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The Greek Sneak: The Thorny Side of Giannis’ Rosy Story

I started out this column referring to Giannis ‘The Greek Freak’ Antetokounmpo as ‘The Greek Creep’, but in retrospect thought it a bit too harsh and self-edited it down to ‘The Greek Sneak’. It’s still no compliment, but it’s a bit less abrasive. The point is, there’s more to Giannis’ game than a feelgood Cinderella story, but some of the bad stuff is not entirely his fault.

Ever since Giannis entered the NBA, he’s been the talk of the league in terms of emerging as basketball’s next great superstar, claiming the torch from the aging LeBron James, he from Kobe Bryant, he from Michael Jordan, Jordan from Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and all the way back to George Mikan.
Giannis is uniquely athletically gifted. Probably like no player since Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving, Giannis is pure poetry in motion.

Giannis is the second-oldest and most accomplished of the four Atentokounmpo brothers, all of them born and raised in Athens to Nigerian immigrant parents. His older brother, Thanassis, is Giannis’ teammate on the world champion Milwaukee Bucks. Kostas plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, and youngest brother Alex is in the NBA’s development G League.

Giannis seems like a pleasant, happy-go-lucky superstar – everything there is to like about a hero. Until we take a closer look.

First, there are his incredible long strides to the basket. Next to a thoroughbred like Giannis, many of his peers look like clumsy barn horses. But you’re only allowed to take two steps – however long – to the hoop, and Giannis often pushes the envelope, picking up the basketball a nanosecond or two after taking his first step, then proceeding to take two more. It’s a judgment call, and the referees overwhelmingly give him the benefit of the doubt. Some footage, when viewed in slow-motion, clearly shows Giannis taking four, even five steps on some plays, and incredulously getting away with it.

I don’t blame Giannis for that. Just as I didn’t blame Barack Obama for winning the Nobel Peace Prize quite absurdly before even taking office – I can’t hold it against Giannis that the referees choose to shelter him so egregiously.

But I do blame Giannis for his dirty play, which isn’t easy to notice right away, as it sharply contrasts his sunny personality. At 6’11 and 240 pounds, Giannis is a monster. He’s bigger and stronger than almost everyone he plays against, but if that isn’t enough, he uses his arms to push defenders away, often throwing elbows at them, and plows into them like a defensive end taking down a wide receiver. All of that is illegal, but again, the refs turn a blind eye to it on far too many occasions.

Giannis has injured players who had to miss a game or two as a result, although no foul was called on the play. All in the name of selling more tickets to the circus sideshow of a superhuman with the strength of a lion and the grace of a gazelle. When the name of the game is entertainment, excitement often trumps legal. Giannis is not alone here. Allen Iverson forever paved the way for players cupping the ball while dribbling to be granted immunity. Players who jump and land with the basketball still in hand aren’t called for “up-and-down” violations anymore. Now, it’s a much more exciting alternative: a jump ball.

The NBA is a tough league, and players are often physical and get knocked to the floor. When they do, it’s customary for other players to help them back to their feet, whether their own teammates or opponents. In case of the latter, Giannis at times employs the dirty trick of holding the opponent’s extended hand too tightly, to keep him from returning to action while the ball is still in play. Hence, “The Greek Sneak” is a fitting term.

There are those who’ll defend Giannis against all of these accusations. Dollars to doughnuts, they’re either Bucks fans or Greeks (or both). It’s natural for fans to stick with their team no matter what, and it’s also predictable, albeit annoying, to listen to some Greeks who wouldn’t know a basketball from a tennis racquet raving about Giannis’ play – just because he’s Greek. Then again, there are also some Neanderthal Greeks who insist that “Giannis isn’t really Greek” because he’s black. Again, none of this is Giannis’ fault.

Nonetheless, if the Greek community seems to take extra interest in the game of basketball these days because a native Athenian is one of its biggest superstars, then it should also speak out when he plays dirty. Is a dirty player the type we want representing us?

I know Greeks in America are often starved for attention considerably more than many other nationalities are (“Jennifer Aniston is Greek, you know!” is exclaimed far more often, than, say, “Meryl Streep is German!”), but let’s not sweep our heroes’ shortcomings under the rug because we see them through blue-and-white-colored glasses.

A Greek-born friend recently joked to me about Giannis’ on-court shenanigans: “what do you expect? Of course he’s a shyster, he’s from Greece!”

That’s why Giannis supporters who are Greeks – and/or Bucks fans – ought to speak up.

The Bucks were eliminated from playoff contention this year by the Boston Celtics in a hard-fought seven-game series. Maybe now that the narrative of a Greek Freak dynasty is less likely, the refs and the media won’t mollycoddle Giannis as much. And hopefully, he will take time during the off-season to re-evaluate his style of play. Giannis has the potential to emerge as one of the game’s all-time greats; he shouldn’t tarnish that status with dirty play.





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