Born in Greece to Nigerian migrant parents, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s route to the National Basketball Association (NBA) is nothing short of a fairytale. Currently shortlisted for one of the league’s finest honours - the Most Valuable Player award - the Milwaukee Bucks forward is so much more than just an extraordinary athlete. We take a closer look at his unlikely road to success.
He is the epitome of rags to riches story: Giannis Antetokounmpo grew up with three of his four brothers in the working-class district of Sepolia, on the outskirts of Athens, as children to a first-generation Nigerian immigrant couple. Giannis’s fourth brother, who is the only brother to have been born in Lagos, stayed in Nigeria.
"It wasn’t easy every day, but my childhood was filled with love from our parents and the unity of our family helped us overcome all the obstacles life can throw at you. We’re united like a team, and solid like a rock," the 24-year-old says with an infectious smile.
To help his hard-working parents make ends meet, Giannis and his older brother Thanasis peddled watches and other trinkets to tourists in the Greek capital when they were kids. "I had a lot of fun doing that, and I have to admit I was pretty good at it, even though it’s not really something that a child should be doing. We didn’t really have a choice, we wanted to help our parents," the Bucks player recounts.
Giannis' parents, who immigrated to Athens from Lagos in the mid-1980s, raised their children by instilling them with the values of hard work, and taught them to appreciate and embrace their dual cultural background. To underscore the latter, they gave all their Greek-born children Hellenic names: Thanasis, Giannis, Kostas and Alexis. "We’re enormously proud of having this Nigerian-Greek heritage, and I loved growing up in a home where we’d listen to African music and eat Greek food. I’ve kept this with me, it’s a force to be born into a cultural context that’s so diversified," said Giannis.
In 2007, Giannis followed his father’s advice and began to play basketball. It didn’t take long before he became one of the rising stars of the third division of Filathlitikos, in the Zografou neighborhood. Giannis, who trained alongside his brother Thanasis, then progressed at lightning speed, pouring his heart and soul into the sport, and making a fair share of sacrifices. "The sports hall was located more than one and a half hours from our house, and we couldn’t afford the bus tickets to go home to have lunch. In order to be able to practice several times a day, we put an old mattress in the sports hall so that we could stay there and do our homework and get some rest before the evening session. We were so into basketball and we were prepared to make any sacrifice that was demanded of us. A few times, we even stayed and slept there," said Milwaukee's number 34.
For Greece, for Africa
Giannis had big dreams when it came to basketball: the biggest of all was going to the NBA. After posting some videos on the internet in 2013 and passing through a few American recruiters in Zografou, Antetokounmpo was eligible for the NBA draft that same year. Joined by his brother Thanasis, and with the Greek flag wrapped around his shoulders, the lanky and little-known 18-year-old Giannis became the 15th pick of the draft, going to the Milwaukee Bucks.
The draft opened the doors to America and the best basketball league in the world. Giannis Antetokounmpo moved his whole family from the humid city of Athens to the much colder city of Milwaukee in the United States. "I think I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for them," said Antetokounmpo, who's been nicknamed the "Greek Freak" for his impressive height (2.13 meters, just under 7 feet), his huge hands (27 centimeters, or nearly 11 inches, long) and impressive ball skills, especially for a big man. Despite now having made his home in America, he remains loyal to his Nigerian and Greek cultural roots. "The Nigerian and Greek cultures are always present in my home, whether it’s through music, or food or what’s being watched on TV," he said, adding: "the first thing I did when I arrived in 2013 was to locate the closest Greek and African restaurants!"
After an incredible 2018-19 season where he and his team made the Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis is shortlisted for one of the NBA's finest honors: the Most Valuable Player award. If he wins it, he would become the first Greek basketball player to ever receive the award. Even though he is up for such an incredible award, Giannis keeps a cool head. Instead, he focuses on his work to be a role model for young Greeks and Africans. "It makes me happy to be a hero for the youth in my country and for my parents. I want to show them that everything is possible, and that your destiny isn’t decided beforehand, you can create it yourself," he concludes.