MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo admitted his perspective of the world was limited.
Born and raised in Athens, Greece, the precocious Antetokounmpo conceded he didn’t know much about other countries and their cultures.
As for the United States, the Milwaukee Bucks’ 19-year-old rookie said he had heard of only four cities.
“New York. Chicago. Los Angeles and Miami,” Antetokounmpo said. “That’s all.”
So, last June, when the NBA held its annual draft and Antetokounmpo was selected by the Bucks, he was elated knowing he was about to fulfill a dream but also baffled because he didn’t have a clue where Milwaukee was.
So, Antetokounmpo (pronounced ah-deh-toh-KOON-boh) went on a computer and googled “Milwaukee.” Much to his delight, he liked what he read about the modest-sized Midwestern city located on the shores of Lake Michigan.
For Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee seemed like the ideal place to launch his professional career, a place where he could concentrate on his craft and not be easily distracted.
“It’s nice,” Antetokounmpo said of Milwaukee. “I think it’s best for me. I just focus on basketball.”
As Antetokounmpo would soon discover, relocating to the States entailed more than playing basketball and trying to prove he could play at the sport’s highest level.
Antetokounmpo had to deal with other challenges like learning a new language. In Greece, Antetokounmpo spoke Greek and Nigerian fluently. In the U.S., he is grappling to speak English.
Antetokounmpo has yet to take any formal English classes and doesn’t have any plans to do so. Rather, he is trying to learn the language through osmosis.
“I learn by speaking with the guys,” Antetokounmpo said. “I listen to them.”
Antetokounmpo has also been living in Milwaukee without his family. His mother, Monica, and father, Charles, and two younger brothers — Kostas and Alex — are still in Greece while his older brother, Thanasis, is playing for the Delaware 87ers in the NBA’s Development League. Another older brother, Francis, resides in Nigeria.
Giannis hoped his family would have joined him by now in Milwaukee, but visa issues have put a crimp into those plans.
With a tinge of sadness evident in his high-pitched voice, Antetokounmpo concedes, “Living alone is hard.”
Asked how much he misses seeing his family, he quietly says, “Too much.”
While Antetokounmpo has tried to deal with these hardships, he’ll be the first to tell you they pale in comparison to the ones he encountered before coming to America. He had spent most of his time in Greece in unimaginable poverty.
His family was so poor that Giannis and his three brothers shared a bedroom and the family often had to decide whether to pay for food or electricity. In attempt to make ends meet, Giannis took to the streets, hawking watches, sunglasses and handbags.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that Giannis and his family found their ticket out of impoverishment. Spiros Velliniatis, a basketball coach for Filathlitikos, spotted the Antetokounmpos and persuaded them into playing basketball — even though Giannis had his sights set on being a soccer player.
Velliniatis and Filathlitikos officials helped Veronica find work and arranged for the Antetokounmpo family to move to a middle-class part of Athens.
It wasn’t long before Velliniatis discovered Giannis was special and that his potential was vast. Giannis augmented his exceptional physical attributes with a keen and rare understanding of the game for someone so young.
Those same qualities enticed the Bucks to make Antetokounmpo the 15th overall selection in the 2013 draft. Antetokounmpo, who for several years had shared a pair of basketball shoes with Thanasis, became an instant millionaire. He is guaranteed $1.79 million this season; next season, he’ll be paid $1.82 million.
So, what did Antetokounmpo do with his first paycheck? Did he splurge on something fancy like a high-end sports car?
“No. I never get a car,” Antetokounmpo said. “I don’t need a car. I just try my friend’s car.”
So, did he treat himself to a new wardrobe? Jewelry?
“No,” he says again. “I save all my money. I never spend my money. I just got it in the bank. You can ask my teammates.”
If you talk to his teammates about Antetokounmpo, they all speak glowingly about him, almost like he’s a little brother to them. They constantly tease him but also express admiration for how far — literally and figuratively — he’s come in such a short time.
Fellow Bucks rookie Nate Wolters, perhaps Antetokounmpo’s closest friend on the team, said he’s marveled at how Giannis has adapted to his new team and new country.
“For being 19 and basically being on his own — he doesn’t have any family here — it’s got to be a tough situation for him,” Wolters said. “I’m sure he misses his family, but who wouldn’t? But he’s done a very good job of adjusting; he’s handled it very well. He has a really positive attitude. That’s what stands out about him more than anything. He’s been through a lot already just coming over here to the United States.
“I think he knows this is his dream come true, to play in the NBA, and he’s really taking advantage of it.”
Indeed, he has. After coming off the bench at the outset of the season, Antetokounmpo stepped into the starting lineup and remained there, often playing small forward and periodically playing shooting guard.
While he hasn’t had a “signature” game yet, Antetokounmpo has played solidly for the most part and has more than held his own against more experienced and more physically-mature players.
Combine the fact he is the youngest player in the NBA with his intriguing game, warm smile and engaging personality and it’s easy to see why Antetokounmpo is quickly becoming a fan favorite.
“We went to an Applebees after a game a couple of weeks ago and almost everyone in the restaurant wanted to get a picture with him,” Wolters said. “And Giannis took a picture with every one of them. He’s definitely growing in popularity.
“He’s just a down-to-earth guy. He’s a funny guy. He’s got a lot of energy. He sings. He dances. He’s really a good guy. He’s a guy who people are going to come to love.”
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