Giannis Antetokounmpo has explained how the late, great Kobe Bryant made him believe he could become a superstar in the NBA.
Milwaukee Bucks talisman Antetokounmpo led his team to their first NBA title in 50 years on Tuesday, scoring 50 points – the joint-most in the clinching game of a Finals series – in a 105-98 Game 6 win over the Phoenix Suns.
Antetokounmpo's efforts were recognised with the NBA Finals MVP award, adding to his 2020 double of the regular season MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Only Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon have also taken all three individual honours across their careers.
But Antetokounmpo's first MVP recognition in 2019 represented a breakthrough, rising to a challenge set by Bryant.
Replying to an Antetokounmpo message that said he was "still waiting for my challenge" in 2017, Bryant replied on Twitter: "MVP".
The Los Angeles Lakers great – a five-time champion and two-time Finals MVP – then raised the bar further once Antetokounmpo established himself as the regular season's best.
In a Twitter post that was shared by the NBA again on Tuesday, Bryant wrote: "My man....M.V.P. Greatness. Next up: Championship. #MambaMentality"
The league posted at the end of Game 6: "Challenge complete."
Pau Gasol, Bryant's team-mate on the 2009 and 2010 title-winning Lakers teams, added: "He did it, brother #MambaMentality #KobesLegacy"
Antetokounmpo was asked about his 2017 exchange with Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash in January 2020, in his post-game media duties and explained: "It means a lot. This started almost like a joke at first.
"It was a Nike ad and he was sending challenges to players, to Isaiah Thomas, DeMar DeRozan, all of that. And I was like, 'Let me just shoot my shot... what's my challenge?'
"He said MVP, and at first I was joking, I didn't think he was going to respond to me.
"But when he did, he made me believe. Kobe Bryant thinks I can do this? I can play at a higher level, lift my team and win MVP?
"I had to do it. I had to work hard. It's not necessarily that I didn't want to let him down, I had to work because people believed that I could do it.
"That's the thing, I'm a people pleaser. I don't like letting people down.
"When I re-signed with the city of Milwaukee, that's the main reason I re-signed: because I didn't want to let the people down and [have them] think I don't work extremely hard for them, which I do.
"Being able to accomplish those things in this period of time is crazy. It's unreal, freakin' unreal. I can't believe it."