FOR THE FAMILY: Giannis Antetokounmpo and His Brothers Built the Nike Freak 1

by August 21, 2019
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GRAB YOUR COPY OF KICKS 22 FEATURING GIANNIS

“Shall they be a family in name only; or shall they in all their actions be true to the name?” —Plato

The story of Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t just the story of Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s the story of a family. It’s a story that goes far beyond the definition of the word, far beyond a name, far beyond Athens, Greece and Milwaukee, WI. It’s a story about a group of people bound together by a love that runs truly, truly deep. Love forged through hardship and tragedy. Love proven by action true to the name.

The air conditioning is kind of busted at the Filathlitikos gym in Zografou, Greece. And it’s hot. It’s a dry, no-breeze type of hot. Blue accents dot the gym, a lighter shade lining the matted walls and a darker shade covering the painted area on the court. Giannis Antetokounmpo wipes some sweat from his forehead while his childhood coach, Takis Zivas, talks about the old days. Coach Zivas, who doesn’t speak English, tells his translator that he used to see the reigning MVP outworking everybody in the gym. Giannis nods along with his coach and then follows up by talking about the memories that he made in here, when there actually was no air conditioning. While Giannis speaks, three of his brothers—Thanasis, Kostas and Alex—take turns greeting Coach Zivas with big hugs. Photos of the brothers hang on the wall behind Coach Zivas because, with the exception of Alex, they all played here. They all came from the town of Sepolia to this facility, thanks to Thanasis.

“I didn’t choose basketball,” Giannis says. “Thanasis chose basketball.”

A couple of hours before they’re at the Filathlitikos gym, Thanasis and Giannis are on stage at the Zappeion, a landmark in Athens, surrounded by a space built out by Nike. The sun is bouncing off the white beams that surround the classically designed structure. There’s no roof and no relief from the late-June heat. But Thanasis is smiling, sitting directly across from the Nike Zoom Freak 1 while his younger brother talks about the impact he made on him.

“Thanasis, back then, he was the star,” Giannis says, with the black/white Freak 1 on and a blue shirt that reads FREAK. “A lot of people were talking about Thanasis and obviously I looked up to him. I wanted to be him.”

Thanasis had a realization about basketball. The oldest Antetokounmpo brother, Francis, had a professional soccer career in Nigeria. The family loved soccer, but Thanasis thought that basketball could be a way out. And he was right.

“For us, knowing that we might be able to start making a living in basketball…but this is another level that we never could have imagined,” Thanasis, who’s also in the black/white Freak 1, says. “Being able to inspire so many people…I always knew that we would support each other. For me, greatness was just being with my family, all together, and being able to survive. But this is something else.”

“Nothing beautiful without struggle.”—Plato

Thanasis and Giannis used to join their parents on the streets of Athens, selling DVDs and CDs to make some money. They were always working. And when they weren’t working, Giannis and Kostas were walking five miles from Sepolia to Zografou, to get their reps in on the court. They’d regularly sleep at the gym rather than risk the late-night walk home. Thanasis and Giannis had to share basketball shoes, too, once they started playing. They’d switch in and out of a pair of Kobe 4s.

“People think it was hard but it was actually fun,” Thanasis says about their sneaker situation. “Let’s say Giannis is playing. Then you beat the other team and the other team is looking at you crazy because you just beat them with some guy’s [sneakers].”

They can laugh now, but there was a time when nobody knew who they were, when there were no pro contracts and no endorsement deals and there wasn’t a Nike sneaker in the family. All they had was each other. And then that changed, too.

Their father, Charles, passed away unexpectedly in 2017 at his home in Milwaukee. He suffered a heart attack, out of the blue, at the age of 54. Now the family carries his name with them at every turn.

“Every day that I step on the floor, I think about my dad,” Giannis said through tears during his MVP speech. “That motivates me and it pushes me to play harder and move forward.”

Joy wouldn’t feel so good if it weren’t for pain and Giannis made sure that everybody who wears his signature sneaker will honor his late father. “I am my father’s legacy” is written on the outsole of every single Freak 1.

“At the end of the day, that’s all you leave behind is your legacy for your kids,” he tells KICKS. “Your legacy is what you are about and you know my father passed away two years ago and he’s never going to be forgotten. We’ll be here, five kids, to remind people that we are his legacy and he is always going to be remembered and honored. 

“All the shoes, as you guys can see, say ‘I am my father’s legacy.’ And right here,” he says, pointing to the midsole, “you can see his name as well with my mom’s name.”

The “Roses” Freak 1 is a tribute to Charles. He would have loved the combination of white, red and gold.

“This is about my dad,” Giannis says, while on stage at the Zappeion. He has the “Roses” colorway in his hand. His eyes don’t leave it as he speaks. “In memory of my dad,” he says. “It’s got his favorite colors.” He shakes his head a few times. “Um…I’m not going to get emotional, but…I’m just going to keep it short. This just goes to my dad.”

“The beginning is the most important part of the work.”—Plato

Creating the Zoom Freak 1 took a year and a half. When you’re talking about  a signature sneaker, that’s a pretty normal timeline for production. But Kevin Dodson, Nike’s VP of Basketball Footwear, stresses how different it is to work with Antetokounmpo, and not just because there were meetings in Athens. And Milwaukee. And Beaverton.

“Giannis is that almost never-seen-before combination of size, speed, skill, explosiveness and competitiveness wrapped into one package,” Dodson says at the Nike campus in Beaverton, OR. “That’s a unique problem you’re going to have to solve for. And his background makes him different. Being born and raised in Greece, he’s going to come with a unique perspective. Humble beginnings to now this incredible rise. His path, it all makes him special to work with. Every instance we’ve had with him, it’s been different than anybody else we’ve had before.”

Giannis had a notebook with him at the early meetings with Nike, writing down ideas, asking questions. He had his family members with him each time and he would turn to them for input. And not just, Do you think this looks cool? He was asking them about specific tech.

“It’s all about family with me, man,” the MVP tells KICKS. “Whatever I do, I wanted them to be as involved as possible. I wanted them to see what I go through. It’s not just my shoe—it’s my family’s shoe, so I wanted to hear their opinion. I’m so happy that they had so much input in the shoe, the colors, the design.”

Dodson says that Giannis referenced Kobes as his favorite sneakers to hoop in. The comfort and the ride of the Kobe line had been a constant in his life since he was borrowing Thanasis’ pair. He would go on to wear the Kobe 10 for nearly three straight seasons in the League.

“Was it three years? I feel like it was more like a month.” Antetokounmpo grins. “I loved their grip because I make a lot of cuts and they were really the only shoe that could take it.”

“You’ve got to understand why he liked the Kobe 10,” Dodson says back in Oregon. “The Kobe 10 had a particular fit and forefoot ride that he really loved. When we sat down for the first time, those were the elements he called out. We were all wondering the same question. Why that shoe? Why so many seasons wearing it without changing? So we knew from the beginning the fit in the forefoot, the underfoot ride had to be spot-on to mimic that same sensation.”

So the Freak 1 was built like a Kobe silhouette.

“We wanted to heighten the sensation Antetokounmpo has loved in the Kobe,” says Ross Klein, Senior Creative Director at Nike Basketball.

A double-stacked Zoom Air unit was placed in the heel to complement the forefoot feeling that was so important. Klein notes that it’s one of the first basketball silhouettes to include double-stacked Zoom. The sneaker’s reverse Swoosh also serves a performance function. It allowed Ross and his team to establish a frame that would prevent Antetokounmpo from popping out of the sneaker on his Eurosteps.

The upper of the Freak 1 is made out of a mesh that rests on top of a foam midsole. That all trails down to a new traction pattern that has a dual meaning behind its design. First, it’s designed to help Giannis on his long, long, long strides because he places a ton of weight on the lateral side of his foot. Second, it may just look like a multidirectional pattern, but it’s another callback to his father. When the outsole is closely examined, two roses appear.

“That has a lot of meaning to Giannis,” Klein says about the outsole design.

“I thought Nike was gonna come with a shoe and say, ‘OK, this is gonna be your shoe.’ But actually no, they asked me what I wanted to share with the people,” Giannis says. “Every shoe’s gotta have a story and this is the Zoom Freak 1 so when people buy this shoe, I want them to hear my story and get to know me. There are a lot of details that you have to figure out with the shoe. I’m really excited about the details.”

In addition to the roses on the outsole and the names of his parents on the medial midsole, the names of his brothers are written on the heel. The “34” on the heel’s collar can be read as his jersey number or as the Greek flag. And there are more colorways planned, like the “Coming to America” and “Greece” flavors that will continue to share his story, because he now understands how powerful his sneakers can be.

“It’s amazing,” he says about the devotion people have to sneakers. “Before I joined Nike, I didn’t realize how big the sneaker world was and the influence that athletes and sneakers have on the next generation. And that’s where it goes back to the storytelling. I wanted a lot of kids, when they get my shoe, to be motivated. I want my shoe to be about hard work and about hope, about having faith.”  

“The measure of a man is what he does with power.”—Plato

The launch of the Zoom Freak 1 was a journey that spanned Beaverton, Greece, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and New York City. And at each stop, Giannis brought pandemonium with him. Kids screaming for selfies in Athens. Teenagers trying their hardest to show off their ability to hoop in front of him in Queens. Adults watching along, fighting back tears of happiness with mile-long smiles on their faces in Sepolia.

“With this comes responsibility,” Thanasis says. “It’s not just everybody knows me or my brother is the MVP. What comes with that is you’re a role model. It’s different now. It’s not like, I can lag a little bit. You have to give your all, always. The thing that makes me really proud is he’s tried really hard to be a role model.”

“This is a global perspective coming into Nike Basketball,” Dodson says of Antetokounmpo and his family. “That story can speak to basketball players around the world. It not only resonates here in the United States but if you go overseas into Europe or into Asia, his story is something that everybody can connect with.”

The story of Giannis Antetokounmpo is one that bridges race, nationality, age and fandom. Everywhere he goes, with Thanasis, Kostas and Alex by his side, he’s welcomed like a hero. He is the legacy of his parents, the legacy of Greece and Nigeria, the legacy of an NBA franchise. He’s grown from a kid trying to help his family to an inspiration helping kids around the world.

And yet, with an MVP trophy and a signature sneaker, Antetokounmpo won’t stop working.

“I’m really, really happy about everything, but at the end of the day I can’t stay in the moment that much because I try to stay as humble as I can and hungry, and usually when you stick around the moment, that makes you feel comfortable and I don’t want to be comfortable,” he says. “Feeling uncomfortable is a good thing. When you’re out of your comfort zone, then you get better. You improve, you learn. 

So I’m excited about the MVP, I’m excited about this shoe right here, I’ve waited 18 months for this shoe to be released, and it’s been a long journey, but at the end of the day, we have to keep getting better, on the court and off the court so more stuff like this can follow.”

When our interview with him wraps up, he grabs the sneakers off his brothers’ feet and starts to make stank faces, the same looks he gives after he posterizes somebody.

“They said my shoe was trash! Yeah, right!” He’s not yelling at anyone in particular, only to the people on the internet who didn’t approve of the early leaks. “Are you crazy???”

He goes from mean mugging to cheesing, holding up the Freak 1 colorways that were made specifically for Francis, Kostas and Alex, making sure that his family members get the shine, too. Because the story of Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t just the story of Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

It’s the story of family.

GRAB YOUR COPY OF KICKS 22 FEATURING GIANNIS

Max Resetar is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Portraits by Matthew Coughlin and Devlin Resetar and via Nike.