The Nigerian Roots of ‘The Greek Freak’ Should Not Be Ignored

Image: Justin Casterline/Getty Images

In the coming days, weeks and months, we are going to hear a lot about Giannis Antetokounmpo and it won’t be solely because a book on the “Greek Freak” by the Ringer’s Mirin Fader comes out next month, either.

It just makes sense.

He just led the Milwaukee Bucks to the franchise’s first NBA title in nearly 50 years, doing so in a decisive Game 6 performance in which he scored 50 points.

If millions across the globe didn’t witness this in real time, one could easily believe it was a Hollywood-concocted creation.

The more you learn about this 26-year-old man, the clearer it becomes that he is on track to become one of the greatest players in NBA history.

  •  Two-time League MVP
  •  Five-time All-Star
  •  Five-time All-NBA
  • League Defensive Player of the year
  • And now, NBA champion and Finals MVP

No NBA player so young has done so much. Not Michael Jordan. Not LeBron James. Not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or anyone else whose name may come up in the conversation for the basketball G.O.A.T.

And while most associate his amazing story with his emergence from the impoverished life he lived while growing up in Greece, the narrative on Antetokounmpo’s amazing journey would not be complete if it doesn’t include more than just a passing mention of his Nigerian roots.

While Antetokounmpo was born in Athens, Greece, his parents were immigrants who fled Nigeria in 1991 looking for a better life for themselves and their soon-to-be expanding family.

Antetokounmpo has never shied away or tried to mask his Nigerian roots, but it was evident from an early age the undeniable push-and-pull that would emerge from the world that made him (Nigeria) and the one he was living in (Greece).

Although he was born in Greece, Greek laws prevented him from becoming an official citizen until he was past his 18th birthday.

After gaining Greek citizenship in 2013, weeks before the NBA draft, his Nigerian surname (Adetokunbo which means the king or crown from across the seas) was transliterated in Greek on his passport to spell out Antetokounmpo (pronounced Aan tuh tuh koom pow).

His experiences as a youth were not all that different from the challenges immigrants in the United States experience that fall somewhere on the spectrum of trying to assimilate into a society that on many levels isn’t fully accepting.

But as we have come to find, the foundation for who he has been as a player, a teammate, a father and now an NBA champion, was very much grounded in his Nigerian upbringing which was emphasized as a child growing up in Greece.

“Obviously, I was born in Greece and went to school in Greece. But at the end of the day when I go home, there is no Greek culture,” Antetokounmpo told ESPN’s The Undefeated writer Marc J. Spears. “It’s straight-up Nigerian culture. It’s about discipline, it’s about respecting your elders, having morals.”

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Those tenets remain alive and well as the foundation for many of the decisions and nondecisions Antetokounmpo has made in his life since being drafted in 2013.

At a time when many of the NBA’s top players would rather try and be part of a stacked team of proven All-Stars akin to what LeBron James has done with the Los Angeles Lakers and previously the Miami Heat, or what Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden tried (and failed) to do this season in Brooklyn, Antetokounmpo has exhibited faith in staying put in Milwaukee, with a franchise that he believed would surround him with the right pieces to achieve the ultimate prize—an NBA title.

And when the moment to seal the deal had arrived, Antetokounmpo gave a performance of the ages, the kind that won’t truly be appreciated until Father Time steps in to put some distance between that moment and the present for the talented player known by many as “The Greek Freak.”

Not only is it easier to pronounce than his name, but it also pays homage to his birth country.

But no praise for Antetokounmpo would be complete without giving proper props to his Nigerian roots which are a central theme as to what defines him.

“It doesn’t matter what people may believe because of my nickname,” he said. “There were a lot of times when I was in Greece where people said, ‘You’re not Greek. You’re Nigerian because you’re Black.’ But then there have been a lot of times where it’s been the opposite, where people say, ‘You’re not African. You’re Greek. You’re “The Greek Freak.” ’ But I don’t really care about that. Deep down, I know who I am and where I am from. That’s all that matters to me.”

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