Giannis Antetokounmpo: The making of ‘The Greek Freak’

Giannis thinks

A two-time MVP winner, five-time All-Star and now NBA champion – Giannis Antetokounmpo has made a remarkable climb to the top of the NBA.

Born in Athens to Nigerian immigrants, Giannis and his family were only recognized as Greek citizens in 2013, previously considered stateless.

Fast forward to 2021 and Giannis has drawn the most lucrative contract in NBA history – a five-year deal worth $228.2 million (£170.1 million).

A champion, activist and one of the most dominant players of his generation, ‘The Greek Freak’ is as big a star on the field as it is off it.

‘My mother used to sell stuff on the street and now I’m here. If I’m never at the top of the table again, that’s okay with me.’

Giannis holds the NBA title alongside his Finals MVP trophy
Giannis led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first championship in 50 years, beating the Phoenix Suns 4-2 in the final

Those were the words of Giannis after winning the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy in the summer of 2021.

The 26-year-old’s upbringing in Greece is well documented, born into a system nearly impossible for someone like him to break out of.

His mother who worked as a babysitter and father as a trader meant that Giannis, along with his older brother Thanasis, would sell sunglasses and handbags on the street to help his parents put food on the table.

The family suffered multiple evictions, with the racist attitudes of some in Greece causing a further rift between society and the Antetokounmpos.

The New York Times reported that Giannis often slept in the gym after working out late at night, afraid to walk home because fascists and neo-Nazis would often target immigrants.

Due to his statelessness, he and his family lived in constant fear of deportation and had no access to national health care or social housing.

“Sometimes I went to school, no breakfast. Sometimes, not every time. I would come back, no food,” he told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

“To this day, if my brothers don’t eat, I don’t eat. That’s how I was raised.”

Step forward – basketball. The exit plan that would start in the humble Greek second division and end in Milwaukee.

In 2011, he signed for Filathlitikos and after two seasons in Greece, Giannis made a serious name for himself.

NBA scouts were notified of the Athens teenager who took the game by storm.

There wasn’t much film to judge it on, and if there was, it was grainy and barely visible.

That led scouts to come to Athens to see his achievements first-hand, and in 2013 he lined up for the NBA draft.

Giannis shakes hands with David Stern
In all, 29 of the 30 NBA franchises made the trip to Filathlitikos’ small arena to judge Giannis before the Bucks picked him up in the 2013 draft.

Prior to the draft, Antetokounmpo would not have been able to travel outside the country because he had no Greek or Nigerian documentation.

But his rise to stardom changed all that.

After turning down 18 years’ worth of citizenship applications, immigration officials accepted and documented Giannis and his family as Greek.

After this, they decided to change their original surname Adetokunbo to its new form – Antetokounmpo. A tricky name to pronounce and a draft announcer David Stern practiced heavily before making the announcement.

Giannis was predicted to have a high draft pick and that’s exactly what he got: “With the 15th pick in the 2013 draft, the Milwaukee Bucks select Giannis Antetokounmpo!”

And the rest, as they say, is history. Back-to-back MVPs and last season, a Championship to match.

It’s one that even the late Kobe Bryant saw coming.

Giannis is a dominant power forward who shows no signs of stopping, but his work off the field is just as important.

‘It’s bigger than basketball for me’

An empty NBA court after a boycott
Numerous U.S. sports games were postponed after the Milwaukee Bucks chose not to play NBA playoffs in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake

Last year, the NBA played the peak of the 2019-20 season behind closed doors and in a “bubble” due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Disney World Orlando was transformed into a temporary sports facility where Giannis’ Bucks made it to the opening round of the playoffs, leading 3-1 against the Orlando Magic.

But as game five approached, a different, yet familiar story hit the news.

Jacob Blake, a black man, was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, not far from Milwaukee.

The incident took place in a summer that had already seen global Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd in May and several other police shootings.

The Bucks and Magic both completed a pre-game warmup, but neither side returned to the field. An hour or so after the game was to be tipped, the NBA released a statement announcing that all playoff games would not take place that night.

Matches were also suspended in the MLB, WNBA, NHL and MLS.

Game five continued the following Saturday and after a win at the Magic, Giannis spoke to the press about how the players reacted to the news and a phone call they made with Blake’s father.

“One thing that touched me as a human being was that if you really want to achieve something and get something done, you can do that. We were able to get his family’s number in about 30 minutes.

“We came together as a team, went in a circle, talked to his father and he cried when he told us how powerful what we did that day was for him and his family, and that’s more than basketball to me.

“The way we felt, we will remember how we felt for the rest of our lives.”

Antetokounmpo has never shied away from using his platform to discuss societal issues.

Giannis wears a sweater with the words equality on the back
Giannis has used his platform to discuss black rights in America

In June 2020, he took part in the Black Lives Matter march in Milwaukee and spoke to the crowd: “We want change, we want justice, and that’s why we’re here. That’s why I’m going to walk with you.”

And in the off-season of 2019, Giannis returned to Greece to participate in a series of charity events to give back to a community that once saw him as an outcast.

We have many more years from Giannis – at just 26 it’s frightening how much he’s accomplished already and what he could potentially accomplish in the future.

On and off the pitch – The Greek Freak is slowly becoming an icon.

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