Giannis Antetokounmpo: From poverty in Greece to NBA's most lucrative player

As the 'Greek Freak' chases a first league title, we take a look at his inspiring life story, the mindset that drives his success, that supermax contract, hopes for Olympic glory, and his Milwaukee Bucks legacy.

8 min By Andrew Binner
giannis antetokounmpo
(Picture by 2019 Getty Images)

Most NBA stars are bouncing a basketball from the time they can walk.

The same cannot be said for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who experienced his first taste of the game as a 13-years-old.

The Milwaukee Buck’s unlikely route to stardom began over 8,000km away from the USA’s high-performance colleges, in the comparatively unglamorous Greek second division.

But the most special talents are simply impossible to ignore.

And so it was that in 2020, the 2.11m (six-foot-eleven) forward signed the most lucrative contract in NBA history.

It has been an astonishing rise for Antetokounmpo, who not so long ago was surviving by selling goods on the streets of his native Athens, Greece.

Greek-born Giannis Antetokounmpo signed the most lucrative deal in NBA history in December 2020.
Greek-born Giannis Antetokounmpo signed the most lucrative deal in NBA history in December 2020. (2019 Getty Images)

Growing up in poverty

Giannis was born in 1994, in the nation's capital, as were three of his four brothers: Thanasis (born 1992), Kostas (born 1997), and Alex (born 2001).

But as the children of Nigerian immigrants, they were never officially recognised as Greek citizens, meaning they were stateless.

Giannis’ mother Veronica was a babysitter while his father, Charles, worked as a handyman. Giannis and Thanasis contributed to the family’s meagre income by selling bags and sunglasses on the city’s streets.

“Sometimes I would go to school, no breakfast,” Giannis told Adrian Wojnarowski's Woj Pod.

“Sometimes, not every time. I would come back, sometimes no food. Now I have to go to practice. I would come back from practice at 11 pm and that is when I would have my first meal of the day.”

They suffered multiple housing evictions, while xenophobic attitudes further segregated the young family from Greek society.

Finding salvation in basketball

Despite their challenging surroundings, Giannis and his brothers were able to find some happiness through sport, but initially that was playing football, another popular sport in Greece.

All that changed in 2007, when a local basketball coach by the name of Spiros Velliniatis spotted 13-year-old Giannis’ physical potential. He persuaded Veronica that his sport could give them a new life, and she agreed to let the boys start playing.

Progress was quick, and three years later Giannis and Thanasis were both playing for Greek second-division side Filathlitikos.

Greek citizenship and new beginnings

Antetokounmpo’s performances attracted attention from scouts across Europe and America.

In April 2013, he officially made himself available for the NBA Draft, but his stateless status meant that he couldn’t travel, which threatened to derail his dreams.

You can imagine the deep sigh of relief when Giannis and Thanasis received their Greek papers a month later.

At long last, the family felt like they had a real home, and decided to Hellenize their original surname of Adetokunbo, to Antetokounmpo.

It was a remarkable shift from their ostracized beginnings. The Antetokounmpo brothers were now welcomed by many Greek basketball fans, who were excited to see them play for the national team.

Coach Velliniatis was right: basketball was the family's ticket both to security in Greece, and a new life abroad.

Becoming the ‘Greek Freak’

At the 2013 NBA Draft in New York, Thanasis excitedly unfurled a Greek flag after his brother’s No. 15 selection.

The Antekokounmpo family would never again wonder where their next meal would come from.

Despite being relatively unknown, with only five years of basketball under his belt, the Milwaukee Bucks took a punt on Giannis’ physical potential, just as Velliniatis had in Athens.

The new recruit’s 2.11m (six-foot-eleven) frame, combined with unusually good speed and dexterity for such a large unit earned him the nickname ‘Greek Freak’.

“There’s no question there were safer picks but nothing with this kind of upside, nothing close to this,” Bucks general manager John Hammond said at the time.

“How are we going to get our next all-star? I don’t want to put that on this kid’s shoulder, but I think he has that skill set to become that, if it all falls together for him.”

The Bucks’ gamble paid off, and by his third season Giannis was scoring an average of 16.9 points per game.

It’s no coincidence that the team reached the playoffs three times in Antetokounmpo's first five seasons there.

In 2018-19, the forward became the first Bucks player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to be named league MVP. In an emotional acceptance speech, he paid tribute to the role of his father, who passed away in 2017.

Family was never far from Giannis' heart, and in 2019, he was reunited with his brother Thanasis, who signed a contract with the Bucks.

Kostas meanwhile was playing with the L.A. Lakers, and won an NBA Championship ring for his efforts in their historic title win in October 2020.

The USA-based trio regularly post content together on their YouTube channel, which also features videos from youngest brother Alex, now playing basketball for Murcia in Spain, and their eldest brother Francis' music career, where he goes by his middle name, Ofili.

Antetokounmpo brothers (from left to right) Kostas, Giannis, Thanasis, and Alexis are all professional basketball players.
Antetokounmpo brothers (from left to right) Kostas, Giannis, Thanasis, and Alexis are all professional basketball players. (2019 Getty Images)

Tapping in to Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’

One of the secrets to Antetokounmpo’s success is to keep improving.

"It's simple. You've got to be better than what you were last year. If you did not win the whole thing, you've got to get better," Antetokounmpo told reporters after winning the 2018-19 MVP trophy. "If you win the whole thing, you've got to get better and do it again."

Another example of the young Buck’s determination to be the best of all time can be seen in his off-season approach, where he notably hasn’t sought out training time with the likes of LeBron James.

He is motivated by accumulating trophies, not friends.

"I hate that. I don't want [opponents] to see me to be buddy-buddy with me," Giannis Antetokounmpo told The Athletic.

However, the Greek did jump at the chance to become Kobe Bryant’s mentee after the Lakers legend had retired. Antetokounmpo learned the “Mamba Mentality”, and Bryant taught him to play the game with the fascination of a kid.

The lessons worked. Antetokounmpo is one of only two players in NBA history to win both the MVP and the Defensive Player of the Year award by age 25. The other is Michael Jordan.

It is only fitting to think that Bryant’s knowledge also benefited his Lakers too. In 2019, they won the league with Antekounmpo’s younger brother Kostas in their roster.

Kobe Bryant hugs Giannis Antetokounmpo after a Bucks v Lakers game in 2016.
Kobe Bryant hugs Giannis Antetokounmpo after a Bucks v Lakers game in 2016. (2016 Getty Images)

Becoming a supermax player

Accolades lead to rewards, and in December 2020, Antekounmpo signed the most lucrative supermax contract in NBA history.

For those that don’t know, supermax contracts were brought in three years ago and were designed to allow small-market teams to retain their top talent.

To be eligible, players have to have recently won MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, or made an All-NBA team. The 'Greek Freak' was the perfect candidate, and the Bucks took full advantage.

While $228.2 million (€190.5m) is an eye-watering sum of money for a five-year deal, most consider it fair value for the 26-year-old basketball superstar.

First and foremost, they retained the services of a two-time league MVP, ensuring they remain in with a chance of bringing a first title to the city.

But the Wisconsin franchise will keep benefitting off the court by having the man many are calling ‘the face of the NBA’ among their ranks. Shirts will sell, and talent will be easier to recruit.

In short, Milwaukee succeeded where Cleveland couldn’t in retaining their star talent, when LeBron sought pastures new.

Bucks' adjustment period in 2021

After a major off-season team shuffle, an adjustment period was expected for the Bucks in 2020-21.

After losing three of their first five games, the team was struggling with a lack of chemistry, and disastrous away form.

But the tides turned, and the 2019-20 conference semi-finalists went on a run that took them back to vying for second in the Eastern Conference behind the Philadelphia 76ers.

With new recruits Bobby Portis, D.J. Augustin, and Bryn Forbes finding their place in the team, and Antetokounmpo shaking off his early-season rust, the Bucks are seemingly improving with each outing.

There is a long way to go in this season yet for Mike Budenholzer’s charges, whose every step will be scrutinised due to their ever-increasing profile.

Olympic ambitions

While winning Milwaukee a first NBA title is undoubtedly Antetokounmpo’s top priority, improving Greece’s basketball fortunes is also on his agenda in 2021.

There were high hopes for the team at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, but the team and its talisman failed to clinch one of the two European Olympic qualifying berths on offer for the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021.

Currently sitting seventh in the world rankings, Greece's men now need to finish top of their group at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, Canada, to make it through.

With China and a highly-rated Canada team joining the Europeans in their Group, qualification is by no means a given.

There is also a chance that Giannis and many other NBA stars won’t be available for the competition, as the qualifying tournament dates from June 29-July 4 will clash with the NBA playoffs.

Should Greece qualify for the Olympics in Japan, they will be rewarded with a place in Group A alongside Iran, France, and favourites the USA.

Giannis Antetokounmpo on the charge for Greece against Czech Republic at the FIBA World Cup 2019 in China.
Giannis Antetokounmpo on the charge for Greece against Czech Republic at the FIBA World Cup 2019 in China. (2019 Getty Images)

Bucks legacy

The fact that a non-American player is regarded by many as the best player in the NBA speaks volumes of Antetokounmpo’s impact in a relatively short space of time.

Naturally, the league has also embraced him as a true symbol of its globalisation.

His story of triumph in the face of adversity is inspirational, relatable, and empowering for those around him.

While the man-mountain demands the highest standards of himself and his teammates on the court, his relaxed attitude with fans only serves to endear him further to them off it.

Typically, the humble Antekounmpo once stated that he has no great desire to be seen as the face of the league.

But his loyalty to Milwaukee has already entrenched his position as their favourite son for generations.

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