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Giannis Antetokounmpo: From Illegal Immigrant to NBA Superstar

Giannis with NBA trophy
Reading Time: 7 minutes

On July 22, 2021, thousands of fans flocked to Fiserv Forum, the Milwaukee Bucks’ home venue, to celebrate their first championship since 1971. The franchise had endured a 50-year wait since the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Oscar Robertson led the Bucks to their first championship. 

Chants of “MVP! MVP! MVP!” thundered from the raucous mammoth crowd, marking a career-defining moment for the Greek hero, who crossed the seas to deliver the Bucks their first championship in 50 years. 

From his early years as an undocumented immigrant in Greece to becoming an NBA champion, his uplifting tale of perseverance has demonstrated that everything is achievable with effort and commitment. 

This is the amazing story of Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo.

Who Is The Greek Freak?

Giannis Sian Ugo Antetokoumpo was born in Athens on December 6, 1994, to Nigerian immigrants Charles and Veronica Adetokunbo. 

His surname, “Antetokounmpo (Αντετοκούνμπο),” is the Greek transliteration of the Yoruba name “Adetokumbo”. The original surname means “the crown has come”—a fitting precursor for his career.

A Man With No State: Surviving As An Undocumented in Greece

Giannis’ parents were undocumented immigrants who struggled to make ends meet. When he was just 12 years old, his parents could not renew their papers, leaving them with no legal status in Greece. 

Similar to most tales of how heroes are made, his ascent to the top was not without its challenges. Giannis and his four siblings grew up in a small, two-room apartment in the modest neighborhood of Sepolia. 

Baby Giannis with his family
Source: Family Archives

The family faced financial difficulties; sometimes, they did not have enough money for necessities. Giannis and his siblings would assist their parents in selling watches, bags, and sunglasses on the streets of Athens.

Giannis and his brother, Thanasis, often played basketball on the streets of Athens with a makeshift hoop, using a ball made of socks. Despite their difficult living conditions, Giannis’s father, Charles, instilled a love of sports in their children.

To escape the harsh realities of living as immigrants, Giannis and his brothers found solace on the basketball court, where they played several times a week. Basketball was not a popular sport in Greece then, but Giannis and his brothers fell in love with the game. 

Giannis quickly developed a passion and talent for the game and began playing for local teams in Athens. Little Giannis, the Greek God of Nigerian descent, honed his skills on those dusty courts of Athens.

The Road To Legalization

Being a child of Nigerian immigrants, Giannis was not eligible for Greek citizenship since he was born in Nigeria. And being black, the path to citizenship became even more difficult than usual.

After multiple rejections, Giannis’ family obtained Greek citizenship in 2013 after meeting the requirements, such as residing legally in Greece for a certain period and showing basic knowledge of the Greek language and culture.

From that moment, the Antetokounmpos could rest easy without watching their backs any time a police siren wailed nearby. 

Early Career in Greek Basket

Giannis made a name for himself in the Greek basketball scene. He played for Filathlitikos junior squad for two years before debuting with the senior team in the Greek second division during the 2011-2012 season. 

Giannis playing in Greece

Despite being 17 years old at the time, Giannis blazed through the ranks thanks to his natural talent and potential. He was renowned for his physical prowess, versatility, and capacity to play various positions. 

Giannis’s stint at Filathlitikos springboarded him into the spotlight, earning him a well-deserved consideration for the NBA draft.

Giannis On The Road To The NBA

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s road to the NBA after leaving Greece passed through checkpoints of adversity, hard work, and resilience. His size, athleticism, and work ethic caught the attention of NBA scouts. 

In 2012, NBA scout Tim Shea, who was in Greece to evaluate another player, discovered Giannis by chance. Shea immediately recognized Giannis’s potential and recommended him to several NBA teams. 

With the 15th overall pick at the 2013 NBA draft, the Milwaukee Bucks drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

A happy moment for the family was marred by booing fans who turned up their noses at European prospects with surnames they couldn’t pronounce. The same kind of blatant disrespect hurled at people like Kristaps Porzingis.

This skinny Greek (or was it Nigerian?) boy was a risky pick due to his lack of NCAA experience. This is the same subtle xenophobia that has crucified several highly-touted European prospects before they stepped onto an NBA court. 

Giannis The “Greek Freak” Is Born

Giannis struggled to adapt to the NBA’s physicality and breakneck pace in his first year in the NBA, averaging 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. Off the court, he had to overcome language and cultural barriers when he first arrived in the United States. 

However, he continued to work hard and improve his game. By his third year in the league, he had become a key player for the Bucks, averaging 16.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. 

His nickname, the “Greek Freak,” emerged as a result of his extraordinary athleticism and distinctive playing style. His speed and versatility on the court astounded his teammates and the fans. They gave him the name to emphasize his magnificence throughout his formative years with the bucks. 

The name remains a strong reference to Giannis’ Greek descent and physical attributes. His height of 6’11” and a wingspan of 7’3” give him tremendous reach, which enables him to block shots and grab rebounds. 

He can score anywhere on the court and is surprisingly quick and athletic for someone his size. However, Giannis’ nickname is more than just a reflection of his physical abilities. It also describes his journey from the mean streets of Lagos, through Sepolia, to the NBA.

Becoming A Champion And League MVP

By 2018, the Greek-Nigerian power forward had established himself as one of the most incredible power forwards ever. In 2019 and 2020, he won consecutive NBA Most Valuable Player Awards. He also became the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2020. 

Giannis with Adam Silver

However, it was in 2021 that Antetokounmpo truly cemented his place in basketball history, guiding The Bucks to win their first NBA title since 1971. 

Giannis and the Bucks faced challenging opposition in the Eastern Conference semifinals and a grueling seven-game series against the Brooklyn Nets in the Conference Finals. The Bucks came back from being down 0-2 in the series to win four straight games, with the Greek Freak hitting 40 points in Game 7. 

In the next series, Giannis once again led the way for the Bucks against the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, averaging 29.2 points and 13.0 rebounds per game. 

In the NBA Finals, the Bucks faced the Phoenix Suns, led by superstar guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker. The series was a back-and-forth battle, with each team trading blows and winning games on their home court. 

Giannis with NBA Finals Trophy and Finals MVP
Source: TRTWorld

Giannis was a force to be reckoned with throughout the series, averaging 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game. In Game 6, with the Bucks up 3-2 in the series, Giannis put on a historical performance, scoring 50 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, and blocking five shots to lead his team to a 105-98 victory and the NBA championship.

Giannis Representing Greece

Antetokounmpo’s success caught the attention of the Greek national team. In 2013, he received an invitation to join the team for the EuroBasket competition. He soon established himself as a crucial member of the squad. 

Since then, Antetokounmpo has represented Greece in numerous international tournaments, including the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. He has been named the EuroBasket MVP twice and was also named to the All-Tournament Team at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup. 

In the 2021 Olympics, he helped lead Greece to the quarterfinals, where they fell to the United States.

And in this ironic twist of fate, the boy that Greece didn’t want in the first place is now flying the country’s colors all over the world.

Giannis, The Humble Greek God

Apart from his extraordinary ability and basketball talents, the Greek Freak is revered for his humility and charitable gestures off the court. 

Watch Giannis’s first interview in English.

Despite his success, Giannis stays humble and grounded, often crediting his teammates and coaches for his success. He continues to motivate others off the court as much as on it. 

Giannis has been heavily interested in philanthropic activity off the court, especially in his native Greece. 

He has started several initiatives to support underprivileged children, including the “AntetokounBros” basketball academy, which provides training and mentoring to young athletes. 

Giannis and his brothers
Source: Forbes

He also champions the “Giannis and Mariah Antetokounmpo Foundation,” which focuses on improving the lives of children and families in Greece and the United States through education, sports, and community-building programs. 

In addition, Giannis has contributed to several other philanthropic efforts, including supporting relief efforts for wildfires in Greece and donating meals to healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Giannis has used his platform as an NBA player to speak out against racism, social injustice, inequality, and police brutality.

His journey from Greece to the NBA is a testament to his hard work, determination, and resilience in adversity. His success has inspired many worldwide and will continue to do so.

Who wrote this?

Ebuka is a tech enthusiast, writer, and eSports guru currently working with a team of daring Africans to revolutionize the writing scene. He enjoys answering questions, brainstorming new ideas, and discussing the future of sports and esports.

Ebuka Agbasi
Ebuka is a tech enthusiast, writer, and eSports guru currently working with a team of daring Africans to revolutionize the writing scene. He enjoys answering questions, brainstorming new ideas, and discussing the future of sports and esports.

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