The Milwaukee Bucks have just beaten the Brooklyn Nets in a marathon triple-OT game at the Barclays Center and the visiting locker room is abuzz. Though it’s only November, the halls of Barclays are swarming with enough groupies, media members, hangers-on, agents and the like that it feels like a big late season win. Jason Kidd’s son, TJ, ecstatic to see his father earn a win in the head coach’s return to Brooklyn, is dapping up every Buck in sight. In one corner of the locker room, OJ Mayo does his best Birdman impression and lets out an audible, “Rich Gang!” And coming from an unseen section of the locker room is the sound of young forward Giannis Antetokounmpo singing and laughing loudly.
Emerging from the showers and moving gingerly across the locker room after playing nearly 48 minutes, the phenom from Greece stops and jokes with his teammates and trainers before getting dressed at his locker. Antetokounmpo has a lot to be happy about tonight after playing one of the best games of his career. Tallying 18 points, 12 boards and 3 steals, Antetokounmpo also shut down Nets All-Star shooting guard Joe Johnson on the defensive end. After chopping it up in Greek with a few reporters, Giannis sits down to field questions from a scrum of media.
Up close, Giannis looks even younger than his now-20 years. Handsome with a picturesque smile, the young man folds his 6-11, 217-pound frame into a tiny chair, his knees nearly touching his chin. Once the mics are in his face, his smile evaporates and he’s all business. He answers each question thoughtfully, his English a bit broken but certainly clear. As he talks to men nearly twice his age, you can’t help but wonder if Giannis is aware of just how much the Milwaukee franchise is depending on him.
An unknown commodity when the Bucks drafted the then-teenager with the 15th pick of the 2013 NBA Draft, the baby-faced young’n drew comparisons to Kevin Durant from scouts who had seen the him hoop in Greece. Touted as a 6-9 small forward with the ability to play four positions, Antetokounmpo was the type of prospect that GMs drool over.
On Draft night, international hoops guru Fran Fraschilla likened Giannis to a “McDonald’s All-American that needs a development program” and a player who “you probably can’t put in an NBA game right now” during ESPN’s television broadcast of the event. Little did Fraschilla, Bucks fans or the basketball world at large know that Giannis would play so much—or become such a compelling figure—in his first year in the League.
Thrust into playing time with injuries and suspensions plaguing the Bucks during the 2013-14 season, Giannis found himself playing unexpectedly large minutes for the worst Bucks team in franchise history. As his minutes increased and the season went along, Antetokounmpo went viral. Tweets, Vines and GIFs of Giannis dunking, blocking shots and running a one-man fast break started to pop up on news feeds on a weekly basis.
It wasn’t just his on-court play that drew attention, either. Everything from Giannis’ first taste of a smoothie, to learning how to drive, to a growth spurt that saw him go from 6-9 to nearly 6-11 was being picked up and run through the news cycle. And when Jason Kidd told the media that Giannis would play point guard during Summer League games last year, Basketball Twitter went into a frenzy. Much like a newborn baby becomes the apple of their parents’ eye, Antetokounmpo became arguably the most- adored player in the League.
Just as his play on the court drew attention from fans, the Antetokounmpo family’s incredible background story began to leak out as well. Born to Nigerian parents in Greece, Antetokounmpo and his three brothers, 21-year-old Thanasis (now playing in the D-League), 16-year-old Kostas (a 6-6 forward playing high school ball in Milwaukee) and Alexis (who Giannis says will likely be the best of the brothers), grew up poor in Sepolia, a suburb of Athens.
Though they were born and raised in Greece, spoke Greek and attended Greek schools, the Antetokounmpo brothers were not recognized as citizens since their parents were immigrants. As the boys grew older, Greece’s stance on dark-skinned immigrants shifted toward violence and hate as extreme right-wing politicians became more and more powerful and blamed non-citizens for the country’s dive into economic, social and political turmoil.
As the story goes, while living in Sepolia, the family faced multiple evictions, their lives in constant flux. To help make ends meet, Giannis and Thanasis took to the streets, selling bags, hats and sunglasses. As teens, the boys were discovered in Sepolia by Spiros Velliniatis, a down-on-his-luck basketball coach and talent scout. Initially, Giannis said no to hoops, more worried about finding a job to help his family than giving his life to the game—plus, Giannis favored soccer over hoops. But with convincing from Thanasis, a promise from Velliniatis that he would help their parents find work, and a strong possibility that basketball would lead to citizenship for the family, Giannis began a journey that brought him from a second-tier Greek basketball league to Milwaukee, of all places.
Now, just a season and change into his career, the future of pro basketball in Milwaukee may very well rest in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s giant hands.
For years now, the Bucks franchise has been targeted for a sale, with a move to a basketball-thirsty city like Seattle likely to follow. Combine an aging owner, some of the worst facilities in the League, poor attendance and a team that hasn’t won a Playoff series since 2001 and it seemed like the Bucks were just biding time until they left Milwaukee. But when the franchise was sold for $550 million to Marc Lasry and Wes Edens by longtime owner Herb Kohl during the offseason, Bucks fans had legitimate hope that the franchise would remain in the Midwest.
One of the biggest agreements made in the sale was that the old and new Bucks ownership would put their own money up to invest into a much-needed new arena to replace the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Kohl, who all but promised that the team would stay in Milwaukee after making the sale, said he would put $100 million toward a new arena and Lasry and Edens said they would match Kohl’s investment. Add another $100 million from private investors and the Bucks have about $300 million for a new arena but still need an estimated $200-$300 million in public money to get construction started.
When the sale was made, a clause was added stating that if a new arena is not ready for play by November 2017, the NBA has the contractual right to buy the franchise for $575 million and take ownership. Considering the many cities desperate for an NBA franchise, and the fact that the team would likely sell for at least $1 billion based on the recent sale of the Clippers, new ownership has to act fast and lobby the state government for public money.
Unfortunately, Lasry and Edens face another major hurdle. After November’s election, Republicans gained control of the state government and Lasry is a Democrat who has been a public financial supporter of President Barack Obama. According to local reports, this has rubbed decision-making Republicans the wrong way. To put it simply, Lasry and Edens are facing an uphill battle to keep hoops in Milwaukee. What the new ownership does have going in its favor, however, is an incredibly talented young core playing well beyond its experience level.
While politicians deal with the behind-the-scenes bullshit, the young Bucks have been almost shockingly entertaining this season, and sit at a very respectable 13-12 through their first 25 games. “Every win is a big win for us, especially because we are such a young team,” says Antetokounmpo, who is tantalizing fantasy owners with his averages of 12.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 27 minutes per game thus far. “We really need these to keep motivating us.”
Despite the early wins and fun roster, the Bucks have the second-lowest average home attendance in the League. If the franchise is to remain in Milwaukee, support has to come from the fans first.
“If the team is sold, it would kill basketball in Milwaukee for good,” says Elisha Twerski, a 19-year-old Bucks fan in Brooklyn. “The attendance there isn’t great right now, but the team has not played great in years. If you look at the Brewers, they got better and now it seems like they sell out every other game. There’s excitement around this Bucks team, too.”
During the triple-OT win in Brooklyn, the Bucks showed just how exciting they can be. Holding down the two forward positions, Giannis and rookie Jabari Parker put on a helluva show. Combining for 41 points, 19 boards, 5 assists and 5 steals, the duo gave a glimpse of what’s in store if the roster can stay together. [Sadly for Jabari and Bucks fans, the rookie is likely out for the season after tearing his ACL in a December game in Phoenix.—Ed.]
“As the season goes along, Jabari and I have been playing better together,” says Giannis. “It’s really fun to play with him. Jabari is fun to watch and he’s fun to play with. He’s a great kid and a great basketball player—he’s going to do great things in this league. He needs to keep working and I need to keep working so we can lead this team to big things.”
Giannis, in particular, was damn near unstoppable during the contest. Though his shooting outside of the paint needs a ton of work, he is a terror when driving to the hoop, using his long arms to keep the ball away from shot blockers and finish in creative ways around the rim. For such an inexperienced player, he has tremendous feel for the game and earns easy assists by making dump-off passes in the lane for dunks and layups.
Defensively, he antagonizes opponents with his athleticism, length and quick hands. Giannis will often hound his man, force a bad shot, grab the defensive rebound and fly up the court on a one-man fast break. While many of these plays now end in missed layups or trips to the free-throw line, they will eventually end in poster dunks and three-point plays as he gets stronger.
“He does at least one thing in practice every day that is All-Star-ish and freakish,” says Bucks vet Jared Dudley. “He’ll go up and block a shot at the top of the backboard or he’ll Eurostep down the lane and dunk it. He always does something in practice that is just like, ‘Wow. He’s going to be scary.’ You can see it already. He’s young and if he keeps working and it all clicks, he’s going to be a very good player.”
Though a hero to so many in his home country already, and a potential All-Star, superstar and savior of pro basketball in Milwaukee, it’s important to remember that Giannis Antetokounmpo is still a kid. Spend a little bit of time around him, and it’s clear that he’s living in the moment and taking every experience in. On the bench, he cheers his teammates at every opportunity. After losses or a bad game, he sulks like the team lost a Playoff series. After wins he’s laughing, joking and engaging.
“Giannis is a happy kid, man,” adds Dudley. “He’s someone who loves to have fun. He dances in the locker room. You can tell he’s soaking everything in right now like a sponge.”
As the next chapter of Giannis’ life and career unfolds in the public eye, adoring fans in Milwaukee—or, possibly, another city—will have the rare opportunity to watch a player blossom into a superstar. He may only be in his second year as a pro, but Giannis has no fear, and proved as much when he went at All-Star James Harden after the whistle during a November loss to the Rockets. Perhaps it can be attributed to his childhood in Greece, or maybe it’s just the naïveté of a young player in the NBA. Whatever it is, Antetokounmpo isn’t waiting around for the team to grow.
For Giannis, the future is now. “I don’t want to put promises out there but I feel like this team can do really special things this year,” says Antetokounmpo. “All the guys believe in it and we have to keep on working.”
Peter Walsh is an Editorial Assistant at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @Peter_M_Walsh.