He’s the toast of two towns – Milwaukee and Athens – and now the sports world, and the children and barely teen fans of their adored NBA hero Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t know as they line up for autographs that when he was around their age he was selling cheap goods on the streets in Greece, ducking racist thugs and hoping for some food.
You wouldn’t know it from his Gamma Ray Burst smile that can light up an arena, or from his humility and grace and the unfettered love he has for his adopted homeland Greece, but his beginnings were a hardscrabble life, his Nigerian parents and fellow migrants near pariahs.
From a few euros or cents in his pockets as a skinny kid and teen himself, Antetokounmpo now has a contract of $24.16 million to play for the once-downtrodden Milwaukee Bucks who he has almost single-handedly elevated into a power in the league, carrying his team on his back past the celebrated Boston Celtics into the Eastern Final.
It’s the first time the Bucks have gotten that far since 2001 and what they were hoping for when they took Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick in the first round in 2013, seeing the promise in his slim frame and dragon-like wingspan and tenacity.
But The New York Times’ Peter Goodman, in a feature article titled Giannis Antetokounmpo Is the Pride of a Greece That Shunned Him, recounted just how tough it was for Antetokounmpo to reach the pantheon and already being compared to NBA All-Time greats after scraping and scrapping to survive on the mean streets of Sepolia, the lower-income Athens neighborhood where he was discovered by coach Spiros Velliniatis.
Working for the junior squad of a so-so team in amateur basketball, Velliniatis began walking neighborhoods full of African immigrants looking for children who appeared likely to fill out and grow tall. But he was most interested in body language.
“The most important thing is to have perception, street smarts,” Velliniatis said. “I look at people’s eyes. Are they active and engaged? This is my scouting report.”
That’s what he said he saw in Antetokounmpo when he was 13, watching him and his brothers playing: the embryo of stardom.
“I could see that Giannis had real skills in changing direction,” Velliniatis told the paper, noticing Antetokounmpo’s huge hands and a frame that looked poised to grow. “It was like something stopped me from the sky. The moment I saw him, lightning struck me.”
Antetokounmpo did fill out and so did his game, to the point that other awesome players get out of the way when he’s soaring through the air for a crushing slam dunk or to pick off a rebound above their leaping hands like a hawk scooping up prey.
He’s called “The Greek Freak” in admiration for his freakishly-good game but it took that prowess for the Greek government to give him citizenship – denied to many other migrants and refugees who were born in Greece, speak Greek, and grew up Greek as much as their native heritage.
“He was given Greek citizenship in order to prevent him from traveling to New York as a Nigerian,” for the NBA draft, Nikos Odubitan, the founder of Generation 2.0, an advocacy group that helps second-generation immigrants gain legal status in Greece told Goodman.
Now officially Greek-Nigerian – but disdained by the ultra-extreme right Golden Dawn party in Greece and haters who don’t want any foreigners in Greece – Antetokounmpo gets reminders from them that he’s not loved by those who shunned him.
His parents gave him a Greek first name and he kept his middle names for his heritage – Sina Ougko. When a Greek TV sports commentator called Giannis’s older brother, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, who plays for one of Greece’s premier basketball teams, a “monkey,” Giannis spoke out about his heritage.
“My brothers and I are Greek-Nigerian,” he wrote in Greek. “If anyone doesn’t like it, that’s their problem.” He can write it in Greek too, and speak it, because he’s fluent and so proud of Greece that when he was drafted he stood in the stands in New York waving the flag.
If he has any bitterness over the discrimination, he faced he doesn’t show it. “He has become the ambassador for Greece,” Odubitan said. “Of course, we are all proud of what happened. But this is not what it takes to be a Greek citizen. We have engineers, doctors, all kinds of professionals, and the Greek state does not recognize them. Why does it take being a basketball talent?”
So while Greeks celebrate him, as do his American fans and those around the world, in Greece other children of African immigrants and other ethnic groups are denied citizenship, health care and basic rights at a time when the country is trying to handle asylum applications from most of the 70,000 refugees and migrants detained in camps.
“They put him on a pedestal,” said Jackie Abhulimen, 27, the Greek-born daughter of African-born parents. “But the same person cheering Giannis could swear at me on the road. There’s still a very big sense of invisibility, of not being recognized as existing.”
“What Giannis represents is important for the younger kids growing up now,” Abhulimen continued. “But I do feel slightly disappointed in how certain histories and certain identities have been put aside. He hasn’t publicly identified as a black Greek.”
The court in Sepolia where he played is painted with the image of Antetokounmpo in his green Milwaukee Bucks uniform holding a basketball skyward on the way to another unstoppable in-your-face Wilsonburger dunk.
At 6-11, with the ball handling skills of a point guard, the elevation of Elgin Baylor, David Thompson and Dr. J, he can blow past the best of defenders or jump over them and look down at their baffled faces, almost hearing, “Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane…It’s... Antetokounmpo!”
Chris Iliopoulos Odoemelam, who played hoops with Antetokounmpo when they were kids, remembers more than basketball.
WHERE HE CAME FROM
“He was just a guy you would see in the street, hungry and looking for food,” Odoemelam said of Antetokounmpo, who sold DVDs and sunglasses on the streets of Athens to support his family. “He didn’t have anything. He had one pair of shoes that he had to share with his brothers. And now he’s a millionaire. It’s crazy.”
“We are proud of him,” Justina Chukwuma, an immigrant from Nigeria, said as she watched her Greek-born 10-year-old son, Great Chukwuma, practice layups at his after-school basketball program. “Everyone from Africa, they are looking up to him. They want to be like him, especially the boys. They are motivated by his achievement.”
When he comes back to Athens – his home is Milwaukee, but it could have been Boston, which passed on him in the draft – he’s surrounded by people looking to take selfies and get his autograph and just to touch the man they wanted to avoid when he was a kid.
He remembers those who were kind to him, visiting a cafe across the street from the basketball court in Sepolia to see Giannis Tsiggas, who used to give sandwiches and juice to Antetokounmpo and his brothers, knowing they were hungry.
Antetokounmpo brought Tsiggas the jersey off his back: from the 2018 NBA All-Star game, valuable memorabilia that showed while he knows the sweet smell of success he hasn’t forgotten the odor of the streets or how to repay a kindness.
“It’s wonderful for Greece,” said Tsiggas. “We are all proud of Giannis. We all say he is our kid, even the people who didn’t like him back when they said, ‘He’s just a black boy.’” Make that man. Nigerian. Greek.