CreditCreditEirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
ATHENS — He is known as the Greek Freak, a basketball player of such transcendent ability that he has become celebrated as the face of the country of his birth. Yet for most of his life growing up in Greece, Giannis Antetokounmpo was considered a foreigner. As the son of African immigrants, he was perpetually vulnerable to attacks by racist militants, and to threats of deportation to Nigeria, a country he had never visited.
As Antetokounmpo now commands the stage in the N.B.A. playoffs as the best player on the Milwaukee Bucks, the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, his fellow African immigrants in Greece are watching with rapt attention. His story — the tale of a teenager who could barely dribble turning himself into one of the supreme basketball players on the planet — is the source of admiration and joy. Yet it is also cause for bitter reflection on the enduring discrimination suffered by his community. Many lament that Antetokounmpo’s experience has become fodder for a fairy tale about Greek life in which his struggles have been edited out.
Until recently, even the children of African immigrants who were born here found it difficult to secure legal residency, let alone citizenship. Their stateless status denied them national health care, Civil Service jobs and access to sports leagues. Antetokounmpo only gained Greek citizenship six years ago — just as he was about to go to New York for the N.B.A. draft.
“He was given Greek citizenship in order to prevent him from traveling to New York as a Nigerian,” said Nikos Odubitan, the founder of Generation 2.0, an advocacy group that helps second-generation immigrants gain legal status in Greece.
White people in Greece now embrace Antetokounmpo, claiming him as one of their own, and reveling in his nickname as a cue for flag-waving. “They put him on a pedestal,” said Jackie Abhulimen, 27, the Greek-born daughter of African-born parents. “But the same person cheering Giannis could swear at me on the road. There’s still a very big sense of invisibility, of not being recognized as existing.”
“What Giannis represents is important for the younger kids growing up now,” Abhulimen continued. “But I do feel slightly disappointed in how certain histories and certain identities have been put aside. He hasn’t publicly identified as a black Greek.”
Yet in November, after a Greek television sports commentator called Giannis’s older brother, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, who plays for one of Greece’s premier basketball teams, a “monkey,” Giannis spoke out about his heritage.
“My brothers and I are Greek-Nigerian,” he wrote in Greek. “If anyone doesn’t like it, that’s their problem.”
In Sepolia, the gritty Athens neighborhood in the shadow of the Acropolis where Antetokounmpo grew up, people who knew him as a child marvel at what he has become.
Chris Iliopoulos Odoemelam, 24, used to play pickup games with Antetokounmpo when they were just a couple of 11-year-olds, both children of African immigrants. His old friend exhibited little basketball acumen, fumbling around a concrete court just off a busy thoroughfare and across the street from an auto shop.
Today, the same court is painted with the image of Antetokounmpo in his current guise — a statuesque man in a green Milwaukee Bucks uniform holding a basketball skyward, presumably on his way to another emphatic dunk.
Five thousand miles away on the shores of Lake Michigan, Antetokounmpo has built himself into a bona fide superstar on the team with best record in the N.B.A., and a leading contender for this year’s Most Valuable Player Award. At nearly 7 feet tall, he has the ball-handling skills of a point guard and the battering ram force of an old school center. He gets to the rim with the ease of a grown man playing Nerf ball against a 6-year-old.
Odoemelam tries to square the skinny child he remembers with the indomitable force he watches on YouTube clips. He comes up incredulous.
“He was just a guy you would see in the street, hungry and looking for food,” Odoemelam said of Antetokounmpo, who sold DVDs and sunglasses on the streets of Athens to support his family. “He didn’t have anything. He had one pair of shoes that he had to share with his brothers. And now he’s a millionaire. It’s crazy.”
You hear this frequently among people of African descent in Greece, who are still getting used to the idea that their community — a group confined to the margins of Greek life — has yielded an international superstar.
“We are proud of him,” Justina Chukwuma, an immigrant from Nigeria, said as she watched her Greek-born 10-year-old son, Great Chukwuma, practice layups at his after-school basketball program. “Everyone from Africa, they are looking up to him. They want to be like him, especially the boys. They are motivated by his achievement.”
Nepotism once made it difficult for black players to penetrate the ranks of Greek basketball.
“Black players in Greece have chances because of Giannis,” said 16-year-old Favor Ukpebor, a lanky shooting guard on an amateur team.
Antetokounmpo’s chance came through Spiros Velliniatis, who is widely credited with discovering his raw potential. Velliniatis played high school basketball in Florida as an exchange student. After he assumed the head coaching duties for the junior squad of a team in the middling ranks of Greek amateur basketball in 2007, he began walking neighborhoods full of African immigrants looking for children who appeared likely to fill out and grow tall. But he was most interested in body language.
“The most important thing is to have perception, street smarts,” Velliniatis said. “I look at people’s eyes. Are they active and engaged? This is my scouting report.”
One day that spring, he walked into a playground in the Sepolia neighborhood and caught sight of a 13-year-old boy who checked all the boxes. Giannis Antetokounmpo and his two younger brothers were running around chasing each other. The coach was transfixed.
“I could see that Giannis had real skills in changing direction,” Velliniatis recalled. He had huge hands and a frame that looked poised to grow. “It was like something stopped me from the sky. The moment I saw him, lightning struck me.”
“I had a discussion with God in this moment,” Velliniatis continued. “You can call me crazy, but this is the way I felt. I said, ‘Father in Heaven, am I seeing correctly?’ And I said, ‘Why me?’ And the answer that I got was, ‘If not you, who?’ ”
Velliniatis said he asked Giannis to get his mother, who was then cleaning houses. When she arrived, he made her an offer: He would find the parents jobs paying 800 euros per month if Giannis would come and play basketball for him.
“I knew that Nigerians don’t care about basketball,” the coach said. “They care about soccer. You need to bribe them, the parents. Otherwise, they will not be interested.”
Was this legal? The coach shrugged. “Everything is legal and everything is illegal in Greece,” he said. “It depends on how you label it.”
When his new recruit arrived at the gym, parents of other players, most of them white, gave him grief about Antetokounmpo. “He didn’t even know how to dribble or make a layup,” Velliniatis said.
Christoforos Kelaidis, then the team captain, remembered being confused. “He was not that big,” he says. “He was like an ordinary man starting something new. I couldn’t see anything remarkable.”
But there was something about Antetokounmpo that struck his teammates, well before his physique filled out, and long before he acquired the skills that would eventually draw comparisons to Magic Johnson and Kevin Garnett.
“He was very competitive,” Kelaidis said. “He didn’t like to lose. He couldn’t do that much, but he had that spirit.”
Velliniatis drilled his players extensively, preparing them to be able to play every position. He would put them in a circle on the court and have them dribble five and six balls at a time to nurture dexterity. He had them practice passing one-handed, zipping the ball down the court and running fast breaks to develop speed, vision and agility.
Antetokounmpo often stayed at the gym practicing until near midnight, sleeping there on an exercise mat in the weight room for fear of heading home in the darkness. Fascists and neo-Nazis affiliated with the Golden Dawn political party roamed the neighborhood menacing immigrants.
By the time he was 16, Antetokounmpo had become one of the top players in Greece, even as he remained in the second tier of the amateur leagues. Scouts flew in from the United States to watch his games. Milwaukee would select him in the first round of the 2013 draft, using the 15th pick. He was 19.
In the summer of 2015, after his second N.B.A. season, he flew back to Athens.
He and his old coach met for dinner.
“I told Giannis, ‘You have become what you have become, because of where you come from,’ ” Velliniatis said. “Giannis doesn’t understand fear.”
When he returns to Athens now, he is besieged by people who want him to pose for photos and sign autographs. Yet he still visits the cafe across the street from the basketball court in Sepolia, much to the delight of the proprietor, Giannis Tsiggas, 64.
From the time Antetokounmpo was 9 years old, he and his brothers would pass the cafe en route to the playground from the apartments they rented in the area. “They always used to say ‘good morning,’ ” Tsiggas said. He gave the boys sandwiches and juice, knowing they were hungry, eliciting anger from some white residents who did not want Africans settling in the area.
On the cafe walls, Tsiggas displays photos of himself standing next to Antetokounmpo — as a slender teenager, and as the chiseled man he is now. A gift that Antetokounmpo brought him on his most recent trip sits in a frame over the counter: his jersey from the 2018 N.B.A. All-Star Game.
Success has not changed Antetokounmpo, Tsiggas said, but it has changed the conversation about the African community.
“It’s wonderful for Greece,” he said. “We are all proud of Giannis. We all say he is our kid, even the people who didn’t like him back when they said, ‘He’s just a black boy.’ ”