Long before ‘freak’ became an appealing nickname – and a public persona – in the National Basketball Association, Giannis Antetokounmpo was regarded as one. He was born into a family of five Nigerian immigrants and grew up stateless, unable to draw attention to himself or his family in Athens’ Sepolia neighbourhood.
In the dead of night, racists would target the family, which is reported to be the only black family in the neighborhood. It was a difficult upbringing for him, and he vows to never forget it. He would actively avoid going out late at night, preferring to stay at home and be alone. Nothing was taken for granted in this struggle.
The man now known as Giannis Antetokounmpo was born Giannis Adetokounmpo, which is often forgotten. The alteration was made to correspond to the Greek spelling on his passport. Despite never visiting Nigeria as a child, he identified as Greek-Nigerian, wanting to keep the African half of his heritage prominent.
In 1991, Veronica and Charles departed Lagos, Nigeria, with their eldest child, Francis, who was left with grandparents. The strategy was to find a better life for their growing family. Giannis was born three years later.
“I played soccer from nine until 12 and then 12-and-a-half I started playing basketball”, Antetokounmpo said in 2020. Giannis started playing basketball in 2007, and early reports from Greece claimed he couldn’t dribble properly. He was a blank canvas for a coach and his team. Spiros Velliniatis is credited with uncovering a raw Antetokounmpo while scouring the immigrant neighbourhoods of Athens for undiscovered talent.
It wasn’t until 2013 that he was able to obtain official Greek citizenship, thanks in part to his rising public profile. Scouts flocked to the Filathlitikos gym in droves to see him work out.
There was discussion of a move to Spain, with Real Zaragoza interested, but it was the NBA, namely the Milwaukee Bucks, who came calling, sure they could polish a diamond in the rough. Antetokounmpo, then 19, was a first-round pick in the NBA draught, selected by the Bucks at No. 15 with a Greece flag in his hands.
It was a watershed event for both the family and Greece. The NBA is one of the most commercialized and star-studded sports leagues in the world. He was the public face of a country. The adolescent received a rookie contract worth $8.6 million. He became wealthy beyond his wildest expectations in an instant.