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NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo’s rag to riches story

He’s now arguably the most talented player in the NBA, but growing up Giannis Antetokounmpo was so poor he had to share a pair of basketball shoes with his older brother, according to a new book. 

Raised in a suburb of the Greek capital Athens, the athlete’s parents couldn’t afford two pairs so he had to wait for his sibling Thanasis to finish playing to wear his size 15 sneakers. 

The family of seven struggled to make ends meet and went hungry so often that Giannis once collapsed while training on an empty stomach.

The humble beginnings are now a far cry from his current lifestyle as the star player of the Milwaukee Bucks, whom he helped lead to victory in the NBA championship May for the first time since 1971.  

The rags to riches story is laid bare in new biography, Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP, by author Mirin Fader, published on Tuesday.   

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was voted MVP two years in a row, a feat only legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James had achieved before the age of 26, his current age

The child of Nigerian immigrants, Giannis grew up in extreme poverty in Greece where his family could hardly afford to eat

The child of Nigerian immigrants, Giannis grew up in extreme poverty in Greece where his family could hardly afford to eat 

The NBA star is now living in the lap of luxury and one of the best players in the league. Pictured: Giannis Antetokounmpo poses with his family following his award of the NBA most valuable player at the 2019 NBA Awards

The NBA star is now living in the lap of luxury and one of the best players in the league. Pictured: Giannis Antetokounmpo poses with his family following his award of the NBA most valuable player at the 2019 NBA Awards

Fader reveals the 6ft 11in basketball player was so wide-eyed from the remarkable win, he ate pancakes for ten days straight after tasting them for the first time.  

He was so accustomed to living in poverty, he would fill up containers of food from the free buffet after practice and became obsessed with Walmart which he considered a ‘treat’. 

The first time he went to Chipotle, Giannis was so overwhelmed with choice that he ordered everything at once which had to be wrapped in two tortillas the size of a football. 

Mirin Fader, a writer with sports website The Ringer, reveals how an unknown, skinny, Greek immigrant with Nigerian parents who played in the lowest pro division in Greece and was seen as a wildcard draft gamble came to dominate the NBA.

In 2019 and 2020 Giannis was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player, a feat only legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James had achieved before the age of 26, his current age.

But back in Athens such glory was a pipe dream for Giannis, whose mother and father moved there from Nigeria in 1991 in search of a better life due to the instability in their home country.

They moved to Sepolia, a working-class neighborhood of Athens, but were unable to get Greek citizenship and struggled to get employment. 

Giannis (pictured center with his mom and brother) was born three years after his parents immigrated to Greece and by the age of six he was helping his mother Veronica sell purses on the street

Giannis (pictured center with his mom and brother) was born three years after his parents immigrated to Greece and by the age of six he was helping his mother Veronica sell purses on the street 

According to the book, Giannis's father would skip meals when his family didn't have enough food and his mother was once forced to sell her wedding ring just so they could eat

According to the book, Giannis’s father would skip meals when his family didn’t have enough food and his mother was once forced to sell her wedding ring just so they could eat 

Three years later Giannis was born and by the age of six he was already selling sunglasses and fake purses on the street with his mother Veronica to help provide for the family, the book reveals. 

His father Charles would skip meals for a few days if his family didn’t have enough food, and at one point, his mom had to sell her wedding ring just so they could eat.

The rags to riches story is laid bare in new biography, Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP, by author Mirin Fader

The rags to riches story is laid bare in new biography, Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP, by author Mirin Fader

The family were evicted more times than they could remember and Giannis once had to accompany his mom to the landlord’s office to beg for more time to make the rent.

Growing up, Giannis initially wanted to follow in the footsteps of his dad who was once a talented soccer player until he got injured.

But when he was 13 years old, a local coach called Spiros Velliniatis persuaded him to take up basketball after claiming that God spoke to him.

At the time Giannis didn’t have any basketball skills or talents but Velliniatis claimed that something ‘divine’ was at work.

At a national training camp, Giannis showed up 40 minutes early to practice and tried harder than anyone else.

He was still terrible but his athleticism, height, and attitude marked him out.

He began playing for the youth team at Filathlitikos that competed in the Greek national second league, where the lack of professionalism was staggering and some players used to smoke at half time.

The dusty gym had no air conditioning and was a two-hour walk from Giannis’s home in a down-at-heel part of Athens, as he couldn’t always afford the metro and bus fare.

Giannis couldn’t dribble and was bad at shooting, but he was determined to get better.

Giannis Antetokounmpo poses for a photo during a press conference on June 28, 2013 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Giannis was a 15th round pick when he was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, beating the Atlanta Hawks who planned to choose him soon afterwards

Giannis was a 15th round pick when he was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, beating the Atlanta Hawks who planned to choose him soon afterwards

After the draft, Giannis's biggest problem was fitting in with his new teammates who brutally hazed their 19-year-old rookie

After the draft, Giannis’s biggest problem was fitting in with his new teammates who brutally hazed their 19-year-old rookie

But even training became a challenge because he was missing meals and not getting proper nourishment.  

During one session, Giannis began ‘gasping for air’ because he was so weak and ‘could not go on any more,’ and eventually collapsed, Fader writes.

His teammates would later learn that he hadn’t eaten anything all day and constantly offered him food after the incident. 

Giannis shared a pair of sneakers with his brother Thanasis who would hand them over after his game so Giannis could play right after. 

However, the family’s low socioeconomic status was not the only barrier they faced in society. 

Giannis’s younger brother Alex said that growing up black in a mostly white country, they always felt they were ‘outsiders.’

That was especially the case when it came to race, and Giannis was called ‘blackie’ by people in the street who told him to ‘go back to your country.’

One of Giannis’s teammates, Rahman Rana, whose family is from Pakistan, recalled: ‘People really treated him badly.

‘We were treated as second-class citizens.’ 

Growing up with four siblings, Giannis had to share a pair of sneakers with older brother Thanasis who would hand them over after his game so Giannis could play basketball right after

Growing up with four siblings, Giannis had to share a pair of sneakers with older brother Thanasis who would hand them over after his game so Giannis could play basketball right after

A former teammate revealed Giannis and his family were treated as second-class citizens in Greece. Now, the family is reaping the rewards of his success

A former teammate revealed Giannis and his family were treated as second-class citizens in Greece. Now, the family is reaping the rewards of his success

Back in Athens such glory was a pipe dream for Giannis, who grew up penniless and faced racist attacks

Back in Athens such glory was a pipe dream for Giannis, who grew up penniless and faced racist attacks 

When Giannis was 16, he played against another team in Crete where rival fans screamed ‘go home, monkeys’ and threw coins and soda cans at him.

He broke down in tears after the game, Fader writes. 

Rana recalled how Giannis was ‘just shattered’, saying: ‘It was the saddest day, seeing how racist people are. 

‘We were working so hard to be accepted in this society and people were rejecting us.’

Giannis poured out his heart to Rana and said that watching his family live in such poverty left him feeling ‘destroyed.’

Giannis and his brother stayed home at night in fear that white vigilantes would attack them on the street or that the police would stop them.

With no papers and being undocumented, Giannis feared being arrested and thrown out of the country.

The only way Giannis could cope with the racism was by ‘burying it deep inside,’ his Nikolaos Gkikas said.

Giannis’s hard work began to pay off and soon he was dominating in games, swatting away shots from opposition players at one end of the court then dunking at the other.

He developed an ability to dribble like a point guard despite his 6ft 11in height and his wingspan which would eventually stretch to more than 7ft.

The book revealed that the family always felt like 'outsiders' while growing up black in a mostly white country. Pictured: Giannis and his mother in Athens

The book revealed that the family always felt like ‘outsiders’ while growing up black in a mostly white country. Pictured: Giannis and his mother in Athens 

Giannis shares a son with girlfriend Mariah (pictured)

In May, they announced they were expecting their second child

Giannis shares a son with girlfriend Mariah (pictured). In May, they announced they were expecting their second child 

But without Greek citizenship he couldn’t travel by plane and couldn’t play for the Greek first division, so he was stuck in the semi-pro second league.

By 2012, Giannis had gotten himself an agent, but when he went for a physical exam, the doctor was stunned to see his liver looked like it belonged to a 70-year-old alcoholic.

The doctor advised Giannis to start eating more and nourishing his body with healthy food to take the strain off his body.

Rumors of a talented but raw teenager would soon reach NBA scouts who began to take an interest in the 16-year-old Giannis.

They made the trek to the grimy gym in Zografou, where dozens of NBA scouts sat with clipboards having arrived in limousines.

With interest from the US, Greek authorities came under intense pressure to give Giannis citizenship so that he could potentially move to the US.

Fader writes scathingly that it was only after Giannis attracted interest from basketball clubs and only after his family approached the Nigerian embassy in Greece did they speed up the process.

Giannis finally got his passport in May 2013, but now he faced the daunting prospect of the NBA draft.

It was only until US professional leagues began showing interest in Giannis, that the Greek government finally gave him citizenship and a passport

It was only until US professional leagues began showing interest in Giannis, that the Greek government finally gave him citizenship and a passport

Giannis made it to the big leagues despite starting off as a terrible basketball player in his youth

Giannis made it to the big leagues despite starting off as a terrible basketball player in his youth

As Fader writes: ‘He was a mystery because he wasn’t playing for Greece’s two top teams. He was a mystery because he was an international player.

‘He was a mystery because people mispronounced his name. He had remarkable athleticism and an almost freakishly lanky body’.

His official NBA profile said that he has ‘potential off the charts’ and agents speculated he could be the next Magic Johnson – but he had a long way to go first.

In the 2013 NBA draft Giannis was chosen in the 15th round by the Milwaukee Bucks, beating the Atlanta Hawks who planned to choose him soon afterwards.

It was a big gamble – but one that would pay off handsomely.

For the time being Giannis’s biggest problem was fitting in with his new teammates who brutally hazed their 19-year-old rookie.

It didn’t help that he was so skinny he looked like, as Fader puts it, a ‘very long toothpick.’

She writes that they treated him like a ‘punching bag’ and gave him nicknames like ‘Baby Giraffe’, ‘Stop Sign’ and ‘Bambi.’

Giannis was so charming with his wide-eyed approach to America which he often documented on social media

Giannis was so charming with his wide-eyed approach to America which he often documented on social media

Giannis captured the hearts of thousands of people in January 2014 when he sent out a tweet revealing he had tasted a smoothie for the first time

Giannis captured the hearts of thousands of people in January 2014 when he sent out a tweet revealing he had tasted a smoothie for the first time 

But Giannis gradually won them over with his hardworking approach to the game, his humbleness and his sense of humor.

Giannis struck a chord with Bucks fans too: his story of having come from nothing resonated with the working class city and his hard working attitude impressed them.

On top of that, he was so charming with his wide-eyed approach to America which he documented on social media.

On January 24, 2014 he sent out an endearing tweet that ended up going viral and earned him a legion of fans.

It read: ‘I just taste for the first time a smothie (sic)..MAN GOD BLESS AMERICA’.

According to Fader, Giannis ‘loved’ going to Walmart to get furniture and considered it a ‘treat’ because for him it was like shopping at the finest stores.

He became hooked on American movies like the 1980s Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America, about an African prince who moved to New York.

Like Murphy’s character in the film, Giannis was a fish out of water and he lapped the movie up, repeating his favorite lines like ‘sexual chocolate’ again and again.

His naivety became apparent on the court too when the Bucks coaches told him that playing at altitude against the Utah Jazz might affect his game.

Giannis responded by running to the top of the stands because he thought that meant being at altitude.

As Giannis mastered the English language he learned to trash talk on the court, but it took him a while to learn when to use swear words.

When he learned the word b***h he didn’t use it as an insult, he used to shout it when he missed a shot, earning more mockery from his teammates.

One of Giannis’s teammates bought him a designer suit but he never wore it and instead wore his team kit every single day.

Soon he developed a sweet tooth: his first taste of peanut butter made him let out an ‘oooooooohhhh’ in delight.

The first time he tried pancakes he became ‘obsessed’ and ate them for ten days in a row.

In 2016 Giannis signed a four-year deal with the Bucks worth $100million, meaning he had finally made it to the big time

In 2016 Giannis signed a four-year deal with the Bucks worth $100million, meaning he had finally made it to the big time

Nicknamed the 'Greek Freak', the unlikeliest of NBA drafts who started his career in a rough and tumble gym on the outskirts of Athens, had achieved the highest accolade in basketball.

The man nicknamed the ‘Greek Freak’, the unlikeliest of NBA drafts who started his career in a rough and tumble gym on the outskirts of Athens, had achieved the highest accolade in basketball

Fader also describes Giannis’ first visit to Chipotle where he was ‘astounded’ at all the choices and the concept of putting everything into one wrap.

He asked for everything – chicken, steak, black beans, pinto beans, guacamole, cheese – and made a burrito so big the server had to use two tortillas.

The Bucks got a free buffet before and after games and Giannis would fill up five plastic containers of food to take home, earning strange looks from his teammates who wondered why he was ‘hoarding’ food.

As Fader writes, there was a darker reason that Giannis behaved the way he did – he never forgot what it was like to be poor.

Josh Oppenheimer, the Bucks assistant coach, said: ‘What drives Giannis so much is that he’s afraid that at any moment somebody could take it all away.’

According to Fader, ‘not a day passed when Giannis didn’t think of those days. Sepolia. Selling. Peddling items at upscale beaches. Not having enough.

‘That motivated him. That scared him.’

Giannis would tell his brothers to respect the sport ‘because basketball has given us all we have.’

In 2016 Giannis signed a four-year deal with the Bucks worth $100million, meaning he had finally made it to the big time.

But he didn’t change his thrifty ways and when he moved homes he planned to host a yard sale to offload things he didn’t need.

The Bucks put a stop to it because it would have been a security nightmare.

Success, however, also brought a negative source of attention to Giannis who was still subjected to racist attacks in Greece.

Despite his fame, wealth, and success, Giannis keeps a relatively modest lifestyle

Despite his fame, wealth, and success, Giannis keeps a relatively modest lifestyle 

When he did not play for the Greek national team because of an injury he was accused of prioritizing the NBA over his country.

His childhood court in Sepolia was vandalized with swastikas and Evangelos Markopoulos, a Greek-born professor living in London, wrote: ‘Enough with the black guy who pretends to be Greek.’

Adonis Georgiadis, who is currently the Greek minister of development, and one of the country’s most well known right wing pundits, said that Giannis was ‘born somewhere in Africa.’ 

On the few occasions Giannis spoke about the racism he experienced in Greece, the blowback was intense.

Last year he said that he faced a ‘lot of negativity’ while growing up and that it was ‘tough being black in a country of white people.’

Konstantinos Kalemis, the Greek Ministry of Education’s refugee coordinator, responded by calling Giannis the N-word and ‘the ungrateful one.’

One far right politician said: ‘The only real Greeks are those who were born Greek’, overlooking the fact that Giannis was born in the country.

On the court Giannis continued to improve and get stronger and faster.

Kevin Durant, a childhood idol of Giannis who he used to watch in internet cafes when he could scrape together enough money to hire a computer for an hour, praised his attitude to the game.

Giannis sought out his heroes like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James for guidance, showing them respect as elders of the game.

In 2017 Giannis was voted the Most Improved Player in the NBA.

The same year he qualified for the league’s All-Star game for the first time and by the 2020-2021 season he was one of the most feared and unstoppable players in the league.

In July this year he almost single handedly drove the Bucks to win their first championship in 50 years, sparking wild celebrations in Milwaukee.

The man nicknamed the ‘Greek Freak’, the unlikeliest of NBA drafts who started his career in a rough and tumble gym on the outskirts of Athens, had achieved the highest accolade in basketball.

And he did it in his own way.

Fader writes that Giannis ‘didn’t care to wear flashy outfits’ like some of the superstars.

To this day he still has not bought himself a pair of sneakers and doesn’t work out with other players in the off seasons, preferring to keep a professional distance so he can destroy them on the court.

You won’t catch Giannis on a banana boat as Lebron James, Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade did in 2015 in the Bahamas in photos that became instant memes.

Fader writes that Giannis is typical of the new generation of NBA stars who can play in any position, like Luka Doncic of Slovenia and Ben Simmons of Australia.

That means the next Michael Jordan is just as likely to come from a beaten up gym in the suburbs of Athens as he is Alabama. 

Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP is now available for purchase online and at bookstores 


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