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

Sep 26, 2013
Originally published on September 26, 2013 6:48 pm

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.

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."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here's a startling number. In Greece more than two-thirds of people under that age of 24 are out of work, and life is especially tough for the children of immigrants, many of whom are stateless in a society that blames foreigners for its problems. Which brings us to the remarkable story of one young man. A Greek Nigerian basketball prodigy was recently drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA. It's giving young people in the depressed country a sense of pride. Joanna Kakissis has the story.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: A few months ago, most Greeks had never heard of a 6'9" teenager named Giannis Antetokounmpo. He played for a minor league team in an Athens suburb. He was born and raised in Greece, but his parents are Nigerian.. He only received his citizenship this May. Then on June 27 the NBA's David Stern made this announcement in New York.

DAVID STERN: With the 15th pick in 2013 NBA draft, the Milwaukee Bucks select Giannis Antetokounmpo from Athens, Greece. He last played (unintelligible) in Greece.

KAKISSIS: Giannis, wearing a gray blazer, leapt from the crowd. His older brother, Thanasis, waved a giant blue-and-white Greek flag. Giannis looked ecstatic as he spoke to a TV reporter.

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO: It's a wonderful feeling. I can't describe how excited I feel, you know. It's a dream come true.

KAKISSIS: It was actually a dream come true for his entire family. His parents, Charles and Veronica, moved to Athens from Lagos, Nigeria, in 1991. Charles says there were no opportunities in the Nigerian economy.

CHARLES ANTETOKOUNMPO: And the opportunity slipping away. Some people decided to leave. That's why we decided to leave.

KAKISSIS: In Greece, the couple picked oranges on farms. They sold worry beads and purses on city streets. And their four sons - Thanasis, Giannis, Kostas and Alex - often joined them.

G. ANTETOKOUNMPO: (Speaking foreign language)

KAKISSIS: I worked too, says Giannis, who's more comfortable speaking in his native language, Greek. We all had to work to survive.

The Antetokounmpos were the only black family in their corner of Sepolia, a bare-bones neighborhood in western Athens. Unlike other immigrants in the city, they say they never faced racism. But they did struggle to pay their rent. Once they were evicted. The boys found their escape at the local outdoor basketball court. Thanasis Antetokounmpo says it was a place to forget that they couldn't afford shoes and sometimes even food.

THANASIS ANTETOKOUNMPO: Outside the court, we didn't have stuff, we didn't like have many things in life, but in the court you felt like I have everything.

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

VASSILIS XENARIOS: (Through interpreter) It's a way for kids to escape their families' economic problems. Neighborhoods like these struggled even before the crisis. And now they are being crushed.

KAKISSIS: But neighbors also help each other here and they were very devoted to the Antetokounmpos. A local cafe offered them free breakfast every morning. A neighbor, Dimitris Matsagas, gave Giannis his clothes.

DIMITRIS MATSAGAS: (Speaking foreign language)

KAKISSIS: I always knew Giannis was going to be a big deal, Matsagas says. He lived his childhood on that basketball court. Everyone here is excited that one of their own has made it so big. Giannis Antetokoumpo is a household name. On the outdoor court where he once played, a group of 11-year-old boys now chant his name. They all want to get better at basketball.

But the Greek state has no way of helping them, says Spiros Vellianitis, the coach who discovered Giannis.

SPIROS VELLIANITIS: When there is nobody around to help those kids, which are plenty full of talent, you have to rely on personal initiatives.

KAKISSIS: Vellianitis brought Giannis and his older brother Thanasis to the team called Filathlitikos, where they flourished and where NBA scouts spotted Giannis. Vellianitis also pushed the club to give the Antetokounmpo family a monthly stipend, so the boys wouldn't have to work. The Antetokounmpo brothers practiced with Filathlitikos this summer. All four are talented players.

This fall, the family is moving with Giannis to Milwaukee. Some fans there call Giannis G-Bo for short. His Greek-Nigerian name is at the moment too hard to pronounce. He says he's excited about his new team and city. He credits his country, Greece, for helping him get there.

G. ANTETOKOUNMPO: (Speaking foreign language)

KAKISSIS: 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 over, I'd do it again. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.