With the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks facing off in the 2021 NBA Finals, either Devin Booker or Giannis Antetokounmpo will soon be an NBA champion.
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While we are now witnessing an entire generation of stars that are influenced by Kobe Bryant, Booker and Antetokounmpo are two of the greatest beneficiaries of Bryant's direct influence.
It's evident each time they step on the floor.
With Antetokounmpo entering the league in 2013 and Booker doing so in 2015, there was overlap that allowed each player to face off against Bryant during his final years with the Los Angeles Lakers.
From on-court battles came connections outside of the lines that allowed Bryant's relationship with each player to transcend into mentorship.
On the cusp of the ultimate prize, both Antetokounmpo and Booker will look to finish the job while using major elements of the wisdom that was imparted unto them from one of the greatest players to ever pick up a basketball.
While Booker's rookie season doubled as Bryant's last in the NBA, the two only shared the floor once out a possible four meetings between the Lakers and Suns.
After a 19-year-old Booker led the Suns to victory with 28 points and seven assists, he made his way to the visitor's locker room to spend time with Bryant. As had become a custom throughout the season, Bryant signed a pair of sneakers for Booker, but he added a personal message that reads "To Book: Be Legendary."
Five years later, that message continues to guide the 24-year-old.
Booker, who exclusively wears sneakers from Kobe's signature line, writes "Be Legendary" on every pair that he wears and got the message inked on his forearm in March of 2020 .
It's one thing to set out a goal to be legendary, but it's another to do the stuff of legends.
In his first-ever postseason run, Booker has already turned in a number of moments worthy of a "legendary" label. To start off his playoff career, Booker stepped up when teammate Chris Paul suffered a shoulder injury, finishing with 34 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds and a win over the Lakers in his playoff debut.
But it was only one game.
After two losses, Booker and the Suns rang off three straight wins, including a closeout victory that saw Booker go for 47 points, 11 rebounds and three assists at the Staples Center, where Bryant's Nos. 8 and 24 hang in the rafters.
You might have an idea of what Booker had to say as his team moved on to the next round.
BeLegendary ♾- Book (@DevinBook) June 4, 2021
Following Phoenix's four-game sweep of the Denver Nuggets, Booker again needed to step up in the absence of Paul, who would miss time while in the league's health and safety protocols. To open the Western Conference Finals, Booker stepped up to the tune of 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in a big-time victory over the LA Clippers.
Playing through a broken nose, Booker struggled at times but found a way, continuing to grow his legend as he and the Suns advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in 28 years. Again, the message was clear.
BeLegendary- Book (@DevinBook) July 1, 2021
Four wins away from the first title in the franchise's history, Booker has an opportunity to etch his name among the greats by leading the Suns to their ultimate goal. To do so in his first-ever playoff run would be nothing short of legendary.
MVP https://t.co/cjmWH5Mqyz- Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) August 27, 2017
One year post-retirement, Bryant took to Twitter to issue a set of challenges to a number of athletes - in and outside of the basketball world. Antetokounmpo, who wasn't among the initial group to receive a challenge, took initiative to seek out a challenge from Bryant.
It was simple: MVP.
It took two seasons, but Antetokounmpo first reached the goal in 2018-19, earning MVP honours after leading the Bucks to the league's best record with averages of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game.
After the Bucks came up short in the Eastern Conference Finals, the influence from Bryant's challenge again was evident as Giannis essentially challenged himself to win the award again during a rally with fans in Milwaukee.
"After today, please don't call me MVP... until I win it again next year!" - @Giannis_An34 pic.twitter.com/vNv5qc7Nwa- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 14, 2019
That he did.
The 2019-20 season saw Antetokounmpo achieve Bryant's challenge twofold, winning league MVP honours for a second straight season and adding a Defensive Player of the Year trophy, to boot. But after yet another disappointing playoff shortcoming, Giannis again would go on record to issue himself another challenge.
"Don't call me MVP until I'm a champion."- Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 18, 2020
Giannis at the end of his interview with @NBAonTNT pic.twitter.com/sRHBYG3bZ7
Almost a year later, Giannis has added the Kobe Bryant All-Star Game MVP award to his resume and now sits just four wins away from achieving that elusive NBA title.
This postseason has seen Antetokounmpo exorcise playoff demons in defeating the same team that eliminated him in 2020 and leading his team back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat the favoured Brooklyn Nets in seven games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
A Game 7 performance of 40 points, 13 rebounds and five assists? A signature stamp and a championship-level performance.
The knee injury that Antetokounmpo suffered in the Eastern Conference Finals has rendered him as day-to-day entering the NBA Finals, but he continues to work tirelessly to return to action. Milwaukee will need its MVP to win its first title in 50 years and if he can return to form to lead the Bucks to the promised land, Antetokounmpo could very well be adding Finals MVP to his resume.
Maybe then Giannis would consider the challenge fulfilled, but history shows Kobe's influence gives the superstar the hunger for even more.
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