Before Giannis Antetokounmpo Was A Basketball Star, He Grew Up Undocumented In Greece

May 29, 2019

The Milwaukee Bucks' season came to a devastating end on Saturday. After winning the first two games in the series, the Bucks lost the next four to the Toronto Raptors, eliminating them from the NBA Playoffs. Giannis Antetokounmpo enjoyed an MVP-level season while leading the Bucks to the best regular-season record in the NBA. Antetokounmpo’s a household name now, but up until six years ago he was undocumented.

"Giannis grew up in a stateless status where he was not a citizen," says Peter Goodman, author of a recent  New York Times article about Antetokounmpo.

Goodman is a self-described basketball nut, and early on, the Milwaukee Bucks caught his attention. Especially one tall, lanky player known as the "Greek Freak". Having been to Greece, Goodman was aware that there weren't that many people of color in Greece. So he traveled to Greece to uncover what he could about Antetokounmpo's back story.

He explains, that yes, Antetokounmpo was born in Greece. However, for most of his life he was not a citizen. Neither were his parents because they are African immigrants from Nigeria.

"Giannis spent a lot of his youth selling pirated DVDs and handbags on busy shopping streets," says Peter Goodman, a New York Times reporter.

"It was difficult for them to get health care. It was difficult for them to simply live legally and make a living. Most jobs were closed to them ... Giannis spent a lot of his youth selling pirated DVDs and handbags on busy shopping streets," says Goodman.

To understand Antetokounmpo's story, it’s just as important to understand Greece. 

Senior Fellow John Campbell from the Center for Foreign Policy says, “Greece is predominantly a single ethnic country. Which for example, most Greeks are members in one form or another members of the Orthodox Church. You have a predominant culture to an extent that you don’t have in the United States."

Spiros Velliniatis says he knows what it’s like to not fit into that predominantly single ethnic identity.

“I felt like, you know, that I am you know an outsider in the Greek society because I am partially Greek, partially German," he explains. 

READ: Before #FearTheDeer, What Was Pro Basketball Like In Milwaukee?

Velliniatis says his experience led him to get involved with immigrant kids and basketball, hoping that sports would help incorporate them into society. Then, one day, he spotted a tall, lanky kid running around chasing his brother. 

“When I saw Giannis I felt that, you know, God Spoke to me. So, you know, it sounds crazy ... but this is the way I felt. I thought, I had to do something, anything in my power to make this kid play basketball,” says Velliniatis. 

But it wasn’t easy to convince Antetokounmpo's parents to let him stop working and play. Basketball was considered a luxury. The family was focused on surviving. So, Velliniatis says he found a sponsor who would pay Antetokounmpo's family a stipend every month so that the kids could play basketball.

"I thought, I had to do something, anything in my power to make this kid play basketball," says Spiros Velliniatis. He's the coach who's credited for discovering Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Velliniatis explains Antetokounmpo's situation for our American audience by saying, “It's like being a Mexican immigrant in the states. You know? In some aspects it's better in some aspects its worse. It’s better because they don’t pay any taxes, when in the U.S. even if you’re an illegal immigrant you pay taxes. In Greece you don’t pay taxes but you have a medical support.”

Today, Antetokounmpo is fully embraced by Greece. But Peter Goodman says it wasn’t until Antetokounmpo was well into his teenage years and on the verge of getting drafted into the NBA that he was given citizenship.

“I talked to some advocacy groups that do work with the Afro-Greek community that this was a way of sort of claiming him once he had become a valuable somebody instead of drafting him as a Nigerian citizen,” says Goodman. 

Do Milwaukee fans know Antetokounmpo's story? On the night of Game Six, I headed outside the Fiserv Forum. Overwhelming the answer was no. Some did know that he had humble origins; that his parents were Nigerian.

But does his story as an undocumented son of Nigerian immigrants matter? Goodman says it does.

"Of course it matters. Right? ... These are people," Goodman says. "The NBA is a predominantly black league. The United States is a diverse country in which white people still have tremendous privileges. I think all of us need to reckon with what’s the full context of the spectacles that we’re absorbing for entertainment. Where do people come from?"

Antetokounmpo recently qualified for a five-year, $247.3 million supermax extension to his contract — the largest in NBA history. He's also in the running for the NBA’s MVP and best defensive player award. The winner will be announced June 24.