A Different Greek Freak

Moments after the Milwaukee Bucks selected Giannis Antetokounmpo No. 15 overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, confusion spread throughout the media who filled the Barclays Center press room as the Greece native stepped up to his first NBA podium. Naturally, Giannis wore a handsome new grey suit and a fresh Bucks hat onto the dais, but another tall young man unprecedentedly followed him. The press assumed the stranger was Giannis’ translator. But when a reporter began serving the first-round draft pick questions, Giannis sheepishly shuffled up toward the microphone and answered in broken English with a thick accent. The Usher look-alike to his left said absolutely nothing. Wearing a purple and navy checkered French-collared shirt, suit vest, tie and a matching Bucks hat, he continued his verbal silence during Giannis’ five-minute media session. He simply smiled whenever Giannis smiled and laughed whenever Giannis laughed. It wasn’t until he entered his name into the NBA D-League draft a few months later that we learned Giannis’ sidekick was his brother. It was his older brother, for that matter. It was Thanasis, who soon became one of the most exciting and promising players in the D-League this season. *** Thanasis, Giannis and their younger brothers, Kostas and Alex, were born in Greece after their parents, Charles and Veronica, emigrated from Nigeria in 1992. The couple’s oldest child, Francis, was born in 1984 and is a professional soccer player in Nigeria. Thanasis and Giannis began playing basketball together around 2003 at a basketball court in their local park. Like every brother dynamic in sports, they battled each other day in and day out. “Of course, if you’re brothers, you’re going to be competitive with one another,” Thanasis told SLAM with a Greek accent as equally thick as his brother’s. But before the family’s eldest two sons entered the international basketball discussion, the Antetokounmpo’s, then spelled Adetokunbo, struggled to survive without Greek citizenship in the Speolia neighborhood just outside of Athens. Unlike in the United States, being born in Greece does not automatically guarantee citizenship. Charles and Veronica decided to give their children Greek names to both eliminate suspicion of illegal residence and begin the family’s new life in the new country. The family was forced to move from place to place after being handed eviction after eviction. The four brothers sold sunglasses, hats and bags on the street while Veronica babysat and Charles picked up whatever work he could as a handyman. The two parents fled to Greece in search of a better life for their children, living illegally in Greece for over 20 years. Even though the early years were taxing, Giannis has frequently called his parents his heroes. Meanwhile, he told SLAM he views his older brother in a similar light. “He’s my role model,” Giannis says. “He’s always set the right example. He was the leader of our family. He was always there for us.” One day, Spyros Veliniatis, a coach from Filathlitikos academy, happened to spot the two brothers hooping in the neighborhood and was struck by their raw athleticism and obvious potential. He invited them to join the academy, changing the family’s fortunes forever. Fast-forward to 2011-12 and the two brothers began their pro careers by dominating with Filathlitikos’ Greek Second Division club team. As the brothers played the club to the doorstep of A1, the top league in Greece, word quickly spread of the 6-9, 18-year-old athletic wonder Giannis was. Soon enough, personnel from every NBA team packed Filathlitikos’ tiny practice gym to scout the soon-to-be NBA first-round pick. Thanasis impressed the many league scouts that flocked to the gym as well, officially placing him on the NBA’s radar. When the Antetokounmpo’s futures on the hardwood became clear, Greece granted the entire family citizenship on May 9, 2013 in preparations for their inclusion on the Greek National Team, effectively changing the spelling of their last name. With citizenship and a valid passport, Giannis first set foot in America for the 2013 NBA Draft Combine in May. He played his first game outside of Greece in the 2013 adidas EuroCamp with Greece’s U20 team in early June. The Bucks promptly shocked many by selecting him just outside the Lottery on June 27. “We didn’t know if he was going to get drafted. We didn’t know,” Thanasis says. “So when he finally got to 15 and they selected him to be their franchise player, for them to say he can become a really good player, one of the best in the NBA, it was really nice. It was amazing.” *** Three days before the 2013 NBA Draft, Thanasis arrived in America for the first time. He had already withdrawn his name from the Draft pool, but attended the festivities in Brooklyn with his brother and entire family. “It was really special,” Thanasis says. “It was a blessing to be in that situation. It meant a lot to for us to be there together.” After enjoying his younger brother’s ride to the NBA, he returned home hungry to reach that same stage and entered his name into the 2013 NBA D-League Draft. Knowing he was still NBA-Draft eligible, the recently founded, Philadelphia 76ers-affiliated Delaware 87ers selected Thanasis with the ninth overall pick, commencing what he called, “a really nice experience.” The 87ers were originally the Utah Jazz-affiliated Utah Flash before the Sixers acquired the club and moved it down I-95 from the Wells Frago Center. While Thanasis arrived in Newark, DE, to primarily develop on the basketball court, he used the season in the D-League to adjust to the American lifestyle as well. “It was my first year out of Greece,” Thanasis says. “I had never been anywhere else. The coaches really helped me adjust and everything. They were amazing.” Head coach Rod Baker led the 87ers’ staff. The team played its home games at the University of Delaware’s Bob Carpenter Center, practiced at the Delaware Technical Community College and employed the moteliest of crews on its roster this season. It briefly featured 5-6 Baltimore native and crime-stopping Aquille Carr. A fellow 2014 NBA Draft eligible Norvel Pelle managed to last the entire season. UCLA castoff Reeves Nelson appeared in a few games. Other characters like Kyryolo Fesenko and Keith “Tiny” Gallon also donned the Sevens’ uniforms this winter. With the now-famous Antetokounmpo cheer, Thanasis enjoyed playing alongside all of his teammates. “We really had a tough year and had so many trades and so many different players come to the team,” Thanasis says. “But every single one of them was a really good kid and a really good player and we really got along and the coaches were so nice and every chance I had with them, it felt like a family.” Calling 2013-14 a tough year for the Sevens is an understatement. Delaware finished a league-worst 12-38 in its inaugural season. But amidst the losing, Thanasis showed the potential that has NBA scouts projecting him anywhere from a late-first to a mid-second round pick. In 50 games with Delaware, he averaged 12.0 points in 29.3 minutes per game on 46.9 percent shooting from the field and 30.9 percent shooting from three. With such a raw offensive game, he was a gazelle in transition, scoring 0.98 points per possession in the open floor. But Thanais says he doesn’t play for stats; he simply laces up his sneakers, throws on his jersey and plays the game he loves. “I was nervous in every game, but not nervous in a bad way. Nervous in a good way. Because if you’re nervous, that means you want to do good,” Thanasis says of his D-League season. “I was nervous because I didn’t know if everyone would see how I can play. When I was back home everyone would always say, ‘Oh you’re really athletic and really fast.’ I wanted people to see that I can stand out and make a difference. So it felt like I was playing in my first game the whole year.” Thanasis fell in love with The Bob, saying the 87ers’ home arena “felt like home.” Even though the arena is primarily home to a mid-major basketball team in the Delaware Blue Hens, the 5,000-seat complex felt like the Taj Mahal to Thanasis after only playing in Greek gyms that housed around 500 spectators at best. Those who ventured to The Bob to see the Sevens play would always leave impressed by Thanasis’ never-ending energy on the court. He has something special is fueling every dunk, block and high-flying rebound. “My family, they mean a lot to me,” Thanasis says. “Every day I work hard is just for them. Every morning, every night every second I’ve been working out, everything in my life has been for them.  I get a lot of energy from that.” Still, he went to work every day with a goal in mind: to join his brother in the NBA. He worked diligently with the coaching staff on learning more about the detailed tactics of basketball. He focused on making the most of his developmental season. “I learned a lot of things: terminology of the game, how to defend against the pick-and-roll as a team,” he says. “I learned a lot basketball-wise and how to work with my body and not to get tired because I work a lot, so when I work a lot and I get heavier, I don’t really give what I have to give because I’m really stiff. So, they helped me understand the process, how to work hard and still be able to give and to produce on the court.” *** Thanasis’ play earned him an invite to the Chicago NBA Draft Combine in May. Nearly a dozen teams interviewed the older Antetokounmpo for an opportunity to pick his brain, including Brooklyn, New Orleans, Indiana, Washington, Cleveland, Charlotte, New York, Atlanta and San Antonio. “It was really exciting and really amazing,” Thanasis says. “It was something else for me to go out and play against so many guys that are really good NBA Draft prospects.” Thanasis has something no other prospect has: Giannis’ prolific support through every step of this draining pre-Draft process. “All the guys that go through this process know they get stressed out and they really think,” Giannis says. “He just needs to go through the workouts, live in the moment, enjoy the moments. It’s a new experience for all the kids and I just keep telling my brother to play hard and just enjoy the moment. You only do this once in a lifetime. Just have fun with it.” But while he and Giannis share a bond tighter than we’ll ever fathom, his goal is to get drafted for the player that he is, not simply for the fact he’s Giannis’ brother. “I’m Thanasis. I’m Thanasis. We’re brothers, but on the court he’s just another player,” he says. “It doesn’t matter. They will always compare us because we’re brothers. It’s just there. But I’m my own player.” At 6-7, 205 pounds, Thanasis can’t possibly be the same player as his larger sibling. But being just as athletic at his size and owning a 7-0 wingspan, Thanasis has the potential to be an immediate lockdown one-on-one perimeter defender next year from day one. He’s currently training at a gym in DC, working on every facet of his game. “Everything. Everything. My shot, my ball handling, my skill set, trying to be more athletic and more versatile. Everything,” Thansis says. “When I say everything, I mean everything—dribbling, shots off the dribble, shots of the pick and roll, off the pop. Everything.” If he can improve the consistency of his outside jumper and become one of the valuable new-age 3-and-D wings, Thanasis will have a long and wealthy NBA career. As Thanasis rapidly approaches brink of joining the League, Giannis couldn’t be more proud of his role model. The little brother has been amazed at Thanasis’ determination to get through a bumpy D-League season before his chance at the NBA. “That was a testament to Thanasis, he didn’t give up this year,” Giannis says. “A lot of guys, if their younger brother made it to the League first, they would give up. It made him try harder and I was really impressed and I was really proud of Thanasis. I think when he gets this opportunity now to shine and rise, he’s going to make the most of those opportunities and he’s going to do really good.” Big bro says he’s primed for that chance to prove his worth, to let the basketball world know he’s his own Antetokounmpo, to earn his own reputation. He’s excited for his coming out party. “I just know I’m ready for my opportunity to come and get to play in the NBA.”  Thanasis says. “I’m really excited because people don’t really know me, people tend to put me in a standard because, if you don’t see me play against guys who are projected in the first round, guys who are projected No. 9 or No. 10 or No. 16 or No. 20, you can’t see, you can’t really see the things I bring to the court. So I’m really excited about that. “I’m really gonna try to show people who I am and who I can be.” June 26 is still a few weeks away. The entire Antetokounmpo family will again trek to the Barclays Center to celebrate another son realizing his NBA dreams. This time around, though, it will be Giannis celebrating alongside his older brother. “He’s already got one foot in the door and now he just needs to make the next step and bring the second foot it,” Giannis says. “I couldn’t be more proud of Thanasis.”