True Stories

How Giannis Antetokounmpo went from the son of irregular migrants to global stardom

The story of Giannis Antetokounmpo is proof that it is possible to overcome life’s toughest challenges and create something better for yourself and for your family
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If Mo Abudu and her Ebony Life TV & Film crew decide to make a movie that depicts the ills of irregular migration, the story of Charles and Veronica Adetokunbo, the parents of Giannis Antetokounmpo and his siblings is a veritable resource. 

Most NBA stars started bouncing a basketball from the time they could walk long even before they could talk. But for Giannis Antetokounmpo, he experienced his first taste of the game as a 13-year-old when he had attained fluency in Greek. His unlikely route to stardom began over 8,000km away in the comparatively unglamorous Greek second division.

Undocumented in Greece

The story actually began when in 1991, his parents, Charles and Veronica Adetokunbo, migrated from Lagos, Nigeria to Germany. Charles was a footballer, and he had an opportunity to further his career there. A devastating injury cut short his dream of walking in the footsteps of some notable Nigerians, like Austin Okocha and Jonathan Akpoborie, who hit the limelight playing in Germany. The family ended up going to Greece.

Giannis was born in Sepolia, a working-class neighbourhood, a majority migrant area inside of Athens. It was a tough place to grow up. Because they were undocumented, it was hard for Charles and Veronica to find steady employment. Although Giannis (1994) and his brothers — Thanasis (1992), Kostas (1997), and Alex (2001) — were all born there, they weren’t considered Greek, because Greece is not a birthright citizenship country.

Giannis Antetokounmpo | Skabash

To make ends meet, Giannis’ parents would bring Giannis Antetokounmpo siblings along with Giannis to sell items on the street or at upscale beaches or just about anything they could do to put food on the table. And often they wouldn’t eat. Giannis’s first meal of the day might come at 11 p.m. some days. Sometimes they were evicted and had to move around a lot and weren’t sure where their next meal was coming from.

Xenophobic attitudes further segregated the young family from Greek society as Giannis and his siblings avoided going out at night for fear of being attacked by members of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party responsible for many assaults on immigrants.

It was tough for Giannis and Giannis Antetokounmpo siblings, but there was a lot of love and joy and happiness in that childhood because he had his family. Giannis’s brothers were his best friends, his comrades. They made jokes out of walking on the street or taking busses. They were always laughing.

It was while running along the street and having fun with his brothers some time in 2007 that the 13-year-old was “touched by an angel”. Spiros Velliniatis, a basketball coach, said he felt God talking to him when he saw Giannis. He saw the limbs of this young boy running and saw tremendous athleticism. He saw greatness in that. He followed them home.

“Look, if you play basketball, I can help your family with money. Try it out, see what you think,” Spiros told Giannis Antetokounmpo’s parents and the rest of the family.

The thoughts of escaping a low standard of living that this opportunity might bring were too tempting for the Adetokunbo to pass off.

Spiros steers Giannis and his brothers to a medium-sized club called Filathlitikos in the suburb of Zografou. They are signed by the second division outfit.

Despite a late start, Giannis’ work ethic and natural gifts would quickly make him one of the most sought-after basketball talents in Greece. NBA scouts and executives flocked to the country to see the future star in action. Eventually, Antetokounmpo was drafted the 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks at 18.

That is a summary. Here’s the gist in full.

Stateless

There were issues with moving into the top-tier league because his family is irregular migrants, hence undocumented. He seems stuck in that A2 league and becoming an NBA draft prospect was unimaginable. It was a miracle that started a step at a time.

The only reason people found out about Giannis was that he had Greek agents loyal to his older brother, Thanasis. Those agents saw potential in him and subsequently sent a video of his game to different scouts in the NBA and international NBA scouting community.

The scouts saw the video but were unsure what to make of Giannis. The quality of the video was so poor that they couldn’t even tell how tall he was about other players. But from the little they could make out of it, they were intrigued because what Giannis has and what a lot of the players in the elite division in Greece do not have is sheer athleticism, speed, and vision. So, although Giannis is not considered a top prospect in his home country, American scouts are just excited by the potential.

About 30 NBA GMs and scouts fly to Greece to watch him. And they’re intrigued enough that two teams really have interest: Milwaukee and Atlanta. And the Milwaukee Bucks end up drafting Giannis on a gamble because he did not have citizenship and therefore his ability to travel and have a passport was limited.

Giannis Antetokounmpo ascendancy almost hit a roadblock because of his immigration status. Unlike the United States and many other countries, Greece does not offer birthright citizenship. The country requires at least one parent to be a Greek citizen for the child to gain Greek citizenship. Giannis Antetokounmpo was stateless because he did not have papers from Greece or Nigeria. Being born in Greece and living there all his life meant nothing. His statelessness would have stopped him from traveling to New York for the NBA draft. Attempting to secure a Nigerian passport would have taken time. Fortunately, the Greek government offered him citizenship just before the NBA draft. Finally, the family felt like they had a proper home, and changed their original surname of Adetokunbo to Antetokounmpo (the Greek transcription of Adetokunbo). So, he stepped onto the world stage as a Greek citizen.

At the 2013 NBA Draft in New York, Thanasis excitedly unfurled a Greek flag after his brother’s No. 15 selection. The Giannis and the rest of the Antetokounmpo family would never again wonder where their next meal would come from.

Giannis Antetokounmpo | Skabash

Adjusting to a new life

Giannis Antetokounmpo survived the ordeal of his apprenticeship with the Milwaukee Bucks thanks to his past. The only pressure that he felt was, “How do I provide money for my family? How do I get my family to come to America? How can I get my money to them? I don’t want to spend a dime.” His pressures differed from the average NBA rookie.

The recruit goes from not knowing where the next meal is coming from to being an overnight millionaire. However, he is so uncomfortable with this idea of having so much money that he feels guilty. He is also lonely without his family.

He would be the only player to ask for a non-direct deposit because he needed to see and feel the money in his hands to know that it was secure. A staff member once found a bunch of envelopes in his apartment filled with cash. The money was a daily allowance that the team gave him to get meals. He saved a huge proportion of it.

“Oh, this is for my family when they come here, I’m saving it for them,” he told the staff.

He felt a tinge of guilt when he did little things like buying two sandwiches. He was not comfortable that he had this new lavish lifestyle and the people back home did not. And a thought kept ringing in his head, “What if I wake up and I go back to where I started?” He will immediately erase the thought, knowing full well he was the breadwinner of the family.

The stark difference in his past and current life dawned on him when he arrived in the US. The Bucks put all the players in a luxury hotel in downtown Milwaukee.

Giannis was stunned that he was in this fancy hotel with fluffy pillows and everything was perfect. He was uncomfortable and wondered why somebody would spend this type of money on him. Giannis leaves the bed and sleeps on the floor. He just cannot accept that this is his life now. Indeed, it was, and he even got a nickname to boot. The recruit’s 2.11m (six-foot-eleven) frame, combined with unusually good speed and dexterity for such a gigantic size, earned him the nickname ‘The Greek Freak’.

Giannis Antetokounmpo | Skabash

Giannis loves his nickname, and it’s “a part of who I am right now.” But he knows he is much more than just ‘The Greek Freak’ by strongly stating he is also a proud African.

“There are a lot of people that I see and I tell them that I am African. I am not just ‘The Greek Freak,’” Giannis Antetokounmpo said.

“It doesn’t matter what people may believe because of my nickname. There were a lot of times when I was in Greece where people said, ‘You’re not Greek. You’re Nigerian because you’re black.’ But then there have been a lot of times where it’s been the opposite, where people say, ‘You’re not African. You’re Greek. You’re ‘The Greek Freak.’’ But I don’t really care about that. Deep down, I know who I am and where I am from. That’s all that matters to me.”

The Bucks’ gamble paid off, and by his third season Giannis was scoring an average of 16.9 points per game and it’s no coincidence that the team reached the playoffs three times in Antetokounmpo’s first five seasons there. In the 2018/19 season, he became the first Bucks player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to be named league MVP. And his secret to success is to keep improving.

“It’s simple,” he said.

“You’ve got to be better than what you were last year. If you did not win the whole thing, you’ve got to get better. If you win the whole thing, you’ve got to get better and do it again.”

Accolades lead to rewards, and in December 2020, he signed the most lucrative Supermax contract in NBA history. For the uninitiated, Supermax contracts, which originated in 2017, allowed small-market teams to keep their top talent. To be eligible, a player must have recently won MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, or made an All-NBA team.

‘The Greek Freak’ was the perfect candidate, and the Bucks took full advantage. While $228.2 million (€190.5m) is a vast sum of money for a five-year deal, most consider it a fair value for the superstar.

That a non-American is regarded by many as the best player in the NBA speaks volumes about Antetokounmpo’s impact in a relatively short period. His story of triumph in the face of adversity is inspirational, relatable, and empowering for those who know it.

On July 20, the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Phoenix Suns to win the 2021 NBA Championship for the first time in 50 years. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was a huge part of their success, became the sixth player in NBA Finals history to score 50 points and unanimously won the 2021 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) award.

Giannis Antetokounmpo | Skabash

“I’m sure Nigerians are very proud of him, especially because of the way he has conducted himself and how he is dominating the league,” Hakeem Olajuwon, who is arguably the greatest international basketball player of all time and one of the greatest NBA players Olajuwon, said.

“He has accomplished a great deal in such a short period.”

Antetokounmpo, whose father died at 54 after a heart attack in 2017, is yet to trace his roots in person but says he hopes to visit Nigeria soon. He said he nearly went in 2019, but “my mom said, ‘No, don’t go, because everyone is going to be on top of you.’”

He gained a Nigerian passport in 2015.

“It’s important. It’s part of who I am. Both of my parents are Nigerian. They wanted me to get it. I wanted to have it, so I got it,” he said when asked why he got one.

“I want to see where my family comes from, where my mom was raised, see my family, see where my dad was raised. That is very important. I hope my kids can do the same thing for me,” he said.

“Obviously, I am going to have kids that are going to grow up in the U.S., but one day I hope they can go back [to Greece] and visit and see where I grew up, the playground I was playing.”

This brings us asking a pertinent, though, speculative question, “What if Giannis never got his citizenship fast-tracked?”

Two things would have happened.

  • He would never have got the papers two months before the draft and be able to come to America.

And the most important one…

Now, let us think about all the children of migrants that will never get their papers, that are talented basketballers or footballers or boxers, that just don’t have the opportunity.

Giannis Antetokounmpo worked hard, and he deserves every bit of his success. But his story could have ended up like so many other children of migrants that dot every nook and cranny of the world.

Giannis Antetokounmpo | Skabash

Conclusion

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s personal experiences mirror the uncertainty that often defines the experience of undocumented migrants. For every undocumented individual that overcomes the odds to accomplish their goals in life, a lot of others fall short because of the several obstacles society places in their way. The Greek Freak can count himself as extraordinarily lucky.

“Happy Survival” might not be a past or current fashion of greeting he gets from his family members and siblings, but it’s deep in their hearts, and those of his fans and well-wishers who are happy he survived.

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s achievements and awards

NBA Champion: 2021

NBA Finals MVP: 2021

NBA Defensive player of the year: 2020

NBA Most Valuable player: 2019, 2020

NBA All-Star: 2017–2019

All-NBA First Team: 2019

All-NBA Second Team: 2017, 2018

NBA All-Defensive First Team: 2019

NBA All-Defensive Second Team: 2017

NBA Most Improved Player: 2017

NBA All-Rookie Second Team: 2014

Eurostar European Player of the Year: 2018

 

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