NBA provides an escape for Bucks rookie Antetokounmpo
The black Bic pen looked like a toothpick in Giannis Antetokounmpo's hand as he drew two sets of parallel lines on a notebook, demonstrating the sleeping arrangements in one of his family's tiny homes in Sepolia, Greece.
"One room like this, four of us," he said, pushing the pen tip into the paper, firm enough to indent the sheets beneath. "The other room, like this – little – my mother and my father."
Looking down, bent over, he stared at it for a few heartbeats.
"That's over," he said faintly.
Then, a smile.
"Now it'll be like this!" he laughed, quickly drawing a large circle as he straightened his shoulders, the pen dropping off the notebook at the binding and coming back around to completion.
Immediately likeable, Antetokounmpo has been equally cheery, introspective and honest since arriving in Milwaukee in late July. He's maintained some innocence, despite a life of poverty and uncertainty. He comes to the United States with a desire for greatness on the basketball court, but carries the burden of being a political lightning rod in his home country – a country that until this summer wouldn't claim him as its own.
"He's been through tough times already and when you go through difficult times, it creates personality," said Spiros Velliniatis, the Greek basketball coach who introduced the teenager to the world. "It was more (difficult) than it sounds. Believe me."
A life changed
On the way back to his hotel in Athens, John Hammond was lost in thought. The Milwaukee Bucks general manager had watched Antetokounmpo – then spelled Adetokunbo – play for three days in the modest gym of the Filathlitikos team in the Athens suburb of Zografou, and saw a world of potential in the spindly, 6-foot, 9-inch teenager. The secret was out, too. Personnel from NBA clubs were filtering in and out of that gym.
He's a lock first rounder. How high could he go?
Hammond's thoughts turned to Giannis' young brothers outside the baselines, Kostas and Alex, talking trash, giving as well as getting. Their parents, Charles and Veronica, watched alongside. Hammond could see how close they were.
The family of six – Giannis' older brother Thanasis also played for Filathlitikos – lived near the gym. In truth, it was the most stable home they had.
This kid, Giannis – his life is going to change.
Not long after, in an office at the Cousins Center, Giannis – now spelled Antetokounmpo – swooped his name across his first NBA contract. Hammond remembered his three days in that Greek gym which sat 500. One backboard was rimless and the game backboards had no springs. Window panes were cracked. Wood planks on radiators served as shelves in the weight room. He remembered watching the family.
It's just happened. It just changed.
It wasn't the money. The Spanish-based team Zaragoza signed Giannis to a multi-year, six-figure deal in December, and he went from earning 500 Euros a month to several thousand.
"It's something else," Velliniatis said."The prestige and the shining of the NBA is mind blowing. The life he has now is tremendous. The money is good, but it's a way to verify the shininess of the NBA because even the money … the shining is something different."
Indeed. The interest from NBA personnel departments helped the brothers earn spots on the Greek National Team. An issue had to be resolved, however. In order to travel they needed passports. To have a passport, they needed citizenship.
Giannis, Thanasis, Kostas and Alex were all born in Greece, but as children of Nigerian immigrants they were never recognized as Greeks. Nothing was ever steady, certain. They faced evictions, moved from place to place. They had survived together as a family, the boys selling sunglasses, hats and bags on the street. Veronica babysat, Charles worked as a handyman. Once Giannis and Thanasis picked up basketball, they shared the same shoes.
"They wanted a better future and a better life," Giannis said of his parents. "They say, to come to Greece and have a better life. Even coming to Greece, they didn't have a better life. Life was still difficult. My mother is 50 years old. And my father, too. For 50 years old, life was difficult for them."
There was no bitterness in his voice, which falls out in a steady, monotonic treble.
"For 20 years they were illegal," he continued. "It's very hard to live for 20 years without papers. Very, very hard. You have children and you have to go out and work without papers. At any moment, the cops can stop you and say come over here and let me send you back to your country.
"For me, my parents, they are heroes."
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