Giannis ‘the Greek Freak’ Antetokounmpo: The Nigerian migrant son who became an NBA sensation

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.

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

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 c
older 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.

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