Giannis Antetokounmpo – The Great Greek Hope
There is a new international phenom that is slowly taking the basketball world by storm. The ‘Greek Freak’. As in the youngest active NBA player, 19-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo. A man whose rise to professional basketball stardom was made for cinema.
His Nigerian parents illegally immigrated to Greece to obtain a better life for their growing family, only to struggle mightily to find stable employment for decades. Giannis was born and raised in Greece. He’s fluent in the language and lifestyle in a nation that is still trying to shake off its xenophobia. Giannis grew up helping his family as a street merchant at times when he had some time away from school. At any point during his first 17 years of living, Giannis, his parents, and his siblings could have been shipped out of the country. Life didn’t get any easier with Greece battling its economic problems, and far-right nationalists targeting dark-skinned immigrants.
Then, a chance at a dream scenario for better quality of life presented itself. The Greek coach running Filathlitikos, a 2nd division basketball team, decided to give Giannis and his older brother Thanasis a chance to tap into their athleticism, ditch soccer, and play basketball professionally as teenagers.
In a matter of months, the brothers impressed, but especially the younger Giannis with his massive hands, height and dribbling ability. Despite the fervor that would eventually come, it still took a few years at Filathlitikos before the hype machine began, with Giannis appearing on European teams’ radars by 2012. By the time the calendar flipped into 2013, Giannis had NBA scouts making treks into aging and tiny basketball arenas to see the Greek Freak.
With the draft approaching, the Antetokounmpo name was receiving lots of buzz but the mystery remained. At the time, teams knew that Giannis was a lock to be at least a second round selection but few realized at that point that Giannis was going to leap-frog his way into the 1st round – let alone his eventual draft slot.
‘Ante’ and his legend officially began when he was drafted 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis wasn’t invited into the ‘green room’ to join other top draft prospects. No. ‘Ante’ and Thanasis were in the Barclays Center crowd jubilant as can be holding a torn up Greek flag with so much pride and joy that even the most casual viewer realized how powerful of an image that was.
Giannis returned to Greece after the draft a hero to a nation that – for whatever reason, be it manipulative or not – fully embraced the glorious return of its new son. Giannis quickly took part in his first FIBA tourney, the U-20 European Championships. From there it’s been an ascension up the Bucks roster, gaining media spotlight, and growing his fan base for reasons that only ‘Ante’ could pull off with such intriguing freshness. His name and his hands have turned Giannis into a cult figure already for a Bucks franchise that is the worst team in the league.
Giannis Antetokounmpo on his journey: “Yeah, it’s very crazy. I first played at Filathlitikos for 6 years…and I just love this journey, that I love what I’m doing, and I’m having fun.”
Looking back now on the 2013 Draft, and it’s early, but Giannis very well would have been a top-3 selection if all teams got to hit the restart button. Giannis is as respected as the Magic’s #2 selection in the 2013 Draft, Victor Oladipo. Both are of Nigerian descent. Both fantastic personalities and characters. Both gaining fans without truly conquering the game of basketball just yet. Both will be participating in New Orleans for All-Star Weekend and its Rising Stars contest. Neither is cocky, but don’t mistake their humbleness for weakness. Both play the game with so much effort and passion that you question the will of some of their teammates. Both have fascinating underdog stories, and both are keen on continuing to laugh, smile, and play their hearts out on the basketball court to prove their doubters wrong.
Magic guard Victor Oladipo on Giannis and their Nigeria connection: “It’s a small world actually…He’s really athletic, and long. He’s skilled too, so he has a lot of potential to be very good. And he works hard too.”
It’s a matter of not when, but if in regards to Giannis suiting up for the Greek senior national team. It very well could be this summer. Antetokounmpo is the 1st Greek player ever to participate in an All-Star Weekend. Measured at 6’9″ before the 2013 Draft, Giannis has already grown 1 1/2 inches and has the wingspan of a jumbo jet. If his skill set can blossom like his physical size already has, Giannis will quickly be on his way to having the best NBA career of any Greek player ever.
Giannis on representing Greece in FIBA play: “I’m very happy that I represent my country, and I enjoy serving it.”
For now, Giannis knows he needs to extend his range, keep exceeding expectations, show off his smile as much as possible, and keep hustling like there’s no tomorrow. He’s making millions of Greeks and non-Greeks around the globe jubilant and appreciative of his journey. A journey that is still in its early stages and one that has him presented as the Great Greek Hope. Fortunately for Hellas, he’s embracing it. It’s not fluff, Giannis can help resurrect Greek basketball and create another boom for the young masses.
‘Ante’ can officially burst open the NBA gates for more Greeks to come over and thrive. Young Greeks who haven’t been spoiled by the Euroleague lifestyle and its accommodating paychecks. I’m talking about teenagers who are being recruited for American colleges. Who, if talented and driven enough, can mirror the jump to the NBA that Giannis has made. The Greek Freak is an inspiration to those struggling Greeks, both young and old, seeking a beacon of hope that distracts them from daily hardships.