NBA player Antetokounmpo inspires Athens neighborhood where he grew up

Chris Kelepouris, George Rousakis, George Bolanos and Chris Murelas, all 14, play on the court painted with the image of professional basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Photo by Bridget Peery

Story by Brandon Carusillo ·

ATHENS, Greece – He moved away years ago, has earned millions and is considered one of the great, young stars of the National Basketball Association. But here, in the gritty, working-class neighborhood he grew up in, Giannis Antetokounmpo is something else: An inspiration who has shown that you really can get out.

Just stop by the court dedicated to him, in the Sepolia neighborhood, and talk to some of the kids shooting hoop.

“It’s like he’s next to me and I’m playing with him,” said Mateo Selime.

He’s 13, the same age as when Antetokounpo was discovered by Spiros Velliniatis, a scout who had himself once dreamed of getting to the NBA.

“He is now the hero of Greece,” said Velliniatis. “You start to realize that there is hope. The story of Giannis gives hope. If you have the talent, correct information and people to guide you, you can achieve anything in the world.”

That may be an oversimplification. There’s a reason Antetokounmpo is known affectionately as “The Greek Freak.” He has special physical gifts, ones which enabled him to wrap up his third NBA season as the only player ever to finish in the top-20 in points, rebounds, steals, blocks and assists. But plenty of playground stars have fizzled – think of Lloyd Daniels or Sebastien Telfair – on the road to the NBA. What makes the path of the 6-foot-11-inch Antetokounmpo so inspiring is that a street kid, scuffling for pocket money, managed to overcome so much to become a star. (Antetokounmpo, a Bucks spokesman said, was not available for comment.)

“I can compare his psychology to Muhammad Ali,” said Velliniatis. “You see Muhammad Ali and the spark in his eyes? This is the same spark I saw in Giannis’ eyes when I met him.”

Antetokounmpo in his Milwaukee Bucks uniform during an NBA game.
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It is a complicated story because Antetokounmpo, as much as he’s been embraced now, was treated like an outsider for most of his childhood by the country in which he was born. Greece didn’t grant him citizenship until after the Milwaukee Bucks picked him 15th in the 2013 draft.

Lanky and underfed, he was the son of Nigerian immigrants, parents who struggled to find work to support the family of seven, some say because of discrimination. Without official status, the family was in an uneasy position. They had to worry about whether the things they did to survive – selling CDs, purses and other items without a permit – would get them deported.

Gregory Polizogopoulou, who owns a shop near the court dedicated to Antetokounmpo, remembers him well.

“Giannis would steal Pepsis and share it with all of his brothers. I would chase him with the broom out of the store and into the street. We would be angry but then realize that they were amazing kids who were just trying to survive,” said Polizogopoulou.

Polizogopoulou, 73, said Antetokounmpo is someone who can lead by example so that others can feel there’s a successful life waiting for them.

“His career has given everyone in the community the hope to say ‘I have the opportunity to do something better in order to replicate some of the things he has accomplished,’” he said. “He is an icon for the community.”

Antetokounmpo’s fortunes would change because of what he could do on a basketball court.

Velliniatis was one of the first to recognize the boy’s talent. He was visiting friends in Sepolia when he spotted Giannis and his older brother, Thanasis, walking together. He could tell that Giannis had the physique to grow into a standout basketball player.

“I asked him what the parents were doing, and he told me the mother was taking care of houses [as a maid], and the father was parking cars. But [Giannis] was undernourished,” said Velliniatis. “I realized that this boy was a proud kid who was not wanting to say the hard truth. So, I did an educated guess and said ‘this kid has nothing.’”

Velliniatis helped Antetokounmpo’s mother, Veronica, get a new job with a house-cleaning service. He then went to work on the young athlete. He was raw as a basketball player and believed he should be playing soccer. But he didn’t understand that his body would mature to make him a more natural basketball player.  

“People think that this [process] happened over night. This was a titanic effort. In order to achieve this, we had to go step by step, inch for inch, day for day and night for night,” said Velliniatis.

The scout pushed him to attend practice and games for Filathlitikos, which was in a neighborhood distant from Sepolia, even before he had officially been added to the team. This may have been Greece’s second-tier basketball league, but Velliniatis knew that playing well even there would be a major step in promoting his talents for the world to see.

Early on, Antetokounmpo argued that he needed to be out working to make money. And when he showed up on the court, he struggled with an inconsistent jump shot and ball handling. That would change as he developed as a player. By 18, Antetokounmpo stood 6-feet-10-inches, with a more proportioned body frame. In just over 20 minutes a game, he already showed the promise that would appeal overseas, averaging 9.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.0 blocks, while shooting about 47 percent from the field.

Antetokounmpo had signed a contract with the Spanish club Zaragoza for about 400,000 euros, or about $447,800 a year, but an escape clause in his contract allowed him to leave the club for the NBA. That came in 2013 when the Milwaukee Bucks drafted him.

Then-Bucks General Manager John Hammond acknowledged, at the time, there were safer picks. But he found Antetokounmpo’s potential hard to resist.

“If he hits,” Hammond told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal at the time, “this kid could be special.”

He certainly has been. His athleticism has also allowed the Bucks to use him at guard. But what has made Antetokounmpo a standout back in Athens is not merely his skills on the court. He’s also impressed locals by maintaining a connection to Greece, even if Greece didn’t always embrace him.

“He comes back to the neighborhood and gives back to everyone. He comes to talk and spend time with the people he has known for many years. He has never forgotten where he came from,” said Polizogopoulou.

Antetokounmpo and his brother, Thanasis, have been known to return to play pickup games or teach basketball fundamentals to children. Their work has made a difference, said Irene Keramida, the manager of local business Kadmos.

“The community’s spirits are definitely high,” she said. “All of the kids are now wanting to play basketball and are all wearing Giannis jerseys.”

Early on a summer evening, as the sun begins to go down, the court where Antetokounpo played as a kid is packed. It has become a special place, with the basketball star’s visits occasionally bringing widespread attention. Earlier this year, ESPN featured the stunning portrait done on the hard surface by Same84, an Athens-based street artist. Antetokounpo, who has a strong presence on social media, posted aerial photos for his more than 1.1 million followers.

George Rousakis, 14, remembers meeting his hero two years ago. Today, he said, “He gives me inspiration to try do something better in life.”

Michalis Kalocheris, 45, a teacher watching the pick-up games from the bleachers, stressed how important basketball has been for the children of Sepolia during the financial crisis that has strapped Greece.

“A lot of stores have closed because of the crisis, but in general this neighborhood has been overlooked by the government and the city,” he said. “They focus on other areas to invest. The only thing keeping this area alive is this basketball court. There’s nowhere else for kids to play. The court has served as an oasis to the kids in the community.”


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