Sunday, 25 July 2021

Giannis Antetokounmpo: the road to glory

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek basketball star, put in one of the greatest series of sporting performances anyone is likely to see to lift the Milwaukee Bucks to a historic 4-2 victory over the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals. 

The achievement culminated in a decisive game six where Antetokounmpo surpassed himself, scoring 50 points, securing 14 rebounds and making five blocks and two assists; though the statistics don’t do justice to the sheer will power, determination, mental strength and physical endurance he displayed in leading his team to glory.
 
The Bucks’ victory, their first NBA championship since 1971, marked a remarkable eight-years for Antetokounmpo, drafted by the Wisconsin side in 2013 as a spindly, inchoate 18-year-old, who some scouts predicted could be a star in the mould of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, but most thought his basketball skills were too underdeveloped and untested to merit interest in signing him. 
 
The usual route for NBA stars is to win a scholarship to a US university, hone your skills over two, three, four, years in college basketball, which is highly competitive and where scouts will have repeated chance to watch and judge you, before a gamble is taken. 
 
Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, only played in the lower leagues in Greece – for Filathlitikos Zografou – a standard likened to a local YMCA competition – which led many American scouts to take the view that Antetokounmpo may look good against mediocre players in Europe but this didn’t tell you anything about how well he would compete against US-trained players, who’d had the benefit of years of superior coaching, conditioning and competition.
 
Hundreds of articles have been written, dozens of television programmes made – Disney is now producing a feature film – telling Antetokounmpo’s story; his rise from a cramped flat in an insalubrious part of Athens, the third of five sons, the last four born in Athens to undocumented immigrants from Nigeria, Veronica and Charles Antetokounmpo, to five-time All Star, two-time MVP and now NBA champion and Finals MVP. 
 
The family’s struggles on the margins of the Greek economy – which included hawking sunglasses, CDs, DVDs on Athens’ streets to make a precarious and meagre living – are well established as is the racism of some locals, coming to terms with a wave of immigrants from all the world arriving in Greece. 
 
Yet, amid all the difficulties and travails, the Antetokounmpos persevered, the four Greek-born brothers went to local schools, had people in their community and neighbourhood willing to help them and their parents navigate Greek society and make them feel they had a place and stake in it. 
 
It is these people the Antetokounmpo family chooses to remember rather than the ones who showed hostility or resentment towards them and has made Giannis Antetokounmpo Greece’s greatest advocate abroad and a superhero and superstar at home.
 
* I've read, seen, listened to dozens of articles, TV shows, podcasts, about Giannis Antetokounmpo's amazing NBA story; but this three-part series on his journey from rudimentary basketball talent in Athens to being drafted by the Bucks is the best at revealing what makes him tick.
 
The Giannis Draft: The Woj Pod’s 3-episode narrative podcast on the greatest NBA draft story ever told.