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NBA Rookie Wants To Bring Hope To Greece, And To Milwaukee

Milwaukee Bucks first-round draft pick Giannis Antetokounmpo speaks at a news conference in Milwaukee on June 28.
Morry Gash
Milwaukee Bucks first-round draft pick Giannis Antetokounmpo speaks at a news conference in Milwaukee on June 28.

Just a few months ago, most Greeks had never heard of a teenager named Giannis Antetokounmpo.

At 6-foot-9, the baby-faced athlete was the towering star of a minor-league basketball team in an Athens suburb. Born in Greece to a Nigerian soccer player and a high-jumper, he was raised and educated in Athens. He only received his citizenship this May.

And then, on June 27 in New York, NBA commissioner David Stern announced that the Milwaukee Bucks had used the 15th pick in the first round of the NBA draft to select Antetokounmpo, who recently turned 19.

Antetokounmpo, wearing a gray blazer, leapt from the crowd and embraced his 20-year-old brother, Thanassis, who waved a giant blue-and-white Greek flag.

"It's a wonderful feeling," Antetokounmpo later told a TV reporter. "I can't describe how I feel. It's a dream come true."

Greece is not a country where many young people can realize their dreams these days. Nearly two-thirds of Greeks under age 24 are out of work — one of the highest unemployment rates in the developed world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Prospects are even tougher for the children of immigrants, many of whom are stateless in a society that blames foreigners for its problems.

Antetokounmpo's success has heartened many Greeks desperate for their country to become an incubator of dreams instead of a dead zone of joblessness.

Veronica and Charles Antetokounmpo moved from Lagos to Athens as a young couple in 1991. "The economy in Nigeria was bad then," says Charles, a former soccer player. "There were no jobs."
Joanna Kakissis / NPR
Veronica and Charles Antetokounmpo moved from Lagos to Athens as a young couple in 1991. "The economy in Nigeria was bad then," says Charles, a former soccer player. "There were no jobs."

His parents, Charles and Veronica, moved from Lagos, Nigeria, to Athens in 1991. They left their young son, Francis, with his grandparents. Charles says there were no opportunities in the Nigerian economy.

"It was very hard to get a job," he says. People felt opportunity slipping away. "That's why we decided to leave, too."

In Greece, the couple picked oranges on farms. They sold worry beads and purses on city streets. Veronica gave birth to four more sons: Thanassis, Giannis, Kostas and Alex. She gave them Greek names to honor her adopted country, though they also have Nigerian names.

The boys often joined their parents at work.

"We all had to work to survive," Giannis says. "We went through some hard times."

The boys spent most of their lives in Sepolia, a bare-bones neighborhood in western Athens. Unlike other immigrants in the city, the Antetokounmpo family says they never faced racism. But they did struggle to pay their rent. Once, they were evicted, Veronica says.

Her boys sometimes escaped to a local outdoor basketball court. "It was a kind of paradise for them," she says.

Thanassis, who has NBA aspirations of his own, says it was a place to forget that they couldn't afford shoes and sometimes even food.

"Outside the court, we didn't have stuff, we didn't have many things in life, but in the court you felt like, 'I have everything,' " he says.

Other kids in the neighborhood feel the same way about basketball, says Vassilis Xenarios, a former coach in Sepolia.

"It's a way for kids to escape their families' economic problems," Xenarios says. "Neighborhoods like this struggled even before the crisis. And now they are being crushed."

But neighbors also help each other here. Xenarios says they were very devoted to the Antetokounmpos, whom they saw as goodhearted, hard-working and intelligent.

A local cafe offered them free breakfast every morning. One neighbor, Dimitris Matsagas, 28, gave Giannis the clothes he had outgrown.

"I always knew Giannis was going to be a big deal," Matsagas says. "He lived his childhood on that basketball court."

That one of their own has made it so big has excited everyone in Sepolia. Giannis Antetokoumpo is now a household name. On the court where he once played, a group of 11-year-old boys chant his name. "America, America!" they shout.

"Everyone knows about the story," says Spiros Vellianitis, the coach who discovered Giannis. "Everyone wants to be the next Giannis."

In 2007, he brought Giannis and Thanassis to train with the mid-sized club, Filathlitikos, in the leafy, middle-class neighborhood of Zografou.

Velliniatis also pushed the club to give the Antetokounmpo family a monthly stipend, so the boys wouldn't have to work. The family moved to an apartment near the club's gym last year.

He wishes the Greek state could help other talented young Greek athletes from poor families.

"When there is nobody around to help those kids, which are plenty full of talent, you have to rely on personal initiatives," he says. "But fewer and fewer individuals have the resources to help."

This fall, Veronica and Charles and their two youngest sons, Kostas and Alex, will move with Giannis to Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo's name is a mouthful for most Bucks fans, so a few have shortened it to 'G-Bo.'

He says he's excited about his new team and city. He credits his fellow Greeks for helping him realize what seemed like an impossible dream.

"Yes, we did have some hard times growing up in Greece," he says. "But if you took me back in time and asked me to live my life again, I'd do it."

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Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.