ATHENS – NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and his remarkable rise to the heights of pro basketball was featured in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) which included insights from the people who knew him at the start of his journey.
Beginning with his final game in Greece, playing for Filathlitikos, the article presents the young Giannis at an emotional turning point at age 18, “after three excruciating overtimes and the most epic game of his life,” his team “was about to lose its unlikely shot at promotion from the second division of Greek basketball in 2013,” WSJ reported.
The distraught Antetokounmpo “sobbed into his jersey” and received some words of support from an unlikely source, the 7-foot center Christos Petrodimopoulos, almost twice Giannis’ age, who played for the opposing team Kifissia, and “had almost single-handedly crushed Antetokounmpo’s dreams,” WSJ reported.
“You’re very young. Don’t cry. You have a future,” Petrodimopoulos told Giannis, according to the article.
Now on the verge of being crowned the NBA’s most valuable player, Giannis is still young, just 24 years old, and his rise in just six years from humble beginnings is already the stuff of legend. Meanwhile, many of his former teammates have moved on from basketball to pursue other careers, WSJ reported, noting that among them there is “an undergraduate economics major at the University of Athens, a sports agent in London, and a taxi driver,” while a few are still in the game though they also keep a day job.
Antetokounmpo has helped the Milwaukee Bucks earn the best record in the NBA and as Christoforos Kelaidis, who played with Giannis from a young age, told WSJ, “Now he can do everything.”
Playing in the working class neighborhood Sepolia, Giannis was discovered by Filathlitikos coach Spiros Velliniatis and recruited for the team that practiced in less than ideal conditions in a gym without heat or hot water as “players trained themselves to jump by leaping over a pond in the local park,” WSJ reported.
Babis Samothrakis, the star of the team at the time, told WSJ, “The concept was always to run as much as we could. We didn’t have many plays.”
Kelaidis, now an economics major, roomed with Antetokounmpo on the road, noting that “Giannis had a bigger salary than me, but it was okay,” WSJ reported, adding that Filathlitikos moved up from fourth division to the third to the second and “each promotion earned the players a vacation to Mykonos, where tourists would stop them for photos with Antetokounmpo” not “because they recognized him… [but] because he was so tall.”
Georgios Angelou noted that the first time he played against Giannis, “they were the same height,” 6-foot-2, but a year later, Giannis was 6-foot-9, and “went from being a slow point guard to an explosive power forward. It was insane,” WSJ reported.
Giannis was still growing, dominating the U-18 games and drawing attention from the NBA whose executives visited “the most obscure place they had ever scouted elite talent,” WSJ reported, adding how the young Giannis matched up more evenly against players who were “twice his age.”
“He was a great team guy. Energy guy,” Angelou told WSJ, while Samothrakis said, “His energy was extreme.”
Making fellow teenagers look like kids, Giannis continued to garner attention. Eric Taylor, assistant coach of St. Francis University in Pennsylvania who was scouting Angelou, after seeing Giannis play, asked the Filathlitikos coaches about him, WSJ reported, “Don’t worry about him. Danny Ainge from the Boston Celtics was here last week,” the coaches replied.
“Everybody was doubling and tripling Giannis, that’s how I got my scholarship,” Angelou told WSJ.
Among the fond memories of playing alongside Antetokounmpo, Angelou also shared some regrets, like the time the team “was down by one point with 10 seconds left” and Giannis “begged him for the ball,” but Angelou decided to take the last shot himself, and missed, WSJ reported.
“I keep thinking of that game,” he told WSJ, “and how I should have passed him the ball.”