Basketball / 23 February 2019, 11:30am / Stuart Hess
Even in a room of the tallest athletes in the world, Giannis Antetokounmpo stands out.
At 2.11 metres, Antetokounmpo is pretty tall – taller than the average for the National Basketball Association which this season has been measured at 2.01m – but to that height he’s added an aura this season that has even his contemporaries looking up at him.
Antetokounmpo has always had outrageous ability and talent. You don’t get the nickname the “Greek Freak” by being ordinary. Youtube is packed with highlights of Antetokounmpo doing freakish things on a basketball court, the most popular arguably being his slam dunk at the storied Madison Square Garden in New York, where he jumped over an opponent – the 1.98m tall former New York Knicks guard Tim Hardaway jr – eliciting a now famous open-mouthed, jaw-drop expression from ardent Knick fan John McEnroe.
Antetokounmpo isn’t small and neither is anything he does on a basketball court. And this season he has elevated himself to superstar status, leading the unheralded Milwaukee Bucks to the top of the NBA standings.
That is quite some feat in a league that in recent years has been dominated by Lebron James, who has played in each of the last nine NBA Finals series, and the Golden State Warriors, who’ve won three out of the last four NBA championships.
However, fans have noted Antetokounmpo’s feats (how could they not?) and they picked him as the second most popular player in the league ahead of last week’s All Star game in Charlotte, thus according him the captaincy of one team, opposite the league’s most popular player and arguably one of the biggest sports stars on the planet, James.
Unless you’re a basketball aficionado, or you hail from the city of Milwaukee or the country, Greece, then Antetokounmpo is the biggest sports star you’ve never heard of.
Basketball and the NBA specifically is seeing another upsurge in popularity globally, that stems from the NBA’s own work. Where once it was reliant on star players – Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and lately James – now the league is actually taking its product to the world, be it in the form of a regular season game in London, or exhibition events in Johannesburg and Beijing. That, coupled with his outstanding form this season, has given Antetokounmpo a global status that he finds amazing.
Asked in Charlotte ahead of the All Star game if he could ever have pictured himself as the captain of an All Star team that carried his name – Team Giannis – opposing Team Lebron, Antetokounmpo replied: “If you asked me that seven years ago, then the answer is simple: ‘No.’ But if you work hard and believe in yourself, if you have a great support system and family, that pushes you, you can be in this spot, you can be successful.”
Seven years ago Antetokounmpo was playing in the third tier of the Greek league for a semi pro outfit called Filathlitikos. He’d only taken up basketball five years previously as a means of distraction from the harsh realities of growing up in one of Athens’ poorest neighbourhoods.
Antetokounmpo’s parents had left Nigeria in 1991, seeking a life away from the military junta which ran that country at the time. They lived illegally in Greece where Antetokounmpo was born in 1994. In fact, were it not for the hard work of the Greek basketball federation in cutting some corners with the country’s Home Affairs department, Antetokounmpo would not have been drafted in the NBA, because at the time, in 2013, he held no papers from any country.
“It’s something I keep inside me; my path in basketball to the NBA, it’s not just about me but my family, I represent all the people who helped my family who helped me to be in this seat and to represent 10 million people,” says Antetokounmpo. That’s an important note. Antetokounmpo doesn’t recognise himself as being Nigerian nor does he proclaim some kind of affinity for “The Motherland.”
Greece made him what he is and when he talks, he talks as a Greek. Asked if, given the number of European players in the league, he fancied the NBA All Star game changing from an event carrying the names of the two biggest stars, to one featuring a US team against a European team, Antetokounmpo said: “I would love that; it would be a good way to bring all the European national players together, and show them what we’ve got.”
Antetokounmpo’s upbringing involved selling anything he or his family could acquire; watches, glasses, toys or clothes. Often, they’d sell nothing, which meant many nights without food. “If we didn’t sell, you didn’t eat. So you had to work hard to put a plate of food on the table.”
He certainly doesn’t have to concern himself with putting food on the table anymore, not after signing a $100 million four-year contract with the Bucks in 2016. But the desire to work hard remains, just the goals have changed. “We want to win a championship,” says Antetokounmpo.
He and the Bucks are certainly setting themselves up for a decent run at that goal, with Antetokounmpo, although one of the younger members of the team, its unrivalled leader. “He’s only 24, we are excited about where he is going,” said the Bucks’ head coach Mike Budenholzer. “I’ve only been with Giannis for six months, but to me, it’s just how unselfishly he plays, he gives everything to his teammates on both ends of the court.
“The way he has improved defensively is pretty impressive, the way his play-making and facilitating offensively is impressive and then his voice in the locker-room, his leadership his work ethic all those things are just growing right before our eyes.”
The Washington Post recently described the Bucks, as “a juggernaut cruising along in plain sight and relative silence.” That’ll change in the coming weeks as the season heads to its climax; the play-offs. By then the ‘Greek Freak’ will be all anyone will be talking about.