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Giannis Antetokounmpo: The Kid from Athens Who Became King of Basketball

The King of basketball. Credit: Instagram/Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the kid from Sepolia, Greece who once sold watches and sunglasses on the streets of Athens to survive, became the King of basketball on Tuesday after leading the Milwaukee Bucks to the first NBA title in half a century.

Behind 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks from their superstar forward, the Bucks held off the Phoenix Suns to win the franchise first championship since 1971 on their home court.

It is a remarkable achievement for Antetokounmpo, who started out life by hawking merchandise in the streets of Athens. From an impoverished background to stardom, Antetokounmpo is now living the American Dream — like millions of other Greeks who emigrated to the US over the centuries.

Before winning the NBA title, the 26-year-old won back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Player Awards in 2019 and 2020, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James as the only players in NBA history to win two MVPs before turning 26.

Drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013

In 2013, Antetokounmpo stood between his parents on the court inside Bradley Center and gazed up at the ceiling, where the retired jerseys for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson hung in the rafters.

“Maybe in 15 years, 20 years,” the young man said, “maybe my name is up there next to Kareem, Oscar Robertson. “I hope I’m there.”

He had just been drafted 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2013 NBA draft. Tuesday night, with more than 80,000 people crammed in and around Fiserv Forum, Antetokounmpo capped off a spectacular NBA Finals with a legendary performance to do what, until now, only Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson had ever done: Lead the Bucks to an NBA title.

Antetokounmpo returns to Athens as a hero

Antetokounmpo was born in the Athens neighborhood of Sepolia on December 6, 1994, the son of immigrants from Nigeria. Three years earlier, his parents had moved from Lagos, leaving behind their firstborn son, Francis, with his grandparents.

In 2019, he returned to Sepolia and received a hero’s welcome. Thousands of Greeks turned out to greet their homegrown hero.

The Greek Freak, with his brothers Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Kostas Antetokounmpo and Alex Antetokounmpo, together with their mother Veronica Antetokounmpo and their older brother Francis Antetokounmpo, hosted the 2019 “AntetokounBros” event that took place in the area where the family used to live and the neighborhood where the young Antetokounmpo kids grew up.

Sepolia was the place where everything began for Giannis and his brothers. “It’s amazing. Who would have imagined that this would happen? I get chills with what was going on today,” Giannis said. “No matter how much you achieve, the point is to not forget where you started. I will always start at Sepolia.”

Although Giannis and three of his four brothers were born in Greece, their parents had come here illegally. They did not automatically receive full Greek citizenship as Greek nationality law follows the concept of jus sanguinis. For the first 18 years of his life, Antetokounmpo was effectively stateless, having no papers from either Nigeria or Greece.

Greek citizenship in 2013

After gaining Greek citizenship in 2013, his family Hellenized their surname from Adetokunbo to Antetokounmpo to more closely follow Greek spelling rules. His parents, as illegal immigrants, could not easily find work, so Giannis and his older brother, Thanasis, helped by hawking watches, handbags and sunglasses in the streets.

Giannis and his brother Thanasis in a basketball court at Sepolia, Athens. Credit: sixtwelve, CC BY 2.0/Wikipedia Commons

In 2007, Antetokounmpo started playing basketball and in 2011 joined his local team Filathlitikos. After a brief spell in Spain he was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks. The rest is history.

The Antetokounmpo biopic by Disney, focused on the teenage years of the NBA star, was filmed recently in Athens.

“My goal in life is to show you the world,” Giannis tells his son as he points to the Parthenon. Credit: Instagram/Giannis Antetokounmpo

After leading the Milwaukee Bucks to the first NBA title in half a century, Antetokounmpo spoke to his Greek fans. The NBA star said that he expects 100,000 Greeks to come to the airport in Athens. He is reportedly flying home on Saturday.

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