Thursday, July 29

Giannis Antetokounmpo: the story of the NBA star who spent 20 years without papers in Greece

Greece celebrated with joy this Wednesday the proclamation of the Milwaukee Bucks as NBA champions, after defeating the Phoenix Suns. The Bucks are led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, the first Hellenic player to receive the MVP (best player) of the NBA Finals.

Born in Athens in 1994 into a family of Nigerian immigrants, Antetokounmpo spent almost two decades of his life without being considered a citizen of any country because he did not have papers, which forced him, along with his brothers, to work in the sale to contribute to the difficult family economy.

“I started playing basketball to help my family. I tried to help them get out of the problems and challenges that we faced as children,” says Giannis, who hopes to return to Athens this Saturday. “This should make every person, every child in the world, believe in their dreams. I hope to give the people of Africa, of Europe, the hope that it can be done. Eight and a half years ago, before entering the league, no I knew where my next meal would come from. My mom sold things on the street. ”

One of the first to pronounce on the triumph of the Greek has been the country’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who through his Twitter account has highlighted the performance of Antetokounmpo, who finished the game with 50 points, and pointed out that all the Greeks in the world celebrate his victory.

From the world of Greek sports they have also turned to social networks with congratulations to the 26-year-old star, both from the Hellenic Olympic Committee even teams like Olympiacos in Piraeus or Paok in Thessaloniki.

Outside the Greek institutions, the celebration has been felt with special emotion in the Sepolia neighborhood, located north of Athens, where the Antetokounmpo spent their childhood and took their first shots at basket.

Giannis was not the only brother who ended up successfully dedicating himself to basketball: Thanasis is his teammate in the Bucks, Kostas has just left the Lakers for French Asvel and Alex is part of UCAM Murcia.

Until recently, even Greek-born children of African immigrants had difficulty obtaining legal residency, even more so nationality. Their status closed the doors to public health, employment and sports leagues. Antetokounmpo obtained citizenship six years ago, just before he left for New York.

“They gave him Greek nationality so that he would not travel to New York as a Nigerian,” he told The New York Times Nikos Odubitan, founder of Generation 2.0, an organization that fights for the right to Greek citizenship of the children of immigrants. His status threatened plans to travel to New York for the NBA team, and one of his few outings was trying to obtain a Nigerian passport. It was then that the Greek Government came in and gave him nationality to ensure that the player would be known internationally as Greek, and not Nigerian, according to the Generation 2.0 version.

“When he was an ordinary person, he was only seen as an illegal immigrant. Now that he is a basketball star, he has become a representative of Greece, “said Odubitan. “We are all proud of what happened. But we have engineers, doctors and all kinds of professionals that the Greek state does not recognize. Why do you have to be a basketball star? ”

Basketball, an opportunity

Antetokounmpo’s opportunity came unexpectedly. “I started playing soccer because my father was a player. So was my older brother, and I liked him. But after a few years, a coach approached me on a track in my neighborhood. His name was Spiros Vielliniatis. He helped me. A lot and I owe him half of my achievements. He approached my brother and me to play basketball at Philathlitikos, “the player said years ago in his first interview on Greek television.

The coach for Greek amateur teams began touring neighborhoods full of Afro-descendants looking for young people who could measure up. Although, as he told The New York TimesWhat interested him most was body language and cunning. One day he entered a courtyard in the Sepolia neighborhood and saw a 13-year-old boy who met all the requirements.

Giannis and his two younger brothers ran one after the other, and Velliniatis was in awe. “I could see that Giannis was very adept at changing direction; the moment I saw him, I knew it was him. ” The coach offered Giannis’s parents better jobs in exchange for being able to coach their children full time.

“I told him no, and my brother yes. Thanasis started playing for Philathlitikos. One day I decided to follow him, I did my first training session and I was hooked,” he said.

Antetokounmpo used to stay in the gym practicing until midnight, then sleep on a mat in the weight room for fear of coming home in the dark. Fascist and neo-Nazi groups affiliated with Golden Dawn roamed the neighborhood stalking immigrants.

Be a speaker

Generation 2.0. Last year he asked the player to take a more public position against the situation that people with the same origins still live both in Greece and in other parts of the world. “Giannis has a responsibility to the rest of the members of the Afro-descendant community because he has the power to represent them through his great speaker.” The organization’s statement was released after Antetokounmpo responded to some racist insults with a photograph of him smiling, accompanied by the phrase “your smile can change the world, but don’t let the world change your smile.”

Antetokounmpo opened publicly after a game against the Detroit Pistons on the situation of racialized people in America. “My son will grow up here, and my son is black. I can’t imagine him enduring everything I see on television. ”

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