Giannis Antetokounmpo is hungry for his first ring

Giannis Antetokounmpo goes back to the time when he realized he would become a professional basketball player when his classmates would not play with him at school. NBA's Most Valuable Player in one of his rare interviews with Greek media.

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets Saturday, March 9, 2019, in Milwaukee
Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets Saturday, March 9, 2019, in Milwaukee AP PHOTO/AARON GASH

'Antetokounmpo' means 'the king who came from afar'. How much more karmic could Giannis' surname have been; the 24-year-old is the 'king' of Milwaukee and at the same time Milwaukee County has solemnly proclaimed July 14th as 'Giannis Antetokounmpo Day'. This is an honor that might even surpass that of the MVP.

I'm turning eleven summers back in time, on July 2008, and I find myself in the open basketball courts in Tsocha street, behind Leoforos stadium. Numerous children from many neighbourhoods and of various ethnic backgrounds come together to share their love of basketball. Among them, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, whom I already know and his 14-year-old brother, Giannis; a very slender child, not too tall. I spoke with Giannis for the first time two years later, on bus 230 heading to Zografou stadium (A/N: I was a player for Filathlitikos B.C. at that time). He was very shy, unlike his sociable big brother.

At the age of 16, Giannis was going to a sports school in Aigaleo with Thanasis, his national team teammate, Giannoulis Larentzakis, as well as kids who are now playing in lower divisions. At that time, the spotlight was on the very good Thanasis, who despite his few years playing basketball, had managed to attract the eyes of many teams. Maroussi sought to add him to his roster, but the transfer was never completed because Thanasis did not have Greek citizenship. So Giannakis (little Giannis) -as I used to call him- was not picked by his classmates for half-court games. Yes, you read correctly. Despite his height (1.93 at the time), his slender body was not enough to challenge his classmates. Nevertheless, his persistence and selfishness were enough to make him want to work more.

"I dug in my heels, got angry, put my head down, went to a nearby court and trained on my own. I was telling myself that one day I would get better and I wouldn't play with them. It's funny, I often reminisce those days, thinking about how they wouldn’t play with me. Work, work, work, that's what I've always done."

Asking money for souvlaki and training with Filathlitikos women's

We all remember the much-publicized video, after the end of the Peristeri-Filathlitikos match on February 13, 2013, when 'Draft Express' journalist asked Giannis what his goal was. The answer was clear: "I want to be an NBA player". He didn't even have to think about the answer. This was his goal from the age of 12 when he realized that he wanted to become a professional basketball player. "At sixth grade, I realized I had talent. There were people beside me who made me believe it, but I won't lie to you, I was a 'dog'; I would do anything I could do to play in NBA. There were days, as you too know, that I trained with teenage, male and female teams. I spent all day in the court. Many times I even slept there, in a blue mattress, which I think is still there."

Giannis and Thanasis Antetokounmpo at Filathlitikos BC. Bottom right, Contra.gr's Aggeliki Katsini, owner of the picture.
Giannis and Thanasis Antetokounmpo at Filathlitikos BC. Bottom right, Contra.gr's Aggeliki Katsini, owner of the picture. AGGELIKI KATSINI

There are kids who have top athletes as their role models and an inner motivation that drives them to engage intensively in sports. Giannis is a role model for both young and old on a global scale. He is someone who even today has role models that motivate him to pursue his goals. "At 16-17 years of age, I wanted to be like Nicolas Batum, later I wanted to be like Kevin Durant. I always have basketball role models, even now, that constantly motivate me to achieve my goals. For example, LeBron, Kawhi have their own successful course and this urges me to overcome them. I went through such hard times with my family at some point that I didn't even care about basketball and I wanted to be tough as my mother. My mother is a person who holds her head high and smiles. Now I want to be a good father model."

During the interview, Kostas Antetokounmpo, who will be playing for Lakers with LeBron and Anthony Davis this year, also showed up. I asked him to take a trip back to distant 2011 when his height was not over 1.80. "I remember me and Giannis training in the afternoon with the men's team and asking the coach if we could take part in the women's training shortly afterwards." (A/N: Yes, I have marked both Giannis and Kostas Antetokounmpo). Giannis adds: "We trained in the morning, we didn't eat, we went to the beach, spending all day in the sun, we didn't eat again and we trained once more in the afternoon. On empty stomachs. We asked (A/N: friends and teammates) Nikos Gkikas and Christos Saloustros for 5 euros to buy souvlaki. At that time we ate once a day, now we can't afford to let three hours pass without eating something."

I was a 'dog'. There were days that I trained with teenage, male and female teams

 I hardly managed to ask what the advantages and disadvantages of Giannis are and Kostas jumped in to answer. "He is a very good kid who cares about his family and has helped many people in his circle. His main disadvantage is that he does not have the right approach to people, I mean he cannot be speaking to others the same way he speaks to me, but he has understood that and improved significantly in this part." And then it is Giannis' turn to speak. "I don't know if it's an advantage or a disadvantage, but I'm very honest. If I don't like something, I can't hide it. When I speak with Thanasis and he's had a bad game, I'll talk to him honestly and tell him 'today you played terribly'. I'm also pretty short-tempered."

Six years after the Filathlitikos years (and excluding their co-existence in the national team), Giannis is once more a teammate with Thanasis in the magical world of NBA, wearing the Milwaukee Bucks jersey. "It's something I never thought would happen, I think it's going to be awesome. We've already warmed up in the national team for the coming NBA season and his spirits are high. Since the time at Filathlitikos, we were playing very well together, but it is a great joy for me to be hanging out with him in Milwaukee because having your brother makes it all much easier. Also, regarding his transition from Europe to the NBA, having six years of experience in the American league, I know very well what the coaches want."

"What I have asked him to do is get better every day and for him, this is just the beginning, he will go very far. Thanasis always wanted an opportunity and whenever he received it, he would take full advantage of it. Note that Thanasis is the toughest opponent I have faced because he is very good in defense and knows my weaknesses. Also, I can't be as tough when I play with him as when I play with others because he's my brother. (laughs) Truth be said, I recognize myself as one of the top players in the world, but when I think about it, it makes me stop working. I do not like to hear that all the time, I am a man fighting for food, for his position. That's what I learned since I was a little kid; fighting every day, that was and is my life. Many elements of my game need improvement, like my shooting and my dribbling. I'm still at 60% to 70% of my potential."

"Pressure? What does pressure mean?"

There were times when Giannis and his brothers had no shoes to wear and there were games that Giannis and Thanasis played sharing the same pair of shoes. One came off the court, the other went in and they changed shoes in the meanwhile. In 2016, Nike announced that they would produce shoes bearing his name, making him the 19th player in NBA history to have signature shoes. Zoom Freak 1 highlight his journey from the years of poverty to the present day. "In 2016, just after the end of a game, they announced that they were planning to make a series of shoes with my name. I replied 'I don't believe you'. In 2017, we did a presentation at Nike's offices. My family was there, too. We talked about the plan and of course, I signed the contract immediately, without a second thought. They came out this year and we are still waiting for 20 more different designs. The whole family has put their touch in each pair. Each shoe represents a piece of my personal story."

His character is perhaps the most important element that makes him an MVP. Talent comes next. Giannis never complains, even after great victories. His commitment to the goal of becoming the greatest of all time remains unchanged. "For me, it's not only a matter of winning or losing. What I also think about is that I want to be one of the top players that have ever played this game. Even if I have given my best performance, I can never rest. I have reached this point because I am extremely competitive."

Many elements of my game need improvement, like my shooting and my dribbling. I'm still at 60% to 70% of my potential

In the summer, at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China, all of the basketball world was looking forward to Giannis' appearance in the blue-white jersey. They were looking forward to him showing why he deserved the MVP title he had won a few months earlier. Many thought that having him on the roster, the Greek national team had a place reserved among the top four teams. Immediately, all the weight of the expectations for a medal fell on him and seemed to be putting a lot of pressure. I was certain his opinion would be different.

"No, there was no pressure. Anyone can write and say whatever they want. There will never be pressure because, from 12 to 16, I didn't have food to eat... What pressure? If I had grown up with money and had the comforts since I was a little boy, I would have said then 'yes, there is pressure', but I came from nothing and I got where I am now. Even if I stopped playing basketball today, I would look back and say that I am the first Greek and the second European player to win the MVP award, that I have helped my siblings go to private schools and that my father lived a good life. I've already done a lot in my 25 years, I can't feel any pressure."

As it turned out during the tournament, expectations were too high for the occasion. "We certainly had a team that could claim a medal but I, Giannis, did not promise, nor did I say we have the best team in the world. We all gave it our best. The media and the people created this climate." But what went wrong? What went wrong with the management by the coaching team? "I cannot be the judge of that. My job is to get in the court and do what I know best. Management is the coaching team's job. What I know is that the World Cup was an experience for me. It may not have been a good one, but it made me better."

Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton, left, and forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) sit on the bench during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, in Miami
Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton, left, and forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) sit on the bench during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, in Miami AP PHOTO/LYNNE SLADKY

As expected, his style of play was well-read by the national team's opponents and the defenses were adapted to him. As a result, his weaknesses were emphasized. The size of the court and the rules of the game are different from the those used in the NBA, but as Giannis points out, that was not what made things difficult for him. "Basketball rules differ, but I didn't have much difficulty. Certainly, defenses were tougher, the pitch smaller, the attention was constantly on me. The FIBA system was 100% fair, we were unfortunate to lose to Brazil. If we had won, we would have normally lost only to the USA and we would have simply needed a win over the Czech Republic, without having to look for a point difference. Brazil harmed us and they didn't qualify either. Incredible, isn’t it?”

In the game against the USA, Giannis was confronted by his Bucks teammates, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton. I imagined that there would be teasing among them, but in the end, I was proved wrong. "I'm so competitive that even if my brother played for an opposing team, I might not have talked to him before the game. I don't want to distract myself and be 'softer' towards him."

My goal is to win the championship

Giannis calls himself "just a kid from Sepolia" and this phrase shows that he does not forget where he started. At the event organized for a 3on3 tournament last summer, he announced along with Thanasis the launch of the Antetokounbros Academy, the primary goal of which is to help all children who are not able to pursue their dreams. "It's an initiative of mine to get kids off the streets and give them some opportunities through scholarships, to study and never stop pursuing their dreams."

If we had won our third game with the Raptors last season, probably I would have been an NBA champion at 24

His love for Greece is not just words, but also actions. Giannis donated an indoor basketball court, which will be built in the blue port of Rafina, to support the people affected by the deadly fire in Mati. He himself had not publicly mentioned this before. "A sum has been raised to build a court in Rafina, but this is something I don't like to talk about. I leave these things to the managers and the journalists. As someone once taught me in catechism school, what your right hand knows, the left one should never learn about. I have earned enough, the point is to leave something behind for the people that need it. My future plans include offering something to Nigeria as well, the country where my roots are. I have not been able to go there yet, because while I had booked tickets in 2016, my grandfather died and my mother did not want that event to be my first memory of Nigeria. Then, in 2017, my father passed away, but I will definitely visit Nigeria some summer when I have no basketball-related commitments."

17-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo with Filathlitikos' Aggeliki Katsini, in 2011
17-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo with Filathlitikos' Aggeliki Katsini, in 2011 AGGELIKI KATSINI
The 24-year-old NBA MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, with Aggeliki Katsini, journalist at Contra.gr
The 24-year-old NBA MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, with Aggeliki Katsini, journalist at Contra.gr AGGELIKI KATSINI

The 6.8 points rookie, who was not even selected for the NBA's first All-Rookie Team in the 2013-14 season, holds the 2019 MVP title, has a signature shoe, is the franchise name of an NBA team and the target which he has set for this season is winning the championship with the Bucks. How incredible, but also, how true. Of course, team dynamics have changed this year in the NBA, and as a result, it is expected to be even more competitive and with more close games.

"I'm closing in on the seventh season in Milwaukee, how quickly the years go by... To reach where I am today, I have worked a lot and I continue to do so. It's hard to lead a team because it's not something you do just for five games, but for the entire season. You must always be ready to live up to the team's expectations and your expectations. The team has helped me and my family from the beginning. It made us feel at home and I wish we stay together for many more years. My goal this year is to win the championship with the Bucks, which is something that requires a lot of work. It's hard, I'm not going to lie to you. If we had won our third game with the Raptors last season, probably I would have been an NBA champion at 24. It is hard, but we learn from our mistakes and I wish we will not repeat them when we reach the same point. My goal every year is to win something, whether I'm playing for the Bucks or the national team."

You've probably heard of athletes having certain habits or rituals for good luck before the games. Before the jump ball, Giannis makes a specific move, pointing to the sky. "You may have seen me banging my chest and pointing to the sky before the game starts. With this move, I am referring to my father. Apart from that, I try to always sleep for two hours and forty-five minutes before the game. If I don't do that, I don't feel good. I also tend to eat a very small amount of pasta."

His biggest fear is losing his family, as he confessed; the people who have shaped his character, the confidence that comes from within him, inside and outside the court, the toughness and pride he has inherited from his mother, Veronica, and the modesty and 'sweet' introversion inherited from his father, Charles. Giannis Antetokounmpo begins his first year in the NBA as an MVP. He will work even harder, dunk even more and rise even higher. That's what he lives and breathes for.

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