Remarkable Antetokounmpo driving Milwaukee to rarefied heights

From the back streets of Athens, Bucks star now personifies the American sporting dream

 Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo  moves in for a basket against Phoenix Suns during  Game Two of the NBA Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. The series is tied at 2-2 with three games remaining. Photograph:  Mark J. Rebilas-Pool/Getty Images

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo moves in for a basket against Phoenix Suns during Game Two of the NBA Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. The series is tied at 2-2 with three games remaining. Photograph: Mark J. Rebilas-Pool/Getty Images

 

On Wednesday night in Milwaukee, a young man whose childhood was spent hawking tourist bric-a-brac in his native Athens, leaped through a crowd of the world’s best basketball players to complete what has already been anointed as one of the great plays in the history of the sport.

When Giannis Antetokounmpo was a boy, he was officially from nowhere: not from Nigeria, his parents’ country and unable to gain citizenship despite being born in Greece after his parents emigrated there.

He was officially stateless during the decade when Greece was in the economic tumble-drier but also in an impoverished home teeming with love and good energy. His main asset was his height and long-limbed grace which enabled him to dominate the local boy’s leagues in Athens.

The block is one of the most artful skills in basketball; to get a hand cleanly on the ball of an opposition player driving hard to the ring and to repel the shot without fouling requires everything that is good about ball sport: timing, athleticism, hand-to-eye coordination and a cool mind in a hot moment.

When the participants are both over 7ft tall, then the spectacle enters a different realm. In less than a second, Antetokounmpo somehow reacted to a lob pass thrown by the Phoenix Suns Devin Booker to turn and block Deandre Ayton as he rose to dunk the ball. Both men are so tall and blessed with extreme leaping ability.

For a split second they were suspended, arms vertical and a foot above the rim with Ayton trying to windmill the ball into the basket while Antetokounmpo forced it back. There was just over a minute left in a scruffy, bruising game and the block sealed the game for Milwaukee.

The NBA finals will reach their definitive stage this weekend. This year’s finalists are the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks, two steadfast basketball cities whose fan base has been loyal to their modest teams since the 1960s.

Phoenix has never won an NBA championship: Milwaukee’s lone star year was 1974, when the team was fronted by a young Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The teams are tied at 2-2 in the best of seven series.

You can see the novelty written on the faces in the crowd; they are delirious and a little stunned that their team has made it this far. The headlines have reduced the finals to a struggle between Chris Paul, the Suns artful and lethal point guard and Antetokounmpo, the towering Greek who has had a transformative effect on Milwaukee city and basketball culture.

Every so often professional sport surprises itself by unveiling a brilliant story in which everyone backstage has behaved impeccably and just done the right thing.

First game

It’s impossible to ever watch Antetokounmpo play without being aware of just how fabulous and unlikely his presence is. He started playing basketball in 2007. Six years later, he flew to New York for his first ever visit to America for the 2013 NBA draft, where he was selected as the 15th pick by Milwaukee.

He was 18 years old that night and looked about 14. That October, Milwaukee’s first game of the new season was in Madison Square Garden. Antetokounmpo is literally a boy among men: wide-eyed, dazzled by the opulence of the surroundings as much as the game – but not overawed.

He’s scrawny and a curiosity and the commentators annunciate carefully around his name. A few years earlier, Antetokounmpo had followed the NBA by paying for half hour slots in an internet café. It must have looked like a fantasy world to him. And now he was propelled into it. In his first season in America, he was so lonely that he sometimes slept in the gym – a habit he had from his years in Athens with his brothers.

He was lucky in that his agent, Alex Saratsis – “as close to me as anyone who is not blood-related can be” Antetokounmpo has said – has Greek heritage and is fluent in the language. He backed Antetokounmpo before anyone understood the vastness of his potential.

The NBA scouting system is impressive but it did not extend to the second division of the Greek league, which was Antetokounmpo’s only real experience of men’s basketball. Saratsis understood what it was to be a Afro-European in the new world where everything –- how to get a license, how to furnish an apartment – was a separate ordeal. And he understood the boy’s need for family – as did the Bucks.

Within two years, the Antetokounmpo family had moved to America. Giannis’s older brother Thanasis was signed by the Bucks: he seldom leaves the bench but has become a huge part of the story.

If the speed of Antetokounmpo’s ascent was dizzying for the player himself, then how must it all have looked to his father Charles? There is footage of the family attending their first Milkwakee game, sitting together and trying to ignore the strangeness of a camera pointed their way.

Thanasis Antetokounmpo: No basketball player has risen so high from such an obscure base as the Milwaukee star. Greek-born Antetokounmpo is like nothing the world has seen before. Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA
Thanasis Antetokounmpo: No basketball player has risen so high from such an obscure base as the Milwaukee star. Greek-born Antetokounmpo is like nothing the world has seen before. Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA

By the time Antetokounmpo won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2019, his father was dead, having suffered a heart attack aged just 54. Everything the player had poured into the previous ten years came out in a speech that night which he delivered through tears. He looked like a massive kid in the moment. He looked like what he was: a well-raised boy.

The striking thing about Antetokoumpno is that nobody – former team-mates, on-court rivals, officials, media – speak of him in anything but glowing terms. There has never been any conceit or bragging or nastiness; he competes and respects and is a pleasure to be around.

If you happen to see Antetokounmpo in these NBA finals, you may well think: well what else would someone who looks like him do besides be a world class basketball player?

Become unstoppable

Now that he has grown-man strength to match the height, he has become unstoppable, with dazzling quick footwork which facilitates his signature spin move to the baskets in which smaller men are tossed like 6ft5in skittles. He is a sensation.

Milwaukee has moved smartly on its prized asset, building a new arena in which home games are booked out, season after season and around which new restaurants and apartments have been built; he has been a boon to the city economy.

The Bucks took a chance on him and, last December, Antetokounmpo rewarded them, resisting the current ruinous trend to join one of the super-teams fronted by LeBron James or Kevin Durant and signing a five-year contract with Milwaukee. The $228 million extension makes it the richest contract in the NBA.

The expectation, of course, is that the Greek Freak, as he was inevitably dubbed, brings the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Wisconsin. This summer might be their best chance, with a series of bizarre injuries unhinging the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, both of whom will return with a vengeance next autumn.

If the Bucks can win game five in Phoenix on Sunday night, then they will have a chance to play for the NBA championship in what will be a gripped Milwaukee on Wednesday night. It’s far from preordained and the pressure is immense.

No player has risen so high from such an obscure base. Antetokounmpo is like nothing the world has seen before. It’s tempting to say that he is a once-off. But he and his partner have a baby son now, Liam Antetokounmpo, whose mother is Mariah Riddlesprigger, the 6ft3in former Olympic volleyball player. If the Bucks haven’t signed him already it’s only because they are not allowed.

Commentators, meantime, are keeping fingers crossed that the little boy doesn’t hyphenate both parental surnames in years to come.

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