ATHENS - Now an NBA All-Star for the Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo showed he hasn’t forgotten his roots growing up in Athens as the son of Nigerian parents who gave their children Greek names, returning home to offer a scholarship for a refugee.
Antetokounmpo, when he was younger, sold trinkets and sunglasses in the streets as another of scores of thousands of refugees. He didn’t get citizenship until 2013, when he had risen to prominence because of his basketball prowess.
He and his brother, Thanasis, who plays for the Spanish club MoraBanc Andorra are putting up the scholarship, it was revealed when they appeared at the Onassis Cultural Center, where they were moved to tears by the sound of their mother Veronica rising from the audience to sing a Greek lullaby as she had when putting them to sleep as children, the news agency Reuters reported. He is fluent in Greek and waved the Greek flag when he was drafted by the NBA.
“I was a young kid, 17 years old, and the Americans came and gave me a chance,” 22-year-old Giannis said. “And I want to be that American for the kids here in Greece and Africa.”
The brothers spoke candidly about their hard childhood and said they felt humbled and obligated to help others who grew up poor.
“It’s just unbelievable, how we started out when we were little, and we find ourselves here now and giving opportunities to kids. Who would have believed it?,” Giannis said.
Once ignored on the streets, he is now the toast of Greece and said his next dream is to wear the uniform of his country and beat the United States. He and his brother later played an exhibition game with others.
“I think Greeks love us because we are good kids, and because we take Greece with us wherever we go and we promote Greece a lot,” Giannis - known with awe by fellow NBA players as “The Greek Freak” said. “And we haven’t changed, we are still the same because we had terrific parents, my mum and dad.”
In the family’s old neighborhood of Sepolia, the basketball court where the brothers practiced features a giant mural of Giannis in his Milwaukee Bucks jersey. And in a cafe across the road, the jersey Giannis wore in 2014 when he played on Greece’s national team hangs on the wall.
“What they have accomplished is a feat,” Yannis Tzikas, the cafe’s owner, who has known the brothers since they were skinny schoolkids and still flies out to matches to support them told the news agency. “It’s so moving, after the misery and poverty they went through,” he said.
In 2013, he told a Milwaukee news site about growing up without residency papers and the fear of being arrested and deported.
“It’s very hard to live for 20 years without papers. Very, very hard. You have children and you have to go out and work without papers. At any moment, the cops can stop you and say come over here and let me send you back to your country. For me, my parents, they are heroes,” he said.
The family has since moved to Milwaukee. Giannis’ father, Charles, played soccer in Nigeria and his mother was a high jumper. And now Giannis is feted and adored by Greek-American fans in cities where the Bucks play.