Giannis Antetokounmpo SuccessStory
Rising from poverty in his home country of Greece, Giannis Antetokounmpo has become one of the most inspiring stories not just in basketball but in all of sports. Today, the player known as the “Greek Freak” is a two-time regular season MVP and one of the game’s most electrifying players.
Giannis Sina Ugo Antetokounmpo was born in Athens, Greece on December 6, 1994. He is the son of Nigerian immigrants Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo. Charles and Veronica had migrated from Lagos, Nigeria in 1991. Although Giannis together with his three younger brothers were born in Greece, they were not immediately granted Greek citizenship. In fact, the entire family would remain stateless for 18 more years until Giannis was drafted in the NBA in 2013.
Since the family had to flee from Nigeria, they suffered poverty upon arriving in France. Charles and Veronica struggled to find work but eventually found jobs as a handyman and babysitter respectively. Young Giannis and his brothers also worked to support the family’s meager income, selling bags and sunglasses in their neighborhood of Sepolia and in surrounding communities. Aside from that, the family also suffered multiple housing evictions and xenophobic attacks from Greek nationals.
Antetokounmpo and his brothers would find solace by playing sports, even if it meant eating only around one or two meals a day. Aside from basketball, they also spend their free time playing soccer which is a popular sport in Greece. In an interview with Adrian Wojnarowski in the Woj Pod, Antetokounmpo said that “sometimes he would go to school without any breakfast and often eat his first meal of the day at 11 PM after basketball practice.”
A New Beginning
Through basketball, the Antetokounmpo brothers Giannis and Thanasis managed to find an opportunity to change their family’s fortunes. In 2007, local basketball coach Spiros Velliniatis spotted Giannis and saw his potential almost immediately. He then persuaded Veronica to let Giannis play professionally, to which the latter eventually agreed after much discussions with not just Velliniatis but also the entire family. A few weeks later, 15-year Thanasis and 13-year old Giannis were now recruited to Greek second division team Filathlitikos.
Giannis and his brother soon began playing for Filathlitikos’ youth squad in 2009 and then the senior men’s team in 2011. The next year, Giannis signed with Spanish club CAI Zaragoza at the age of 18 but remained with Filathlitikos for the remainder of the 2012-2013 season. At Zaragoza, Giannis averaged 9.5 points and 5.0 rebounds in 26 games and began to attract scouts from all over Europe and the United States with his athletic play and aggressive defense. During the 2013 Greek League All-Star Game, league coaches picked Giannis to participate in the annual event.
After his lone season with Zaragoza, Giannis declared for the NBA draft. Thanasis originally declared for the same draft but withdrew for personal reasons. The Antetokounmpo brothers now have set their sights on the NBA but faced one more challenge: getting Greek citizenships. Both were still stateless by the time they had made themselves available for the NBA, but they wouldn’t have to wait long as they received their papers shortly before the draft. The entire family had now become Greek citizens, and they would officially Hellenize their original surname of Adetokunbo to Antetokounmpo.
The younger Antetokounmpo was selected as the 15th overall pick by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2013 NBA Draft. At 18 years old, Antetokounmpo also became of the one youngest players to play in an NBA game together with Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, and Jermaine O’Neal. Thanasis was meanwhile selected as the ninth pick by the Delaware 87ers in the 2013 NBA Development League Draft.
Between 2013 and 2016, Antetokounmpo’s game grew exponentially. From averaging 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.9 assists during his rookie year, his numbers expanded to 16.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 4.3 assists during the 2015-2016 season. Much like with Velliniatis in Filathlitikos, the Bucks also took a gamble on Antetokounmpo’s massive potential. The 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo entered the league not as a traditional power forward or center but a fast and agile big man who can defend multiple positions, thus earning him the nickname the “Greek Freak.”
All-Star and MVP Seasons
Before the start of the 2016-2017 season, Antetokounmpo signed a four-year, $100 million contract with the Bucks. The deal would become a bargain as Antetokounmpo further developed his game and be named a four-time All-Star and a two-time MVP throughout those four years. The entire Bucks team also benefited from Antetokounmpo’s meteoric rise, rising in the standings in the Eastern Conference and becoming a perennial playoff contender. Antetokounmpo ended the season with first All-Star and All-NBA selection (All-NBA Second Team) as well as being named as the league's Most Improved Player.
Former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was brought in to replace Jason Kidd who had coached the Bucks between 2014 and 2018. Under Budenholzer, the Bucks found sustained success and achieved the best record in the entire NBA for two straight seasons. Antetokounmpo would also win his very first win regular-season MVP award in Budenholzer’s first year with the team. Antetokounmpo finished the season with 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists en route to winning the MVP, the first-ever Bucks player to win the award since NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1974.
Antetokounmpo would make his case as the best player in the league the following season leading the Bucks again to the best record in the NBA. Milwaukee finished the regular season with a 56-17 record and although it would be three fewer wins than the previous season (60-22), the team still achieved the top seeding in the entire league. After his stint with Europe, Thanasis Antetokounmpo reunited with his brother as he was signed by the Bucks in July 2019.
The Coronavirus pandemic created a different and complicated scenario for the NBA which was determined to finish the 2020 season despite the pandemic still raging in the country. League executives and owners then decided to let the 16 playoff-bound teams play in a single venue between August and October. Also called the “NBA Bubble”, players were boarded in different hotels in the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. All of the playoff games including the NBA Finals were played inside the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resort. Players were restricted to leave the resort throughout the duration of their scheduled games and fans were also barred from entering the bubble.
Despite a valiant effort, the Bucks fell to the Miami Heat in the second round of the playoff bubble. It would be the second year in the row that Milwaukee was bounced in the playoffs after having the league’s best record. But despite another disappointing finish, Antetokounmpo provided yet another bright spark for the team as he finished the season with averages of 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 5.6 assists. His scoring and rebound numbers would be the highest of his career thus far.
2020 may not have been an eventful year for the Bucks but it would be for the Greek Freak. He won his second regular-season MVP as well as his first Defensive Player of the Year award (beating out Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert), joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only three players to win the said awards in the same season. His second MVP also puts him together in a group of only six players in NBA history (Stephen Curry, Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Moses Malone, and Bob Pettit) to win back-to-back MVP trophies. A few months later, Antetokounmpo inked the largest contract in NBA history after signing a five-year, $228 million supermax contract with the Bucks. After signing the contract extension, Antetokounmpo tweeted, “This is my home, this is my city. I’m blessed to be able to be a part of the Milwaukee Bucks for the next 5 years.”
Aside from being a five-time All-Star and a two-time MVP, Antetokounmpo was selected in the All-Defensive First Team twice (2019 and 2020) and the All-Defensive Second Team (2010). He also has 22 career triple-doubles, the most recent one was a 24-point, 17-rebound, and 10-assist performance in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in February 2021. At the recently concluded 2021 All-Star Game in Atlanta, Georgia, he was named the MVP after scoring 35 points and going perfect from the field (16-for-16).
Antetokounmpo has also been a member of the Greek national team since he was 18 years old. During the 2013 FIBA Europe Under-20 Championship, he led the team in defensive numbers as Greece finished the tournament with an 8-2 record. A year later, he played with the senior team for the first time in the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. The team finished ninth overall with a 5-1 record.
Between 2016 and 2019, Antetokounmpo participated in multiple FIBA tournaments including the 2019 FIBA World Cup where he averaged 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists in 5 games for Greece who finished 11th in the tournament. Through 49 games with the Greek national team, Antetokounmpo is averaging 11.7 points.
Antetokounmpo is not just a popular figure on the court but off the court as well. Fully understanding the struggles of poverty as he had experienced it first hand as a child, he has dedicated his off-court activities by being active in numerous community organizations.
In 2018, Antetokounmpo donated food and money to Milwaukee-based food banks and personally assisted in handing out more than 27,000 meals. A year later, he returned to his home country and participated in numerous charitable deeds. One of these was “Give N Rise” which is a charity event that featured basketball and dancing activities. Teammates Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe (who now plays for the New Orleans Pelicans) also joined the event. Recently, Antetotkumpo family also pledged $100,000 to the staff of Fiserv Forum (home arena of the Bucks) as a large number of workers were furloughed during the COVID pandemic.
Giannis has four brothers: Francis, Thanasis, Kostas, and Alex. Francis is the eldest among the Antetokounmpo brothers (32 years old) and was left in Nigeria with his grandparents after the rest of the family immigrated to France. He is the only Antetokounmpo who is not a basketball player as he plays soccer in Greece’s second-tier league. Kostas (24 years old) is currently signed with the Lakers and is part of the team that won the championship in 2020. On the other hand, Alex who is the youngest among the brothers (19 years old) currently plays for Spanish team UCAM Murcia.
It’s not just the children who are athletes in the Antetokounmpo family but the parents as well. Charles was formerly a Nigerian association football player while Veronica was a high jumper. Charles died in 2017 at the age of 54.
Antetokounmpo is in a relationship with long-time girlfriend Mariah Riddlesprigger. They have a one-year-old son named Liam Charles. Riddlesprigger’s mother is an Allstar Fire Equipment regional sales manager while her father is a former Fresno State University basketball player.
The journey has been long and tiring for Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just like the most successful people that came before him, hard work and determination are all that one needs to make it to the top. The Bucks superstar may be considered one of the best players today but he might just become the best ever to step on the court once it’s all said and done.