He wasn’t on Greece’s national team, but 18-year-old Yiannis Antetokounmpo, of Nigerian descent, has become the country’s youngest player to be drafted by the National Basketball Association, picked at number 15 by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Antetokounmpo played for the second-division club Filathlitikos in Greece’s second-tier league, overlooked by the top teams and traditional powers Olympiakos and Panathinaikos. Although he still has to make the Bucks, they’ve already assigned him number 34 and see him as shooting forward and hope his slender 6-9 frame will fill out and get ready for the rigors of the pros.
Antetokounmpo’s love for his country was evident when he raised the Greek flag upon hearing his name during the draft, where he was the youngest player on the board and his family jumped in joy alongside him.
That came just a couple of days after the New York Times published a long article about his potential. He is the son of Nigerian parents and one of four brothers, who have Greek first names.
He grew up in Sepolia, a neighborhood in Athens, Greece and has lived a struggling immigrant’s life. He has eight brothers, speaks the Greek language fluently, completed Greek schooling and recently became a Greek citizen.
In order to survive and to help his family, he used to sell various goods on the streets of Athens. Along with his family, they often changed apartments in search of cheaper rent. He preferred playing soccer until he tried basketball.
He grew up at a tiny club called Filathlitikos, the coach of which, Spiros Velliniatis, persuaded the Adetokunbo brothers to try basketball: “You’re in front of Mozart and he has no food, what do you give him? You have a dilemma,” Velliniatis told The Times. “The answer is not a violin. The answer is a loaf of bread.”
“From the time I started in basketball, my dream was to be a big star, to have a big future in basketball,” Yiannis said.
He has signed to play in Spain next season with the team Zaragoza, with a contract of a total of $325,000 over three years, with a club option for a fourth season, at another $325,000. He’s skipping that for a shot at the NBA.
Scouts arrived to watch him this season, as well as NBA executives, including the general managers Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Danny Ferry of the Atlanta Hawks and Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets. The Toronto Raptors’ new General Manager, Masai Ujiri, a Nigerian, visited while he was working for the Denver Nuggets, as reported in the NYT.
Adetokunbo’s parents arrived in Greece in 1991 and settled in Sepolia. They were the only black family for blocks. His mother, Veronica, earned money baby-sitting, and his father, Charles, was a handyman for an electrical company. But the work was rarely steady. Immigrants in Greece, particularly dark-skinned ones, have been targets of abuse in recent years by far-right nationalists frustrated by the country’s economic problems.
Yiannis did everything he could for his family and he wishes to take them with him wherever he goes. His mother said: “I’m telling him, Yiannis please go, we will come later. He says, ‘No, you’re coming with me.’ He wants to take care of the family, and he wants us beside him.”