Greece has put Giannis Antetokounmpo on a pedestal and rejoices at every one of the NBA star’s many accomplishments, but we need to go a step further. We need to consider what his personal journey says about our country, and we need to look at ourselves in the mirror to see whether there is a dose of hypocrisy in our jubilation.
The 26-year-old basketball star has moved so many Greeks because they saw someone who does not look like anyone else they know succeeding and expressing his love for this country and his respect for its flags in a way that few who regard themselves as “proper” Greeks do. He has won us over with his sincerity and humility, but also for the fact that he returned to the downtown Athens neighborhood where he grew up, Sepolia, to give back to the place where he got his start as a basketball player.
It is not just the example he sets that is so moving. Personally, I will never forget the image of a Black soldier serving in the Hellenic Armed Forces in Cyprus. His patriotism, but also his knowledge of Greece’s strategic challenges, pointed to a young man with a bright future. Nor can I ignore the families of immigrants encouraging their children to compete in track-and-field and other sports for Greece. The children themselves speak Greek fluently and in their faces you can see their desire for a better future.
There are so many wonderful examples of success that demonstrate the strength and pride at least a part of the migrant population can bring to the country. We learned this lesson from the thousands of Albanians who came to Greece in the 1990s and are now so well assimilated into our society.
All of this, however, does not mean that we should stop considering the country’s limits and protecting it from uncontrolled illegal immigration. Quite the opposite: No self-respecting country opens its gates without some controls and criteria.
The fact is that Greeks are a people who can assimilate the good, and adapt and thrive in and with foreign communities – centuries of history have proven this. But our jubilation for Giannis should not let us sweep the racism that is consciously or unconsciously present in Greek society under the rug. We felt happy for him because he did well abroad.
I wonder if some other young man like him would be so universally liked and accepted if he were running for city hall or – why not? – prime minister. I think of all the racist incidents that have marred his path, of all the narrow-minded state officials who took offense at the color of his skin. Thankfully, this is not what Greece is about, which is why we will continue to produce many more fine young people like Giannis.