AGONA Spotlight: Giannis Antetokounmpo, from the streets of Sepolia to NBA stardom
The AGONA Spotlight falls on Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has embarked on a remarkable journey from wandering the streets of Athens to NBA stardom within a short period of time.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is on top of the world. Last week, the 24-year-old became the first Greek to be named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the NBA, beating James Harden in the race for the crown. 11 years ago, Antetokounmpo had only just started picking up a basketball in the Athens suburb of Sepolia, but he is now officially the best player on the planet. A simply incredible rags to riches story. Maybe the best one out there.
Let’s rewind right back to the beginning and take a glance at Antetokounmpo’s stunning rise from poverty to icon status:
EARLY BEGINNINGS IN SEPOLIA
Charles and Veronica Adetokunbo, Giannis’ parents, moved from Lagos to Athens in search of a better life. At the time, they already had the one son named Francis, but they decided to leave him with his grandparents in Nigeria.
In Athens, they subsequently welcomed four more sons into the world, with Giannis second in line behind Thanasis. Incidentally, all four have become basketball players, with Thanasis Antetokounmpo currently on the books of Panathinaikos. Kostas is making his first NBA steps with the Dallas Mavericks and Alexis plays his basketball in the American youth leagues.
The fact the brothers became athletes is no surprise. Charles played football, while Veronica was a high jumper.
Giannis is known as the ‘Greek Freak’ around the world, but alongside his obvious love of Greece, he’s proud of his African roots too: “I grew up in a Nigerian home,” Antetokounmpo said in an interview with The Undefeated. “Obviously, I was born in Greece and went to school in Greece. But at the end of the day when I go home, there is no Greek culture. It’s straight-up Nigerian culture. It’s about discipline, it’s about respecting your elders, having morals.”
“There are a lot of people that I see and I tell them that I am African. I am not just ‘The Greek Freak,’ ” he continued.
“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.”
BASKETBALL COMES TO THE RESCUE
Before the brothers began playing basketball, they would spend the vast majority of their time on the streets selling watches, sunglasses, CDs and DVDs, similar to what fellow immigrants still do in Athens nowadays. However, after beginning to play basketball in 2008, Giannis’ life would change forever.
Spiros Velliniatis is the man who discovered Giannis.
Velliniatis, a scout and coach for the Filathlitikos club, was scouring Athens neighbourhoods in hope of finding young Greek talent. It just so happened that he discovered arguably the greatest player Greece has ever produced.
In conversation with vice.com, Velliniatis reminisced about the moment he found Giannis in Sepolia, after he had initially been searching for Thanasis: “I stumbled across three other kids who were playing tag on the Tritonas team's court. I was stunned by what I saw. It was Giannis, along with two of his brothers, Kostas and Alexis. At that moment, I realized I was in the presence of one of the biggest basketball talents in the world, right in front of me."
Nevertheless, it wasn’t an easy task for Velliniatis to convince two Antetokounmpo brothers - Giannis and Thanasis - to fully commit to basketball. Initially, Giannis was focused on playing football, while Thanasis favoured track and field. Eventually, Velliniatis convinced the pair to make basketball their priority when promising to find their parents full-time jobs.
Giannis was a revelation with his Filathlitikos. In 2009, he started out with the Filathlitikos youth team, progressing to the senior side two years later in the Greek lower leagues. Statistically, he was far from the most productive player on the team, but he was head and shoulders above the rest in terms of potential. Potential which was impossible to ignore.
NBA DRAFT ELIGIBILITY
Several NBA scouts visited numerous matches in the lower leagues. In the 2012/2013 season, Giannis Antetokounmpo had the chance to achieve promotion to the Basket League with Filathlitikos, but in the decisive game against Nea Kifisia, his team conceded a 81-89 defeat after double overtime. Giannis tallied four points in the match.
Naturally, it was a tough defeat for Giannis to take, but there was no time to be upset. Fast forward two months, and he was being whisked off to the USA for the 2013 NBA Draft.
Alex Saratsis, a Greek agent, had already signed Giannis up and took his client to the NBA Draft in June of 2013. Giannis and Thanasis managed to receive their Greek citizenship in time for them to get their passports and fly to America.
Giannis was picked 15th by the Milwaukee Bucks. Interestingly, in an interview with 60 minutes, he admitted to not having any understanding of either the NBA or Milwaukee: “Did I know anything about Milwaukee? No. I didn’t even know where the city was. I didn’t know the players. I didn’t know anything about the NBA at all!”
The NBA would soon know about him.
FIRST NBA CAMPAIGN
Antetokounmpo was immediately integrated into the Milwaukee Bucks team for the ensuing 2013/2014 campaign. Due to his family requiring visas to join him in the US, he was forced to live on his own for the first time: “It was the toughest part. I’m a really tough kid, I can handle things by myself, but I was always living with my family. I was always calling my family on Skype and showing them around the apartment, like, ‘Alex, Kostas, this is our room.’ I was, like, ‘Mom, this is your and dad’s bedroom. This is our living room. This is our kitchen.’ And I was seeing the look in my mother’s eyes. She was, like, ‘Maybe one day we’ll be able to be there with you.’ I was getting mad, but the Bucks helped me with my situation, bringing my family.” They all arrived in February 2014.
In his rookie NBA campaign with the Bucks, Antetokounmpo made a positive start to life in the world’s leading league, gaining an average of 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 77 matches.
The next five NBA seasons have seen Giannis transform into a true world star. A household name, even if his surname is difficult to pronounce.
Here are a range of his individual awards in the NBA:
2019 Most Valuable Player
NBA All-Star Game participant (2017, 2018, 2019)
2017 Most Improved Player
2019 All-NBA First Team
All-NBA Second Team (2017, 2018)
2019 All-NBA Defensive Team
2017 All-NBA Defensive Second Team
2014 NBA All-Rookie Second Team
Sadly, Giannis’ father Charles passed away in 2017 after a heart attack, but it’s a guarantee that he’s as proud as can be watching from the heavens.
Giannis rose to the top of the game this season. In the regular season, he was fantastic for Milwaukee as the club finished atop the standings, registering an average of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per-game. In the playoffs, Milwaukee bowed out in the Eastern Conference final with a bitter 2-4 series loss to eventual champions Toronto, but the best was yet to come for Giannis at the 2019 NBA Awards.
The moment when Giannis was named the 2018/2019 NBA MVP will never be erased from the history books of Greek basketball. His speech was a tearjerker for everyone who had the pleasure of watching it:
For many fans, the fact Giannis constantly expresses his pride of being Greek is a large factor of his likeability, and he was proudly sporting images of the Parthenon at the NBA Awards event:
Milwaukee released this video in connection with his MVP award:
The Bleacher Report created a flipbook dedicated to Giannis’ journey to the top:
THE NEXT STEP
Without jumping too far ahead, the next target for Giannis Antetokounmpo is clear: to help Greece claim a medal at the upcoming 2019 FIBA World Cup in China. On Friday, Antetokounmpo confirmed that he will represent the Greek national team at the competition, and it’s an ideal opportunity for him to inspire the country to another memorable triumph. The expectation weighing on his shoulders is overwhelming.