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Poverty to Pinnacle: Antetokounmpo GQ’s Cover, Athlete of Year

November 21, 2021

As a kid on the hardscrabble streets of the Athens working-class neighborhood of Sepolia, he used to hawk sunglasses for sale but now Giannis Antetokounmpo – arguably the world’s best basketball player – can afford to spend thousands for a pair of his own – if he wanted.

He hasn’t let fame or fortune go to his head, remaining humble and not forgetting a tough upbringing and being shunned by Greek society until his skills on the court gained the son of Nigerian immigrants citizenship.

And now the cover of GQ and being named the men’s fashion magazine the 2021 Athlete of the Year, replete with a shoot inside that shows him wearing a $17,700 bracelet, a $16,000 necklace and $1,340 sweater.

Coming off an NBA championship year in which he was named the Most Valuable Player in the finals that brought the Milwaukee Bucks their first title in half a century, Antetokounmpo is riding the crest of celebrity.

It’s a long way from Greece – which he still considers home – where he had to share one pair of basketball sneakers with his brother and fainted during practice after going days without food, and helped his mother peddle fake bags on the street, the family evicted from homes several times.

The magazine’s Senior Staff Writer, Zach Baron, outlined the rise of Antetokounmpo, who was a raw talent drafted by the Bucks in 2013, showing only the glimmer of a promise of the high-flying multi-threat hoop pterodactyl he would become, dominating the league.

With the honor, Antetokounmpo joined the likes of other superstars such as hoopster Lebron James and quarterback Tom Brady for the cover of the magazine that’s more noted for showing off men in expensive clothes and gear.

The story showed that it hasn’t gone to his head though and that family comes first, his brothers Kostas and Thanasis also in the NBA but as role players, and that it was relentless hard work that brought him to the top, so happy to be picked by the Bucks he waved the Greek flag at the draft.

“Six months before I came to the NBA, I was selling stuff in the street,” he told GQ. “What I am today, nobody saw it. You know why nobody saw it? Because I didn’t see it. Ask my mom. No. ‘I thought you would be an NBA player and have a better life. Not what you are today’,” he added.

He was a good, very good player in Greece but not the hoop monster he became as his skinny body grew out and his indomitable spirit, built by adversity, pushed him all the way to a title and NBA king.

He came to the league as tall and athletic but not without the skills he would hone against the world’s best until he became better than them, rarely put down although Kawhi Leonard schooled him hard in a showdown.

Now, Antetokounmpo, who decided to stay in Milwaukee and signed a $228 million contract extension, can show off a raft of honors, including  Most Improved Player (2017), Defensive Player of the Year (2020), two MVP awards (2019, 2020), and an NBA championship.

“A journey unfathomable in its sheer improbability, its storybook ending, an ending that may in fact be just the beginning of something even more grand and unlikely,” the magazine piece put it.

OUT OF THE PICTURE

“I think he’s never wanted to take an easy way out,” his manager Alex Saratsis said. “In every aspect of life. He wants to be challenged.

He didn’t rest on his laurels. In his first game of the new season, he scored 32 points in 31 minutes against the Brooklyn Nets, who boasted Kevin Durant, now surpassed by Antetokounmpo, called The Greek Freak for his freakish abilities in the lingo of compliments players give each other.

“He looked like a guy who was going to be a project,” his longtime teammate Khris Middleton said. Giannis will tell you himself: “What I am today, nobody saw it. You know why nobody saw it? Because I didn’t see it. Ask my mom. No. ‘I thought you would be an NBA player and have a better life. Not what you are today.’ ”

He is a Force of One.

He astounds even the best, his block on Deandre Ayton at the end of Game 4, “a feat of athleticism so impossible and otherworldly that it’s even more confusing in slow motion,” the story noted. How he did it. “I look at the block – How the f–k did I do this s–t?” is how he put it.

That came two weeks after nearly ripping apart his left knee in a fall during a game that left it looking like an elbow, he said.“My leg was the opposite way,” Giannis said. “To this day, I feel the effect, the traumatic stress. I still feel it, and I think I’m going to feel it until I die.”

He’s gone from stateless to stately, carrying himself with composure and humility, no scandal stories surrounding him like many of his peers, attributing his success partly to the genetics of being 6-11 and 242 pounds, but floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee in mid-air.

“I’m going to work as hard as possible. God gave me that gift,” he said.

After he won the NBA Finals, he went to Chick-fil-A with the Larry O’Brien trophy and the Finals MVP trophy and ordered exactly 50 nuggets—one for every point he scored in the last game of the series and then carried it around Athens for all to see.

His teammates went to Vegas the night the Bucks won, but he didn’t. “I go back home to enjoy my time with my family, and then I do it again, over and over again. I don’t have time to go for dinners and stuff. I don’t have time to go and mess around and go out. I don’t do that.”

During the exuberance of celebrating the title, he was still inside himself as his teammates posed with the trophy.

“Go and see the picture,” he said. “I’m the captain of the team. Go and see the picture when they lift up the trophy. I’m not there.”

He carries other burdens as inspirations, the passing of his father that left him almost bereft but he still went to the gym that night to practice, holding his father in his heart and head.

He’s a father now too, a son Liam Charles Antetokounmpo he had with his partner Mariah Riddlesprigger bearing his father’s name in the middle, and he seems more intent on that than basketball, at 26.

“I don’t want to be the face of the league,” he said, insistently. “I want to play great basketball. After that, if I disappear in the night, good. Don’t even talk about me, don’t even remember me. I don’t care.”

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