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From underdog to stardom: The story of Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the biggest name in the world of basketball following his exploits at the NBA finals.

Born December 6, 1994, Antetokounmpo is a Greek professional basketball player for the Milwaukee Bucks of the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Antetokounmpo began playing basketball for the youth teams of Filathlitikos in Athens.

In 2011, he moved on to play for the club’s senior team before entering the 2013 NBA draft, where he was selected 15th overall by the Bucks.

Antetokounmpo’s size, speed and ball-handling skills earned him the nickname “Greek Freak”.

Now, he is widely considered one of the best players in the world.

He led the Bucks in all five major statistical categories in 2016–17 and became the first player in NBA history to finish a regular season in the top 20 in all five statistics of total points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks.

The Greek Freak received the Most Improved Player award in 2017. Antetokounmpo also got five All-Star selections, including being selected as an All-Star captain in 2019 and 2020, as he led the Eastern Conference in voting in these two years.

The basketball player is now celebrated as the face of the country of his birth. Yet for most of his life growing up in Greece, Antetokounmpo was considered a foreigner. As the son of African immigrants, he was perpetually vulnerable to attacks by racist militants, and to threats of deportation to Nigeria, a country he had never visited.

As Antetokounmpo now commands the stage in the NBA playoffs as the best player on the Milwaukee Bucks, the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, his fellow African immigrants in Greece are watching with rapt attention.

His story — the tale of a teenager who could barely dribble turning himself into one of the supreme basketball players on the planet — is the source of admiration and joy. Yet it is also the cause for bitter reflection on the enduring discrimination suffered by his community. Many say that Antetokounmpo’s experience has become fodder for a fairy tale about Greek life in which his struggles have been edited out.

Until recently, even the children of African immigrants who were born in Greece found it difficult to secure legal residency, let alone citizenship. Their stateless status denied them national health care, Civil Service jobs and access to sports leagues. Antetokounmpo only gained Greek citizenship six years ago — just as he was about to go to New York for the NBA draft.

“He was given Greek citizenship in order to prevent him from traveling to New York as a Nigerian,” said Nikos Odubitan, the founder of Generation 2.0, an advocacy group that helps second-generation immigrants gain legal status in Greece.

When Antetokounmpo was still an ordinary mortal, he was seen as just another migrant in Greece illegally. Now that he is a basketball star, “he has become the ambassador for Greece,” Odubitan said. “Of course, we are all proud of what happened. But this is not what it takes to be a Greek citizen. We have engineers, doctors, all kinds of professionals, and the Greek state does not recognize them. Why does it take being a basketball talent?”

Giannis Antetokounmpo

His $228 million contract

NBA superstar Antetokounmpo agreed to sign a five-year contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks.

The supermax deal is worth $228.2 million and is the largest deal in NBA history, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reports.

Including the final year remaining on his current contract, Antetokounmpo will earn $256 million over the next six seasons, Charania reported.

Antetokounmpo’s agent Alex Saratsis told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that the deal includes a player opt-out option after the fourth year.

“This is my home, this is my city,” Antetokounmpo posted on social media.

“I’m blessed to be able to be a part of the Milwaukee Bucks for the next 5 years. Let’s make these years count. The show goes on, let’s get it.”

Antetokounmpo is coming off a career year where he won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year awards — a feat only accomplished by Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. He also averaged career highs in points (29.5 points per game) and rebounds (13.6 rebounds per game) while dishing out 5.6 assists.

Antetokounmpo has led the Bucks to the best record in the league for two seasons in a row. However, the Bucks fell to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA playoffs and the Miami Heat in the 2020 NBA playoffs.

NBA exploits

Antetokounmpo scored 50 points along with 14 rebounds and five blocks to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to the 2021 NBA championship after they defeated the Phoenix Suns 105-98 at home to take the Finals series 4-2

The Milwaukee Bucks won the franchise’s first NBA championship in 50 years with a 105-98 win over the visiting Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night.

Exactly three weeks after suffering a knee injury that appeared to put his role in the Finals in doubt, Giannis Antetokounmpo carried Milwaukee to their first championship in half a century.

With the victory, the Bucks clinched the NBA Finals 4-2 and became the fifth team to win the best-of-seven championship series after losing the first two games.

The ‘Greek Freak’ delivered arguably the best performance of his career at the best possible moment and now can add an NBA Finals MVP award to his two regular-season MVP trophies. Just as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led Milwaukee to their first championship in 1971, the 6ft 11in Antetokounmpo made sure a big man also carried the Bucks to their next title.

Antetokounmpo was an easy choice for the Bill Russell Finals MVP award after collecting 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks. He had at least 40 points and 10 rebounds in three of the six games in this series.

Giannis scored 33 in the second half alone, including his 50th point on a game-sealing free throw with 9.8 seconds remaining. Surprisingly, after struggling with his free throw shooting throughout the playoffs, he ended 17 of 19 from the foul line to eliminate the Suns.

The 26-year-old averaged 35.2 points and 13.2 rebounds across the Finals against Phoenix.

Five thousand miles away on the shores of Lake Michigan, Antetokounmpo has built himself into a bona fide superstar on the team with the best record in the NBA., and a leading contender for this year’s Most Valuable Player Award. At nearly 7 feet tall, he has the ball-handling skills of a point guard and the battering ram force of an old school center. He gets to the rim with the ease of a grown man playing Nerf ball against a 6-year-old.

Chris Iliopoulos Odoemelam, 24, used to play pickup games with Antetokounmpo when they were just a couple of 11-year-olds, both children of African immigrants. His old friend exhibited little basketball acumen, fumbling around a concrete court just off a busy thoroughfare and across the street from an auto shop.

Odoemelam tries to square the skinny child he remembers with the indomitable force he watches on YouTube clips. He comes up incredulous.

“He was just a guy you would see in the street, hungry and looking for food,” Odoemelam said of Antetokounmpo, who sold DVDs and sunglasses on the streets of Athens to support his family. “He didn’t have anything. He had one pair of shoes that he had to share with his brothers. And now he’s a millionaire. It’s crazy.”

You hear this frequently among people of African descent in Greece, who are still getting used to the idea that their community — a group confined to the margins of Greek life — has yielded an international superstar.

“We are proud of him,” Justina Chukwuma, an immigrant from Nigeria, said as she watched her Greek-born 10-year-old son, Great Chukwuma, practice layups at his after-school basketball program. “Everyone from Africa, they are looking up to him. They want to be like him, especially the boys. They are motivated by his achievement.”

Nepotism once made it difficult for black players to penetrate the ranks of Greek basketball.

“We are proud of him,” Justina Chukwuma, an immigrant from Nigeria, told the New York Times as she watched her Greek-born 10-year-old son, Great Chukwuma, practice layups at his after-school basketball program. “Everyone from Africa, they are looking up to him. They want to be like him, especially the boys. They are motivated by his achievement.”

“Black players in Greece have chances because of Giannis,” said 16-year-old Favor Ukpebor, a lanky shooting guard on an amateur team.

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