There is no NBA All-Star taking our collective breath away quite like 22-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s the elastic arms and galactic skill set combined with a rapidly developing basketball computer brain that is turning him into Magic Johnson 2.0 before our eyes. (Or Magic 3.0, if you consider LeBron to be Magic’s second coming.) As Andrew Sharp put it for Sports Illustrated, “He’s arriving in a way that no one thought possible even two months ago, and it’s the biggest story in the NBA right now.”
The Milwaukee Bucks’ budding superstar is a player that we should be celebrating for his singular ability on the court. Instead, we cannot be content to merely celebrate “The Greek Freak.” We are going to have to defend him.
Greece is a country roiled by economic crisis in recent years. Their misery has opened the door to an openly fascist, disturbingly popular political party called Golden Dawn, and they are no fans of Giannis. When he was drafted by the Bucks in 2013, Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos rejected the idea that Giannis, because he is the son of Nigerian immigrants, was truly Greek, saying, “If you give a chimpanzee in the zoo a banana and a flag, is he Greek?”
These aren’t your run-of-the-mill racists, either. Golden Dawn leaders are currently on trial for running an openly “criminal operation” that murders people for political gain. When you are in their crosshairs, they pull the trigger. In the case of Giannis, their target is high profile and represents the 21st century, multicultural Greece that they want to destroy.
Golden Dawn members murdered famous antifascist hip-hop artist Pavlos Fyssas on September 17, 2013 and have attempted to assassinate members of trade unions and political parties.
Mass demonstrations and open street battles have had to take place to challenge these goons. Now, Giannis is in their sights. As Annie-Rose Strasser wrote in 2013 for ThinkProgress, “In some ways he is their perfect villain: a young boy, not ethnically Greek, able to achieve success despite poverty and immigration status. He was even fast-tracked toward citizenship because ‘of special services to the country.’”
Michaloliakos, who is also currently on trial for criminal violence, called for Antetokounmpo’s family to be arrested when they met with the Prime Minister because of their previously undocumented status. He said, “A policeman should have arrested them outside the Maximos Mansion [the Prime Minister’s office] and brought them to a detention center, along with the other illegal immigrants.”
As for Giannis, his story is so remarkable precisely because of this history. He joined his parents selling watches and wallets on the streets of Greece along with his four brothers to put food on the table. “Sometimes, our fridge was empty,” he said to the New York Times in 2013. “Some days, we didn’t sell the stuff and we didn’t have money to feed ourselves.”
It’s difficult to look at the story of Giannis Antetokounmpo and not think of our own country, where a President was elected by whipping up hostility, hatred and even violence against immigrant communities in the United States. (An immigrant church was vandalized with “Trump Nation/Whites Only” and an elderly El Salvadoran woman was attacked minutes from my house, so forgive me for not biting my tongue about this.)
To celebrate Giannis’ triumph as a basketball player is to celebrate the journey of his parents and to fight for the rights of all people to find their place in the world. When he first came to this country to play pro ball as a teenager in 2013, he charmed people by tweeting, “I just taste for the first time a smoothie. MAN GOD BLESS AMERICA.” Yet in a recent Sports Illustrated profile he said simply, “That kid—the kid with the smoothies—I’m not really that kid anymore.” Giannis is all grown up, ready to take over the world. We need to grow up, too—to the threats faced by people who share his background, but don’t have the ability to put a ball in a hoop.
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