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Greece wanted nothing to do with his family until NBA noticed Antetokounmpo’s basketball skills

Oct 23, 2013, 11:27 AM EDT

Giannis Antetokounmpo Corey Brewer AP

The life of an NBA rookie such as Giannis Antetokounmpo has its challenges.

Sure, suddenly he’s the rookie with some buzz after showing flashes of his seemingly limitless potential while getting a little run with the Bucks this preseason; but come the regular season he will spend a lot of time on the bench behind Caron Butler, Khris Middleton and eventually Carlos Delfino at the three  (although the Bucks GM says they want to expose him more now). All that talent is not going to stop some hard lessons that will come on the court and some playful rookie hazing off it.

But compared his family’s life back in Greece — where his parents and their four children were Nigerian illegal immigrants — this is all the good life, Antetokounmpo told Jim Owczarski for a fantastic story at

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 (the four children) 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. (Mother) Veronica babysat, (Father) Charles worked as a handyman. Once Giannis and Thanasis picked up basketball, they shared the same shoes.

“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.”

Don’t miss out on the hypocrisy here — as soon as they found out Antetokounmpo could play ball suddenly the Greek nation that made them live in the shadows for two decades embraced the family like prodigal sons. They have met the prime minister and are treated like heroes. Like a lot of nations, when times get tough and unemployment rises some people seek scapegoats in people they don’t think belong.

“If Giannis was an Einstein or a scientist, he would not be getting Greek nationality because there are 100,000 kids, at least, with the same problem,” said (Spiros Velliniatis, the Greek basketball coach who introduced the teenager to the world). “Because basketball is the national sport here, those kids got to overcome the legal difficulties. The problems still stays for 100,000 kids trapped. It’s correct to say this because Giannis was the exception.”

When he was drafted and becoming a national hero in Greece, the head of one “nationalistic” party (to be kind) said Antetokounmpo shouldn’t be celebrated but arrested and deported. There are still people who feel about him that way at home (and Antetokounmpo still says Greece is home).

However, the Antetokounmpo family is living in Milwaukee now, no longer wondering where their next meal will come from. It’s a great story for them.

  1. yuwannano - Oct 23, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    Well Mr.Antetokounmpo can take himself, his family AND his MONEY out of Greece so this “nationalistic” party wont have to deal with him (or his money) anymore.

    Win win for all.

    • expatriotusa - Oct 25, 2013 at 1:11 PM

      I know that most American wouldn’t know where Greece is placed on the world map much less the illegal immigration issues that we have. But it would be nice for once for a poster of an article to actually know some background before posting PC liberal garbage and slander against a nation this author obviously knows nothing about. Here is a youtube clip of Giannis and his brother waiving the Greek flag with pride when the draft was announced. For a nation that treated him so harsh one can only wonder why he would bring it with him in the US during a televised pick. Oh and one more thing he was our flag holder for our national holiday as well. Ask him yourself before you post garbage to bait other people to comment on. It almost seems like your trying to claim him as one of your own. Nice try.

  2. letangusespertplus - Oct 23, 2013 at 12:38 PM

    Interesting story. I was intrigued by him during the draft, cant wait to see how his NBA career goes.

  3. knownothingfugazi - Oct 23, 2013 at 1:00 PM

    “Nationalist”? Call them (the Golden Dawn party) the neo-Nazi fascist most Greeks know that they are. And as for PM Samaras using this young man as a marketing ploy for his Greek “success story” while treating so many Africans like lesser-thans, we should remember that the two main Greek centrist parties are closer to the fascist policies of Golden Dawn than the EU would admit.

    • Kurt Helin - Oct 24, 2013 at 10:13 PM

      I’ll be honest, my knowledge of internal Greek politics is lacking. I looked them up and did go with what I would call a euphemism.

  4. daddyghi - Oct 23, 2013 at 1:16 PM

    doesnt matter if he’s a bust or not… what matters is, he was able to help his family move in to a better place!

  5. redbaronx - Oct 23, 2013 at 1:39 PM

    The Bucks are bad enough that they should consider playing him for development. It’s not like the Bucks are going anywhere this season.

  6. muskyhunter2542 - Oct 23, 2013 at 1:41 PM

    Milwaukee is a very nice city with good people. You and your family would very much like it here.


  7. 00maltliquor - Oct 23, 2013 at 2:02 PM

    America does the same thing to all their immagrants too, don’t front!

    • zoomy123 - Oct 23, 2013 at 9:16 PM

      Are you kidding? This isn’t true at all. Some cities are even designated “sanctuaries,” where immigrants can live free from fear of deportation, get driver’s licenses, etc.

      • 00maltliquor - Oct 23, 2013 at 9:59 PM

        Clearly you don’t live in Arizona.

      • zoomy123 - Oct 24, 2013 at 2:53 AM

        Sometimes I wonder if people realize how stupid they can be…

        00maltliquor: America does the same thing to ALL their immagrants too, don’t front!

        Me: Are you kidding? This isn’t true at all. SOME cities are even designated “sanctuaries,” where immigrants can live free from fear of deportation, get driver’s licenses, etc.

        You: Clearly you don’t live in Arizona.

        What the hell does Arizona have to do with anything I said? lol Did I say any cities in Arizona are “sanctuaries”? No. I just said some cities in America are “sanctuary” cities for illegal immigrants.

      • 00maltliquor - Oct 24, 2013 at 3:05 AM

        Man, you just proved your idiocy right there homie! You obviously live in a bubble world where Unicorns exsist and the streets are paved with gumdrops. Look, I’m not trying to go in on you, I’m sure you’re a good dude but obviously you are quite oblivious to what goes on in your own country. I can write a freakin’ essay on whats really good on this here topic but I’m just gonna leave it alone. Google is your friend, do some research.

      • zoomy123 - Oct 24, 2013 at 3:12 AM

        Are you really denying that there are sanctuary cities in the United States of America where illegal immigrants do not fear deportation and have access to driver’s licenses, etc.? I LIVE in a sanctuary city. I went to school with people who were illegal immigrants. Hell, some of them even went to my college. LOL!

        Your problem is that you think I’m saying something I’m not. I never denied that there are places like Arizona or Georgia or Alabama. I simply objected to your idiocy when you claimed that, “America does the same thing to ALL their immagrants too, don’t front!” This statement is empirically not true. Being an illegal immigrant in Alabama is NOT like being an illegal immigrant in California.

      • 00maltliquor - Oct 24, 2013 at 3:16 AM

        There could be 100 cities where there is a sanctuary zoomy, that doesn’t erase what goes on in the nation as a whole! Wake the blank up man and go visit other cities and states my brother!

      • zoomy123 - Oct 24, 2013 at 4:48 AM

        What are you talking about? Why do you keep trying to change the subject? You said something that was empirically NOT true and I pointed out why you were wrong. And if you want to get technical, looking at the distribution of the illegal immigrant population at least half of them live in states where they are very unlikely to be deported: California, New Jersey, New York, Florida… They can get driver’s licenses, go to school, go to college (via the Dream Act), etc. Even now the President and Congress are crafting comprehensive immigration reform that will give almost all of them a pathway to legalization and/or citizenship.

        Your problem is that you don’t understand that you can’t compare Greece to America. America is a republic consisting of 50 sovereign states, each enforcing the laws pertaining to illegal immigration differently. Therefore, you can’t make blanket claims about how ALL illegal immigrants are treated in this country.

  8. 00maltliquor - Oct 23, 2013 at 3:26 PM

    The only reason he’s being accepted here in the US of A is because he plays ball too. Otherwise he’d get the same treatment from other Americans as all these other immigrants. “Go back to where you came from!”, “We speak ENGLISH here in America! Try to learn the language!”, “why should I have to pay for your welfare you dang peasant!”, and so on and so forth.

  9. seanb20124 - Oct 23, 2013 at 4:55 PM

    It’s called life, and it’s not fair. Now he is part of the elite. Hope he enjoys the ride.

  10. accer1999 - Oct 23, 2013 at 6:57 PM

    20 million illegal immigrants in the US agree: were they noticed by a pro sports league they would be given papers and citizenship.

  11. brokerhenry - Oct 23, 2013 at 10:00 PM

    Hello Giannis, welcome to the NBA. I know you are not going to be a bust because you will never forget your hunger. You will never forget where you came from. My father came from Lagos and worked his way to London where he met my mother and put himself through Engineering school. We were dirt poor growing up. There were days when I went hungry. But my parents were very good people and they instilled in me the drive to want to succeed in everything. I didn’t discover the sports route to lift myself because we were too poor to afford it. I am here now in Sydney Australia working on my post-graduate degree in Pharmacology. My Florida born 4 and 7 year old daughters are playing golf and tennis. That is how they will make it. I am about to have a son in two months. He is getting a basket ball. My wife who is a Cornell educated Civil Engineer agrees with me that our kids are going to play sports. They will get their education, but there will be no PhDs until later. Whatever they may lack in God-given talent, they will achieve through hard work and dedication.

    So my brother, never you forget where you are coming from or how hungry you are. Let that hunger drive you. Spend YOUR time on the bench getting better!!!!! Get very damn HUNGRY!!!!! Then you explode when you get on that COURT!!!! Impose your will and take what you want!!!! No one is going to give it to you! No one!!! You must earn it. Do you want success like our brother Hakeem? Then go earn it!!!!!

  12. franco7788 - Oct 24, 2013 at 2:11 AM

    It drives me mad when I see all the articles put up online this year with Greek officials talking up Giannis. Yet for years they wanted ZERO to do with him and his family.
    I know his parents left Nigeria to get a better life for themselves but best believe the Nigerian government would have had no problem giving Giannis citizenship years ago despite him never setting foot there.
    I wish the kid the best but I hope he chooses not to play for Greece. I’d rather see him play for North Korea than Greece.

    • chafelix - Oct 29, 2013 at 3:14 AM

      Don’t you think he should decide who to play for and how he feels about things?

  13. psly2124 - Oct 24, 2013 at 8:18 AM

    If the illegals have is soooooo bad in this country, why is it they stay for generations. They cost taxpayers trillions if dollars. Free rent, free food, free educTion for there anchor babies, no taxes. Actually get money through the earned income tax credit, welfare. The list goes on and on and on. No fear of deportation even when violent crimes are committed. They break the law when entering the country and take jobs from other Americans. Sheriff Joe does it right.

    • Kurt Helin - Oct 24, 2013 at 9:57 PM

      If you think their lives is so great and stress free, would you trade places with them?

  14. parisanastopoulos - Oct 25, 2013 at 9:07 AM

    Mr Helin, did you notice that Giannis is a healthy, educated and bilingual young man? Do you believe he achieved this by selling sun glasses on the streets? Greece may struggle with its immigration legislation, may host the largest population of immigrants in Europe, may be in economic crisis, may have the highest unemployment rate in Europe, but Greece still provide free education and health care to anyone who comes in our country, whether pays taxation or not, whether invited or not. Maybe you have to ask Giannis why he and his brother Thanasis raised the Greek flag during draft selection night.

    His story is a lighthouse to all people in difficulty, including those still struggling here in Greece.

    So let us enjoy seeing his happy smile playing in the NBA and keep politics out of this Game.

  15. manoskol - Oct 25, 2013 at 2:39 PM

    Nice people of Us…don’t believe everything u read by some journalist…Colored people in Greece that originate from Africa live decades in Athens (major city of Greece,half population lives here) am 35 and i had schoolmates from africa and not all were illigal back then…we have no issus with color rasism whatsoever
    Why dont ask your selves how the heck Giannis have greek name? How he knows English at proficient level? Why he says Greece is his Country…

    He was born in Greece, and even his parents didn’t had papers that didn’t have much importance, he went to public school like and other greek child (90% of children in Greece go to public schools…)

    So in school he learned Greek and English, and he didn’t play bball back then…
    He learnt the game in Greece that why he knows the fundamentals good and Greek people helped his family and especially him and his siblings…and yes there are problems and expecially the last 6 years we have lot of problems from the crisis (your country fired it up…)

    Yes the state of Greece are hypocrites and the politicians are mafia.and yes we have 2-3% of Nationalists-facists-radicals-nazis tell them whatever you want…but

    I read your comments and i cant believe that the people whos country had the worst slavery ever and born the KKK have the guts to say a thing about rasism to Greek people…who after all were slaves all themselves….
    The normal people in Greece love all their athletes abroad and are proud of Giannis be sure about that…his name is known to people that enjoy Bball at least the last 6 years since he was 13….

  16. georgevoltigeur - Oct 26, 2013 at 12:41 AM

    congradulations to gianni for his achievments. this is a true success story.his parents fleeing from a destroyed and undemocratic country, entering illigally in greece where they found peace , where they did their best to survive and don’t kid yourselfs with the help from the local greek people. yes the greek community helps people like his family in a daily baisis. almost every day the greek coast guard and greek fishermen save people from drowning. the rotten filled with holes boats which they embark to go to greece for a better life can make it halfway. so the greeks take them to the nearest island . they feed them they give warm clothes and medicine. the greek locals take good care of them.
    so families like the antetokoumpo should never complain after staying in a country for 20 years ilegally . the athletic association that gave a chance to practice with the local greek boys could have never know of the outcome. they gave them a chance to play. to be boys.
    in canada the canadian govt. gave citinzenship to ben johnson and other jamaicans for the same reason . sports.
    in the usa afroamericans were hailled only when they brought home a gold olympic medal.
    besides that they were all be reffered to as ” N”s by the american people. how can anybody forget that .this columnist needs to do his homework and compair the situations and so should the rest of you.

  17. amalza - Oct 28, 2013 at 5:45 AM

    I know that u want to dramatize people’s stories as it makes news.Admittedly, this player had a lot of difficulties in his life. But in fact before u criticize other countries you have to first look at USA and their policies with immigrants or minorities. At the end of the day, this great player is a talent but he did infact learn how to play in Greece as a result NBA noticed him. So his first chance indeed was given in the country he was brought up so now his life will change for the better as he plays for NBA. So I guess it is an overgeneralization to say that Greece had nothing to do with him.

  18. yakos1 - Oct 28, 2013 at 8:45 AM

    I am appalled at the reception this article received.
    Nobody here asks themselves whether anyone would write about Giannis if he could not play basketball. And where did Giannis learn to play like that?
    I do understand that politicians would find every opportunity to get votes, but is this only happening in Greece?
    Mr Kurt Helin could you tell us what USA did to the black Americans until they realised they can play the b-ball ? Have you read any early US history ? Honestly now…

    • Kurt Helin - Oct 29, 2013 at 6:50 AM

      Did I say this only happens in Greece?

  19. chafelix - Oct 29, 2013 at 3:13 AM

    Poor article. Greece does indeed take in a huge number of illegal immigrants. The alternative would be to let them drown. The US instead does not and even uses minutemen to make sure illegal immigrants do not find themselves in the US in the first place. So it’s one thing taking someone in your house to save them and another to give them co-ownership of the house, such as citizenship and voting rights. For example what if a part of the immigration is organized by AlQueda(e.g. the illegal immigrants parading with signs like “democracy on death row, islam is coming”)? It costs illegal immigrants up to 6 or 10Keuro a head to be smuggled through Turkey to Europe. With that kind of money, you can surely either open up business in Afghanistan or Pakistan or even take a plane ticket to Stockholm and try to live there as an illegal immigrant, where laws are more lax.
    In fact the idiotic nationalist party referred to only draws its strength from the state abandoning its own citizens, who are being told that living and dying with crime is something they must “learn to live with”, e.g. old ladies robbed, beaten up and sent to the hospital with multiple fractures. Or , second furloughs given to murderers serving life sentences who failed to return from the first furlough(remember the Willie Horton case in Bush-Dukakis and the way Americans reacted?) When “moderates” ignore people’s problems, people are bound to turn to those who at least promise a solution.
    Greek constitution does not prevent in principle awarding citizenship, but makes it clear that this must be an INDIVIDUALIZED and not automatic process. Pretty much like the green card.
    Giannis and his family fully deserve citizenship not because they play good basketball, but because they are integrated people who feel strongly greek and consider citizenship an honor. And most importantly because of his feelings towards Greece during a time when he no longer needs Greece. Giannis will do well in the NBA too and deserves any success.

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