just going through the motions. So, I just try to enjoy it, try to enjoy that I'm here. We have come a long way to be in this position, and we got to try to make the best out of it. That's what we did, I guess, in the first round, in the second round, in the third round. That's what we'll do now, and hopefully, it works out in our favor."
When the game starts, of course, Antetokounmpo is a beast. He happens to compartmentalize his competitive urges, once a source of media criticism until he reached the Finals. After years of hearing what he can’t do on a court — make three-pointers, hit free throws, lead a locker room — he is shutting down the critics, including enemy-fan mockers who count down during his foul-line dribbling routine (‘… five, six, seven, eight, nine …’’). In Game 3, he sank 13 of 17 free throws. And while he’s still more Ben Simmons than Steph Curry from the three-point stripe, don’t leave him open.
His maturity strides are magnified by the day. We forget he’s 26, still learning about our culture, still absorbing the demands of a sports-loony nation. Never, ever can anyone refer to Giannis as soft. As he is quick to remind, ‘I shouldn’t be playing.’’ But he is, as if his knee never was injured. The Bucks survived the Eastern finals when was sitting. Now, he is returning the favor. ‘‘I’m not 100 percent,” he said, ‘‘but I watched my teammates play good basketball and gave me a chance to come back. At the end of the day, that’s all I can ask.’’
‘‘We need a lot from him,’’ said the always-embattled Bucks coach, Mike Budenholzer, ‘‘and he delivered.’’
America’s embrace of Antetokounmpo is a work in progress. Ratings for the 2021 Finals are way down — the Game 2 viewership average dropped 33 percent from 2019, 49 percent from 2018 — and he won’t be fully appreciated until sports aren’t taking a backseat to post-peak-pandemic vacations. The same applies to Ohtani, who inherited the national spotlight Monday night in the Colorado altitude and reminded us, even in an exhibition defeat, that he could hit 60 homers this season. And win 10 games on the mound.
He’s just trying to get through these two days and nights. ‘‘I’m expecting to be pretty fatigued and exhausted, but there’s a lot of people that want to watch it and I want to make those guys happy,” Ohtani said. ‘‘That’s why I’m going to do it.”
All that should matter is the ‘‘Sho Time’’ experience, which brings positive vibes to a troubled, labor-doomed sport. Too bad ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith can’t sit back and enjoy Ohtani, preferring to complain that the Japanese-born star doesn’t conduct interviews in English. After taking hours of much-deserved abuse on social media, Smith said he was sorry.
“Let me apologize right now," he wrote on Twitter. ‘‘As I’m watching things unfold, let me say that I never intended to offend ANY COMMUNITY, particularly the Asian community — and especially SHOHEI Ohtani, himself. As an African-American, keenly aware of the damage stereotyping has done to many in this country, it should’ve elevated my sensitivities even more. Based on my words, I failed in that regard and it’s on me, and me alone! Ohtani is one of the brightest stars in all of sports. He is making a difference, as it pertains to inclusiveness and leadership. I should have embraced that in my comments.
‘‘Instead, I screwed up. In this day and age, with all the violence being perpetrated against the Asian Community, my comments — albeit unintentional — were clearly insensitive and regrettable. There’s simply no other way to put it. I’m sincerely sorry for any angst I’ve caused with my comments on ‘First Take’ this morning. Again, I am sorry."
I apologize, on behalf of a nation, for Smith’s ugly-American drivel. The ears simply aren’t necessary when the spectacle is Shohei Ohtani, Giannis Antetokounmpo or someone else from somewhere else. Just use the eyes and behold the world’s wonders.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.