“Eight and a half years ago, when I came into the league, I didn’t know where my next meal would come from. My mother used to sell things on the street. Now here I am, sitting at the top.
In the post-game interview that made his team NBA champions on Tuesday night (20), Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo referred to his fighting background as he kissed the coveted trophy. He also dedicated the victory to his origins: “I represent two countries, Nigeria and Greece. Many children from there, but not only: from all over Africa and all from Europe ”.
The name of the 26-year-old, twice voted best in the NBA, refers to his career as the son of immigrants. Born in Greece to a Nigerian couple, he was baptized with a Greek name and a surname commonly given to West African children born abroad. Of Yoruba origin, Adétòkunbọ̀ (as written in the original spelling) means “king returned from overseas”.
Until a few years ago, however, the king had neither a homeland nor a passport. Without immigration papers, his parents had difficulty raising their four children in a poor area of Athens.
Even though they were born in the country, Antetokounmpo and his brothers, who sold trinkets on the streets to help their families, did not have Greek nationality – according to local law, children of immigrants do not automatically obtain nationality, even if they were born in the country. With the exception of the eldest, who was born before the family moved to another country, they also did not have Nigerian papers.
Currently, there are at least 3.9 million homeless people in nearly 80 countries, a number the UN considers grossly underestimated. In addition to growing up in fear of deportation, these stateless people face difficulties in accessing education, health care and all kinds of basic services.
Antetokounmpo experienced all of this and more so the xenophobia and racism that so many immigrants face in Greece. Especially since he is black and of African origin, which made him sleep in the gymnasium where he trained during his teenage years so as not to return home at night and risk being assaulted by members of the Golden Dawn – a neo-Nazi party responsible for several attacks on immigrants.
When he was called up to play for the NBA, his coach and agent ran into a problem: the young man did not have a passport. At great expense, they managed to convince the Greek government to grant him citizenship – which he accepted even out of embarrassment that the future sports star would go to the United States as a Nigerian, even though he had lived in Greece. all his life. . Antetokounmpo was 19 years old.
At the time, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, leader of the Golden Dawn, challenged the decision with a resentful neo-Nazi statement: “If you give a chimpanzee in a zoo a banana and a flag, does it become Greek?”
The player, however, ended up becoming a national hero in Greece, was decorated as a tourism ambassador by the government in 2018 and continues to spread the culture of the country, which is even part of the nickname for which he became known: ” Greek Freak “.
Some activists criticize him for this and not consider him sufficiently combative of racism and xenophobia on the part of the Greeks. In an interview with the New York Times in 2019, a girl of Africans born in Greece pointed out the contradiction: “The same people who applaud Giannis curse me in the streets,” she said.
In the interviews he gives, however, Antetokounmpo always refers to his difficult past. He says he made $ 200 a month when called to play professionally, paid $ 1 to watch basketball games for 30 minutes in an internet cafe because he didn’t have cable TV, and that he shared the same pair of used clothes. take out sneakers with the brother to train. “In the NBA, I have 15 pairs of sneakers every month,” he once said, puzzled.
He also constantly talks about his family, to which he is very attached. At the start of his career, he almost gave up staying in the United States because his parents had been denied their visas twice – the third time they would not be allowed to try again. Eventually, they got the document. “I would die for my family,” he said. “What I am today is because of them.”