Bend It Like Giannis

In the aftermath of their idol’s triumph at the NBA, AntetokounBros Academy athletes bring a tough year to a close without losing faith that their dreams may come true.


Ian is 13 years old. He is half French, half African, from Burkina Faso. He was not born in Greece, but has lived here for as long as he can remember. It is from that time that his love for basketball can be traced. He began watching NBA games when he was 5 years old: his favorite players were LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. It is not difficult to imagine this young black boy watching his future potential growing with every shot and rebound attempted by the Greek Freak, who was also once a young black boy in Athens.

“I have heard him many times advising that one needs to work very hard”, he tells me, “and I never forget it. His story makes me feel that anyone can do anything, that there are no limits. I want to be a professional basketball player and my dream is to play in the NBA”. I watch him move on the court with calm and confidence, taking deliberate action. He listens to the coaches carefully, does not show off, does not get distracted – he is learning.

Twenty children are at the Lamprini Court this Sunday morning for the AntetokounBros Academy summer camp. Some have come from nearby neighborhoods, but most live in the Malakasa hospitality structure. They are boys and girls aged 12-16 from underserved communities, who are participating in a program envisioned by the Antetokounmpo brothers, to provide young kids with the opportunities that they lacked when they were younger. The Academy’s program was developed in collaboration with the Onassis Foundation, with its many years of experience creating educational programs, Nike, and the Eurohoops Organization, responsible for the program’s training portion. 

“We are not looking for the next Giannis”

“We could say that the Academy is searching for the next Giannis Antetokounmpo, to give him the means, conditions, inspiration and motivation to create a new cinematic success story”, highlights Dimitris Theodoropoulos, Deputy Director of Culture at the Onassis Foundation. “But that is not the only goal. Giannis’ story is obviously part of our inspiration, but our approach in the Academy is different. We do not only look for uncommon stories, but also for small, everyday moments that can change a person’s life.

 

The Academy’s mission is to show, through actions, how to build a community based on equality and acceptance of diversity, which gives young people the space to compete with themselves and overcome their own limits. This will be achieved by creating conditions of interaction, providing opportunities for personal development and growth of social skills through our educational programs. And if a new ‘Giannis success story’ emerges, it would be very welcome. Until then, it is important to understand that lives change when equal opportunities are offered to all children”.

Every season the Onassis Foundation organizes three mentoring workshops and inspirational speeches for the Academy’s 100 athletes and 18 coaches, while also offering four students the opportunity to attend a two-week summer camp at Cambridge University and one high school graduate the “One of a Kind” scholarship for undergraduate studies in Greece.

The basketball training takes place in two training grounds: the Ellinorosson court and the Lamprini court. Nike offers funding and its technical skills. “Our mission is to help people develop and grow through athletics – overcoming challenges and building communities to change the game. The community has been the core of our identity and action from the start. Using the power of athletics to bring people together, we commit to helping these young children reach their full potential, and to creating courts where there will be equality for all. We invest in solutions that create long-term change”, highlights Dan Burrows, Senior Director for Social and Community Impact EMEA at Nike.

“With hard work, I will succeed” 

Due to the pandemic, the AntetokounBros Academy unfortunately was not able to welcome the children who had been accepted to the program during its second season of operation, 2020-2021. For this reason a summer camp was organized for June and July, while everyone who has signed up will be able to participate in the 2021-2022 program. In the Ellinorosson court, the sound of basketballs bouncing on the ground and off the backboard fills the air.

 

Erkida Hoxha is warming up by taking shots. She is from Albania, but was born in Greece. She was introduced to basketball two years ago, in middle school, and has spent numerous hours on the courts there. One of her friends attended the Academy during its first year of operation, 2019-2020, and encouraged her to apply.

“I know Giannis Antetokounmpo started playing basketball when he was about my age”, says Erkida, “and this makes me feel that even though I began playing rather old, I can still make it”. Matteo Selimi grew up in Giannis’ neighborhood. He remembers hearing about him. He saw him during one of his visits to Sepolia. He stayed up all night to watch him become an NBA champion and celebrated with the entire neighborhood. He has been playing basketball since the First Grade, soon after coming to Greece from Albania.

“My goal is to become as successful as possible, through my hard work and some good luck”, he tells me, the corners of his mouth tensing up with perseverance and dedication. “I have heard that in the summer, while his friends went to the sea, Antetokounmpo would practice for hours. This story gives me strength and motivation”, he continues. He thinks that the difficulties Giannis faced as an immigrant child and the racism he experienced have made him the person he is today. “Perhaps it made him more tenacious, perhaps he wanted to work hard because that was what would give him a better life”. Could he also be speaking about himself? Perhaps. What he chooses to say is: “I want to succeed, to help my family financially and to make my parents happy, so they can see me doing what I love and being happy”.

Fourteen-year old Antonis Porihis confesses that he admires Giannis Antetokounmpo because “even though he had humble beginnings, he managed to reach the top due to his effort”. He may not follow in his basketball footsteps, but now he knows that it is worth a try. “Perhaps I will focus on computers and technology, which I also enjoy”, he adds with a glimmer of hope evident in his voice.

Fifteen-year old Isabella Xanthakou is thrilled about her participation, her eyes shine when she speaks about the academy. “This 2-month experience was truly wonderful. The coaches were very kind, as were my teammates. I had signed up for a team in the past but the other kids would tease me because even though I am tall, I could not score. I got disappointed and I stopped”. She admits that learning about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s success gave her the courage to try again. “It gave me hope”, she says. “The fact that he provides opportunities to kids to reach their dreams is one of the main reasons I am here”.

 

Her shooting has improved significantly, as have her dribbling skills. She tries, she is focused, she looks her coach in the eyes and follows instructions to the letter. “All the children respond with great focus and devotion”, confirms coach Angelos Stanotas. “It is clear that they want to try, and have fun playing basketball”. 

Basketball brings people together

“Educational programs combined with basketball training promote collaboration, teamwork and critical thinking. Basketball, more than any other sport, ignores the divisions created due to ethnicity or social class. Basketball has the ability of bringing children closer in a completely different way, and of “building” character. The development of these social skills is vital so that people can coexist responsibly, in harmony”, notes Konstantinos Papaloukas, CEO and director of commercial development for the Eurohoops Organization.

 

“We believe that basketball can change someone’s life”, notes Evina Maltsi, the greatest Greek female basketball player, who has taken on the position of head coach at the AntetokounBros Academy. “But our primary concern is not to teach kids basketball techniques, but to incorporate them into a greater whole and help them feel accepted, so that they learn that every person is special and unique, worthy of respect and acceptance, and that they can try to make their dreams come true. We tell them that it does not matter whether they score or dribble well; the most important thing is to try, every day”.

This is something Giorgos Mantzakos has realized for himself. He tells us he fell in love with basketball three years ago. He does not hesitate to dream big about going professional. “I see the Antetokounmpo brothers and I now know that everything is possible, if you truly love something and put in the effort. I will work very hard, I will learn from my mistakes and from my failures. I want to be better every day, whether a better person or a better athlete. I will do everything possible to succeed, but even if my efforts do not work out for some reason, I want to keep the mentality and approach I have learned from sports to be the basis of my life, as a professional and as a human being”. 

This article was previously published in Greek by “K” Magazine.



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