Seasoned sportswriters are typically a jaded lot, weary of the grind of the daily beat, tedious news conferences and persistent doping scandals. Having witnessed everything that there’s to see, it’s not every day that they will come across a phenomenon that gets them truly excited.
So when in a recent article sports columnist Bill Simmons called Giannis Antetokounmpo, of the Milwaukee Bucks, an NBA “unicorn” and a player with a set of skills and talent so rare he had never seen before, you knew this was far from hype.
“Do you realize Giannis and his brother were selling hats and DVDs on the streets of Greece only six years before he got drafted? He goes to Milwaukee, improbably grows two more inches, finds a wingman in Parker, finds a coach with the balls to play him at point center, lands a $100 million extension, and earns pole position in the next Trade Value column. All in 42 months. What an amazing basketball story,” he wrote.
Basketball fans call him “The Greek Freak,” but it’s not meant to be an insult. Instead, this is the nickname bestowed upon him by adoring supporters and sports commentators alike – and with good reason. Since bursting onto the professional basketball scene seemingly out of nowhere, Antetokounmpo has evolved with lightning speed into the type of player that legends are made of.
“Basketball fans call him “The Greek Freak,” but it’s not meant to be an insult. ”
On February 19, 2017, he will play frontcourt as a starter in the NBA All-Star Game after being voted into the line-up by the public.
The 22-year-old received more than 1.6mln votes to come third in the Eastern Conference’s five-man squad, finishing behind only Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James (1.9mln votes) and three-time All Star Kyrie Irving (1.7mln votes).
Antetokounmpo is the youngest non-American All-Star Game starter, after China’s Yao Ming, and the only Greek player ever to be selected for the prestigious event.
His feat is just the latest in a line of stellar achievements that the 6’11” athlete has to his name since his meteoric rise from the rough streets of Athens to the NBA’s glittering basketball courts.
Antetokounmpo’s story is one of modern Greece’s changing face and a serendipitous gift for basketball. The son of Nigerian immigrants, he spent his childhood in a tough Athenian neighborhood hawking trinkets with his brother, Thanasis, to help his family make ends meet.
In a recent Sports Illustrated feature, he said customers used to often comment on his unusual build – his arm span alone measures 7’ 3”- but he never thought anything of it, seemingly unaware of the unrivaled mix of physical stamina and ridiculously long limbs his body possessed.
“Antetokounmpo is the youngest non-American All-Star Game starter, after China’s Yao Ming, and the only Greek player ever to be selected for the prestigious event.”
His life was one of day-to-day existence and convincing reluctant clients to buy his wares.
When he and his brother in 2007 decided to try their hand at basketball, they only had one pair of playing shoes to share between them.
Yet, it was at that moment, when he stepped onto the court for the first time, that the course of his destiny altered forever.
His gateway to greatness was the Zografou club of Filathlitikos in Greece’s capital, Athens, where he first began playing and where his natural talent first started to get noticed. Barely a teenager, the young player was soon getting attention from both fans and talent scouts. So began an unlikely journey from a neighborhood basketball club to the Greek A2 league and on to the dizzying heights of the NBA stratosphere.
Given the fact that he only picked up a basketball a decade ago and is now competing alongside the best, it would be easy to think that Antetokounmpo leads a charmed life. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.
Although born in Greece, he did not qualify for Greek citizenship due to the country’s immigration laws which require the children of immigrants to apply for citizenship upon turning 18. His parents were undocumented immigrants from Nigeria and Antetokounmpo had no legal claim to stay in either their homeland or the only place he knew as home. He was effectively stateless.
His early years were spent under the constant threat of being discovered and deported at any time. One wrong foot, one knock on the door and it could all be over. It was relentless, but these times were also what he says instilled his work ethic in him.
“His early years were spent under the constant threat of being discovered and deported at any time.”
Basketball turned out to be his ticket for gaining citizenship, and after much cajoling from his coaches and politicians, in May 2013 it was finally granted. He first represented Greece on a national level in July of that year.
“A dream came true. We are now officially Greek citizens, as we felt all these years,” Antetokounmpo said in a statement with Thanasis, who is also a professional basketball player, shortly after.
The dream was just starting. It wasn’t long after that John Hammond, the Milwaukee Bucks general manager, in search of a big talent at a discount price took a plane to Athens after hearing about a young player with an untapped gift. In 2013, aged just 18, Antetokounmpo signed a rookie contract with the Bucks.
His dramatic life story alone is enough to fill up the column inches, but it’s his athletic achievements that warrant all the lavish praise he is getting. Since signing with the Bucks, Antetokounmpo has gone from strength to strength. He not so much rose as tore through the ranks, and at 21 he became the Bucks’ full-time point guard, an incredibly rare feat for someone so young.
“His dramatic life story alone is enough to fill up the column inches, but it’s his athletic achievements that warrant all the lavish praise he is getting.”
Blessed with a potent mix of athletic prowess and light-footedness, he can execute moves that may seem impossible – but appear like a walk in the park when he performs them.
Respected by his peers and hugely popular with fans, the young guard and small forward is only just getting started – and having fun while doing it. In one video for the Milwaukee Bucks, he asks the public to try and pronounce his surname, and the results are hilarious.
After being voted into the NBA All-Star Game, both Antetokounmpo and the Bucks’ official Twitter account posted a message in Greek thanking all the fans in Greece who had helped him clinch a spot.
Although he now lives in the United States, there is no question as to which country is firmly the number one in his heart. When he finally got Greek citizenship, Antetokounmpo was offered another choice: he could select between Nigeria or Greece. He chose Greece without a moment’s hesitation.
And whenever he feels homesick, the place he heads to is the 24-hour Omega restaurant in Milwaukee, where he can get a taste of the flavors he left behind in Athens.
It may have started out as a twist of fate, but Antetokounmpo now holds his destiny in his own hands. Come February 19, all eyes in Greece and the US will be on him as fans from both sides of the Atlantic cheer his every move.
“It may have started out as a twist of fate, but Antetokounmpo now holds his destiny in his own hands.”