Just a few days had passed from what was his greatest career moment – being named Most Valuable Player for the 2018-2019 season at the world's greatest basketball championship, the NBA, in a brilliant ceremony in Los Angeles, California, on June 24 – and Giannis Antetokounmpo was in Athens. At the court where it all started, at the Philathlitikos Club in the east Athens suburb of Zografou, he had to field a barrage of questions from major outlets like ESPN and Sky Sports, yet no matter how frazzled he obviously became at times, he was always polite, patient and smiling.
Amid the cameras, microphones, shouting, loud shushing – and as a ball thumped the court while a camera was rolling – I watched him constantly. Without losing his cool, not even for a second, he delivered a well-considered answer to every single question and query. The arena where he and his brother Thanasis (also a professional basketball player), had first sharpened their milk teeth in the battle of hoops had been transformed into a scene of interview chaos.
The Athens junket was organized to coincide with AntetokounBros tournament, celebrating the basketball-playing brothers and the launch of a signature shoe by sportswear brand Nike.
When my turn came to sit face-to-face with this lanky, 2.11-meter giant I had to run against the clock to fit my many questions into a small window of just eight minutes.
“Oh, a Greek!” he said with apparent relief as soon as he sat down in front of me, smiling as he enveloped my hand in a warm handshake.
“We're trying to give back with this initiative, to get kids off the street and into the basketball court. We want them to get up and find a court and be happy,” the 24-year-old Milwaukee Bucks forward guard said of the tournament.
The campaign is already a success, as the three arenas where the tournament preliminaries took place (the municipal courts of Lambrini, Ambelokipi and Ellinorosson) have already received a radical overhaul by Nike, in cooperation with the Athens Municipal Organization of Culture, Sports and Youth.
Antetokounmpo's life reads like a rags-to-riches tale, a series of accomplishments that are inspiring young and old alike across the globe. If there was a lesson to be learned by his younger fans, what would it be?
“I would tell them to be down to earth, to go after their dreams. To ask themselves every morning when they wake up how they can be a better person, how they can improve their character and then how they can improve what they do,” says Antetokounmpo, who grew up in a family of seven in the impoverished downtown Athens district of Sepolia.
“There is a generation of children who grew up watching people get rich fast and squandering their money on expensive cars. I hope that the next generation, the kids who are 10 or 11 years old today, will look at how my brothers and I behave, will see us as role models. Having to set the example, of course, puts a lot of pressure on us, on my brothers and my mom,” says Antetokounmpo, who lost his father Charles, a former soccer player in Nigeria, in 2017. His mother Veronica is also a former athlete, competing as a high-jumper in her native Nigeria before she and Charles immigrated to Greece.
Antetokounmpo's face lights up as he talks about the next generation and every word comes with some kind of gesture: wiping his hand across his brow, scratching a knee scabbed by repeated scrapes, but his eyes never stop looking into mine. His earnestness is evident, even though being in the spotlight, having your every word and gesture scrutinized, cannot be easy.
“There is never a time when I'll say: ‘I'll do whatever I want and who cares what people say.’ What you see is what you get. I'm not putting on a nice guy act. I'm not modest just for appearance's sake. I am me and I am who I am because this is how my parents raised me,” he says.
The 24-year-old athlete has a gift of winning over an opponent as easily as he wins over every person who has ever interviewed him. He is also a man of principles. Is what we become all about how we're brought up? Do the lessons of childhood stick?
“Yes, they do, 100 percent. When you're 17, 18 or 19 years old, you don't think very much. You tend to act spontaneously. My principles, my family, the things I was taught by my father and my mother, those are the things that keep me grounded,” he says. “When you grow up and move on with your life, you will see the pieces you were given by your father.”
What is often overlooked in the recounting of Antetokounmpo's rise to NBA fame from his humble beginnings is just how much hard work has gone into this achievement.
“Hard work is fundamental to success, in my opinion. Timing and luck can certainly play a role, but hard work is the most important thing,” he says. “There are a lot of kids, people in general, who are just as talented as me, who are just as tall and have the same body and hands, but are lazy. There are a lot of guys like me in the US, even guys who have better physical characteristics, but they don't work at it, they're not hungry for success.”
A matter of style
Our discussion inevitably turns to the court, to the differences in training styles between Greece and Europe with the US, as well as to whether the NBA places more emphasis in group or individual training.
Antetokounmpo raises his eyebrows. “That's a good question. A very good question… I was very fortunate to have Takis Zivas, my first coach at Philathlitikos, throughout my time here. He gave us freedom, the chance to play in a more freestyle manner. Sometimes in Greece and in Europe there are coaches that put restrictions on their players, on their roles, etc. They say ‘you will do this, you are good at that.’ They try to keep players grounded – and it's true that there are cases when it goes to their head – but I believe it is a mistake to restrict players and to assign them specific roles based on what they see. The NBA gives athletes chances, lots of them,” he says.
NBA coaches, he says, will talk to players if they stray from the game plan in the heat of the moment but do it in a different way to their European counterparts. “He will have a word but the American mentality and approach is totally different. He will say, ‘Giannis you were wrong there, you strayed,’ but he will say it in the right way, without throwing me under the bus. In Europe, generally, a coach will bench you and this can clip your wings,” says Antetokounmpo.
He also notes the differences in mentality between Europe and the US in terms of strategy and the use of players. “A player like me would never play in a point guard position in Europe. If I play in that position, where will the others play? Coaches in Europe have a different way of thinking. It's like they put a sign on someone and say: ‘This guy is 2.11 so he'll play as a center.’ The NBA looks at your overall capabilities, like Kevin Durant for instance, who is 2.06 and plays as a shooting guard.”
The 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in China (August 31- September 15) is approaching and the Greek national team is preparing for its first match in Nanjing on September 1 against Montenegro (3 p.m. Greek time).
Greece will travel to China with Giannis Antetokounmpo (and possibly his brothers Thanasis and Kostas, who are in the provisional squad), as well as the two point guards, Nick Calathes and Kostas Sloukas who had an impressive impact in the Euroleague this season.
Giannis says he's excited by the prospect. “First of all I want to be fit. I want to be there. I've talked to the coach. I've told him that I want to be there and I will take part in the preparation. I hope everything goes well; that we improve as a team and achieve success.”
For someone who once shared a pair of shoes with his brother, Giannis Antetokounmpo has indeed come a long way. He now has one of the greatest sportswear companies, Nike, at his feet. It even made shoes for him, Zoom Freak 1, inspired by his nickname, “Greek Freak,” and inscribed with his name, that of his mother, father and brothers, the Greek flag and aspects of his life. “It's an unbelievable feeling. If you work hard you are rewarded. I never forget that and will continue to work hard. May God bless me and bring me more rewards.”
He appears unfazed that many have sought to use his name and reputation to serve their own purposes or that others have tried to demean him now that he has reached the top. “My response to them is who I am as a person and how I feel.”
Actions speak louder than words and Giannis announced the launch of the AntetokounBros Basketball Academy, a two-year scholarship program by Nike for non-privileged youngsters aged 12-16, whose purpose is to give them the opportunity to showcase their capabilities and become better athletes, people and citizens.
The training program will last for two years and will take place at the three sports arenas that have been revamped by Nike.
Each year, 100 boys and girls will take part in high-level basketball training and mentoring sessions to equip themselves with all the tools necessary to further their development. Participants that distinguish themselves will be awarded the “One of a Kind” scholarship by the Onassis Foundation.
Founded by the Antetokounmpo brothers, the academy is supported by Nike and implemented in cooperation with the Eurohoops sports news outlet and the Onassis Foundation.
Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo emigrate to Greece.
Giannis is born on December 6.
He starts playing basketball.
Joins the youth team of Philathlitikos.
Plays in the senior team of Philathlitikos.
Signs a deal with Spanish team Zaragoza.
Is granted Greek citizenship on May 9.
Is selected in the NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks on June 27.
Makes his first NBA appearance on October 30 against the New York Nicks, playing for around five minutes and scoring one point.
Plays for the Greek national squad for the first time on August 8.
Signs a four-year contract extension with the Bucks worth $100 million.
Is selected in January as a starter for the Eastern Conference in the All Star Game. A month later he becomes the youngest non-American to play as starter in an All Star Game.
Is selected as a starter for the Eastern Conference for the All Star Game for a second year running, getting the second highest amount of votes behind LeBron James.
On January 25, he is chosen as captain of the Eastern Conference for the All Star Game.
Against the Nets on May 17, he scores a record 52 points.
Is crowned as the NBA's MVP on June 25.