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An Immigrants Dreams for a Better Life: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Rise From Obscurity to Distinction

“The darkest hour is just before dawn” – Thomas Fuller

The Purgatory of Statelessness

In 1991, a young couple, Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo left their home in Lagos, Nigeria, to settle in Greece. It was an exciting time for the couple. A time of new beginnings and high hopes. Europe was changing, the Soviet Union had just collapsed. A new wave of immigrants was changing the demographic landscape of Greece. And better yet, three years later in Athens, the legend of Giannis Antetokounmpo was born.

However, life didn’t turn out as hoped for in their adopted country. The young couple, like many of the immigrants there, found it difficult to find meaningful work. And even though, they had four sons in the country, they were never recognized as citizens. As undocumented immigrants, they struggled to find stability. According to an article by Amos Bashard on Grantland, they lived in fear as they faced eviction and deportation countless times.  As they figured out how to survive as a family, the boys sold sunglasses, hats and bags on the street while the parents found babysitting and handy work.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”They wanted a better future and a better life. They say, to come to Greece and have a better life. Even coming to Greece, they didn’t have a better life. Life was still difficult. My mother is 50 years old. And my father, too. For 50 years old, life was difficult for them,”[/perfectpullquote]

Giannis told Bashard.

In 2012, the social climate intensified with extremist undertones. With widespread unemployment, tensions were rising as undocumented immigrants were pouring into the country by the thousands. The increases had lead to the rise of the Golden Dawn Party, a far-right political group that had vowed to rid Greece of illegal immigrants.

“For 20 years they were illegal,” Giannis continued. “It’s very hard to live for 20 years without papers. Very, very hard. You have children, and you have to go out and work without papers. At any moment, the cops can stop you and say come over here and let me send you back to your country.”

More troubling, after taking hold of the Greek Parliament, a few members of the Golden Dawn Party roared through Nikaia, a gritty suburb, on motorbikes armed with thick wooden poles to show off their new power, and perhaps, their true intent. Some of them held shields with swastika like symbols and said to an immigrant: “You are the cause of Greece’s problems. You have seven days to close or we’ll burn your shop, and we’ll burn you.”

For Giannis and his brothers, there was nowhere else to go. They didn’t have papers from Greece or Nigeria, which meant, they couldn’t even travel abroad.

When the Stars Align

Meanwhile, also in the 1990’s, Giannis’ future mentor, Spiros Velliniatis was having a moment of a renaissance. As per Bashard’s article, after an unsuccessful career of playing basketball at the professional level in Germany, Velliniatis started to scout Greece’s immigrant communities for extraordinary basketball talent as a way to help others. For about a decade, he was unsuccessful, again.

“My personal life was going to nothing, my basketball career was not successful, and I said to myself, ‘I will not have big goals in life anymore,’” he told Bashard. And about a week after deciding to give up, “I see Giannis,” he added.

Velliniatis couldn’t believe his eyes; he wondered how it’s possible or how its even happening, when he saw a 13-year-old Giannis in Sepolia, Athens.

“You are chasing for ten years immigrant kids to play basketball for a mediocre level, and suddenly you have in front of you, Julius Erving! Magic Johnson! Michael Jordan!” he told Bashard.

Velliniatis knew there and then what Giannis is capable of, even if he wasn’t playing basketball. Immediately, Velliniatis convinced Giannis to start playing basketball even though, at that time, he only dreamed of being a soccer player.

“It was mostly like a blackmail,” Velliniatis told Bashard, on how he convinced Giannis to play basketball. “I told him if I find work for your parents, will you play basketball for me?”

Giannis agreed, against his father’s advice. In an interview with Jared Zwerling for the NBPA, Giannis recalled:

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“When I decided to not  become a soccer player, he was sad. But he wanted to do something to help us. We did a lot of soccer footwork drills and ladder drills. He used to take us to the soccer court and getting us in stance, moving our feet. Now, he’s not sad. Now, he’s like thank God.”[/perfectpullquote]

Afterward, Velliniatis took Giannis and his brothers to Filathlitikos, a basketball club. He talked the club into providing a 500-euro monthly stipend for Giannis. And, arranged for his mom, Veronica to find work.

For Charles and Veronica, the hope for a better life was alive again. However, they still had a few seemingly impossible rivers to cross.


(Photo Credit:

Hoop Dreams Vs Reality

“From the time I started in basketball, my dream was to be a big star, to have a big future in basketball,” Giannis shared in Ken Maguire’s New York Times article.

However, he had to eat. And sometimes, he went hungry.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Sometimes, our fridge was empty,”[/perfectpullquote]

Giannis said. [perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Some days, we didn’t have the money to feed ourselves.”[/perfectpullquote]

Velliniatis recalled, as per Maguire’s article. “You’re in front of Mozart, and he has no food, what do you give him? You have a dilemma. The answer is not a violin. The answer is a loaf of bread.”

Regardless, the Antetokounmpo family stayed strong through it all as Giannis kept getting better and better. He got so good that after a short while, scouts started to pay attention to this young protégé. Then, faster than anyone could have imagined, he was signed by Zaragoza, a top league Spanish club. His contract was worth 250,000 euros a year.

Then the NBA scouts came in. Kornel David, the Phoenix Suns’ director of international scouting at the time said after watching Giannis play in early 2012:

“He’s on the right track. Guys who are 6-9 with that kind of skillset, especially at that age, there’s not many running around.”

On the other hand, Giannis was nervous. “At the beginning, I feel nervous,” Giannis told Bashard. “I go in the morning, practice a little bit, get my mind ready. I walk in; I see them sitting. I start to put some cones, show them my skills, my ball-handling. And then it’s my job. They come, like, every day. I don’t feel nervous. I just do my job.”

Then the NBA executives started to come in; they included Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Masai Ujiri of the Toronto Raptors and Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets. Danny Ainge, the Boston Celtics president of basketball operations, watched Giannis get 19 points and 9 rebounds against Volos.

What made Giannis so special? It was his unlimited potential. At that time, and maybe even today, no one actually knows what Giannis can become because he is still developing and has a higher ceiling than most. Confident in his ability, Giannis declared for the NBA draft.

But there was trouble in his paradise. Giannis and his brothers still had no papers. They were confronted with a choice, to fight to be accepted or resign to the forced notion that you don’t belong. The brothers chose to fight for their right to call Greece their home.

Giannis tried to apply for Greek citizenship. However, according to a Stefanos Triantafyllos article on, even if he had all the requirements to be granted citizenship, he became, “one of the thousands of immigrants whose papers were kept locked in a drawer.” One of the reasons being, “for two years all the procedures of applying Greek papers to immigrants were frozen, as neo-fascism was growing in the financially dissolved Greek society,” said Triantafyllos.

The other reason is far more unfortunate. As per the Triantafyllos article, the Greek Basketball Federation tried to “move mountains” in his favor. All they got was,[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] “Forget it. We don’t want to risk going to elections, because of some guy that plays basketball.”[/perfectpullquote]

In 2013, after a series of negotiations, with the help of the Secretary of Sports, Giannis Ioannidis, the young guard got his passport.

“A dream came true. We are now officially Greek citizens, as we felt all these years,” wrote the brothers in their first statement at that time.

It was just in time to travel to New York for the draft. He was drafted with the 15th overall pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. Immediately after his announcement, his brother, Thanasis waved the Greek flag with pride and joy.

“We are proud to see you in the NBA,” said Antonio Samaras, the Prime Minister at the time. “We have to thank you for raising the Greek flag during the draft. We all hope that you will make them go crazy with your dunks.”

On hearing about this, however, the Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos took aim at Giannis. “If you give a chimpanzee in the zoo a banana and a flag?” he asked in a television interview, “Is he Greek?”

Appalled by the remarks, many rushed to the defense of the Antetokounmpo’s. Including, the Greek Prime Minister who said in a heated response:

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Giannis didn’t become Greek in ‘papers.’ He fought for it. He went to school. He learned to speak Greek better than many people. Nobody asked him to do it, but he was baptized as an Orthodox Christian. He started from the playgrounds of Athens to find himself in the NBA. He choose to be Greek. He fought for it, and he deserves it. He is one of us. He makes us all proud. He is more Greek than those who talk bad about him because of the color of his skin and then burn our flag. Those people disgrace our country.”[/perfectpullquote]

For their part, Greece’s basketball federation was quick to condemn the remarks by Michaloliakos as “unacceptable and racist.”

All the Antetokounmpos wanted was to be accepted, and now they are.

“We fighting the impossible, and we beat the Greek system,” Velliniatis told Bashard as he remembered draft night.

After the draft, Giannis moved to relocate his entire family to the U.S. When asked about the backlash he received from Michaloliakos, he said:

“Anything they say, even if it was in the past, people that say bad stuff about me or my family, they can’t touch me. With that, I mean (that) I can just play my game. They can’t pressure me or something like that. He don’t touch me.

“It’ll be nice that family can be here and be away from anything that’s happening in Greece. But I love my country. Greece is my country. I’m going to go back home. But it’s nice to have my family here in the U.S.”

A Dream for a Better Life, Realized

By all accounts, Giannis’ first three years in the NBA have been successful. “The Greek Freak” as he is known to his fans, has increased his point total each season, from 6.8 points per game in his rookie year to 12.7 points per game in his sophomore year and 16.9 points per game last season.

Notably, in the 2015/2016 season, he averaged 16.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 4.4 assists. In the second half of the last season, he was moved to the primary playmaker position where he posted five triple-doubles.

As a reward, the 21-year-old was given a US$ 100 million contract extension. It’s the richest contract in franchise history, one that will pay him just shy of US$ 23 million in the first year of the deal, in the 2017 – 2018 season.

His agent Alex Saratsis gives some insight on how it happened.

“Anybody who sits here and says ‘I could see this coming’ would be lying,” Saratsis said. “He came in as a mold of clay. You have no idea.

“We still talk about it. His rookie year, if there had not been all the injuries, you never know how this turns out. Midway through the season they said, ‘This isn’t going the way we expected it to; go ahead. Give it a shot.’ I think that’s what propelled him.”

Regardless, and perhaps more importantly, the dream of the young couple that moved from Nigeria to provide a better life for their family has been realized.

At the press conference on his contract extension, Giannis shared with the media that “this [the contract] is just the security for my family, you know, just to know that my family is going to be good, my little brother is going to be good… The way we started and where we are right now, it’s great.”

When asked about about what drove his family to get to this point, he answered:

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] “My parents told me, taught me, that whatever you do in your life, try to be great. So that’s what we did.”   [/perfectpullquote]

Featured Photo: Giannis visits his old neighborhood in Athens in 2015 (Photo Credit: Panagiotis Maidis)

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