Giannis’ incredible journey from rags to riches

Newly-crowned NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo hopes his triumph can inspire people all over the world to keep chasing their dreams regardless of the adversity they face in their daily lives.

Drafted 15th by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013 as an unknown prospect who was literally sitting in the crowd on draft night, before having his name read out by then-NBA Commissioner David Stern, Antetokounmpo has slowly but surely ascended to the mountain top over the last eight seasons.

MORE: Giannis leads Milwaukee Bucks to historic NBA crown

It seems inconceivable now that money would have ever been a problem for a player who recently inked a five-year, $312.5 million deal to remain with the Bucks, but such riches was not something Antetokounmpo could’ve even dreamt about less than a decade ago.

Antetokounmpo’s parents emigrated to Greece from Nigeria in the early 1990s and were faced with an immediate day-to-day struggle to survive and to feed their children.

Giannis, along with his older brother Thanasis, who is also on the Bucks roster, helped their parents sell watches, glasses, CDs and DVDs on the streets of Sepolia, a neighbourhood in Athens, in order for the family to survive until the year before he was drafted.

Even after being drafted by the Bucks, the now 26-year-old forward constantly sent money back home to his family.

In his rookie season, Antetokounmpo took a taxi to a nearby Western Union in Milwaukee to send money home, only to realise he had no cash for a cab fare back to the Bucks’ arena.

Just a teenager at the time, he began running towards the arena before he was given a lift by fans who had recognised him as “the Bucks rookie”.

Antetokounmpo is now a sure-fire hall of famer and will go down as one of the greatest to ever grace an NBA court when he retires, but that’s not why he says he took up the sport.

“I started playing basketball just to help my family, to try and get them out of the struggle and the challenges we were facing when we were kids,” he said as he cradled the Larry O’Brien trophy in his left arm and the Finals MVP trophy in his right.

“Eight and a half years ago before I came into the league I didn’t know where my next meal would come from.

“My mum was selling stuff in the street and now I’m here sitting at the top of the top. I’m extremely blessed. I can never get tired.

“If I never get the chance to sit at this table ever again, I’m fine with it. I hope this can give everybody around the world hope and allow them to believe in their dreams.”

As the clock hit zero at Fiserv Forum to officially give Milwaukee its first NBA title since 1971, Antetokounmpo immediately sought partner Mariah and mother Veronica in the crowd before sinking to a courtside seat and breaking down in tears.

When asked what brought on the tears, Antetokounmpo paid tribute to his late father Charles, who died in 2017 aged 54, as well as his partner, mother and brothers.

“Just the whole journey in order for me to be in this position, how much my parents sacrificed. I saw that every day in my life,” he said, fighting back tears at the podium.

“This is for my mum, she worked extremely hard every day for me to be in this position and she never pressured me to do other things. This is for my dad, he’s watching from above and he can see.

“This is for my significant other, every day she helps me be a better person. She lets me do what I’m supposed to do and she takes care of my son and my next son.

“And it’s for my brothers, because I can be stubborn sometimes. I can disconnect myself from the world because I want this so bad. People helped me to be in this position, I didn’t do this by myself.”

While he has become affably known as the ‘Greek Freak’, Antetokounmpo has not forgotten his Nigerian roots, and said he hopes his triumph can spur children from both Europe and Africa onto bigger and better things.

“Obviously I represent both my countries, Nigeria and Greece,” he said.

“A lot of kids from there, not just for Nigeria, for the whole of Africa and the whole of Europe, I know that I am a role model.

“This should make every person, every kid and anybody around the world believe in their dreams.

“No matter what you feel, when you feel down, when things don’t look like it’s going to happen for you or you might not make it in your career, just believe in what you’re doing, keep working. Don’t let nobody tell you what you cannot be or what you cannot do.

“I hope I give people around the world, people from Africa and people from Europe, [hope] that it can be done.”

After claiming the Finals MVP for stupendous series averages of 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and five assists, Antetokounmpo became one of just nine players to have won multiple regular season MVPs and a Finals MVP, joining all-timers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Moses Malone and Tim Duncan.

While all those players came in as highly touted prospects from day one, Antetokounmpo was forced to earn his spot, a factor he says helped him deliver his 50-point, 14-rebound, five-block masterpiece to close out the Suns in game six.

“It’s been a long journey, I’ve done it all,” he said.

“I did anything I could just to be on the court, just to be in this position. I’ve not played, I’ve come off the bench, when I was 18 I started on the team, I’ve went to the front office and told them to send me to the G-League, I’ve played point guard, my fourth year I was able to lead as a ballhandler and that’s what I had to do tonight.

“I had to do a little bit of everything, I had to defend, I had to rebound, I had to block out.

“I never thought I’m gonna be 26-years-old with my team and playing in the NBA Finals. I was happy being a part of it, not even winning, just being a part of this journey, but I never thought I would be 26 and I would be sitting here [with the trophy]. We’ve come a long way.”

The win was momentous for Milwaukee, a rare small-market success story in the NBA, who seemed resigned to seeing Antetokounmpo walk out the door just 12 months ago as a free agent when the Bucks were unceremoniously dumped out of the post-season by Miami.

Despite countless teams freeing up cap space years in advance for his services, Antetokounmpo turned his back on rivals to re-commit to the Bucks and to the city he now calls his and the rest is history.

“I couldn’t leave, there was a job that had to be finished,” he said.

“I felt that the bubble did not pay us justice. Give credit to the Miami Heat, they played great, but it did not pay us justice. Everybody was feeling homesick, we are a family-orientated team and we wanted to see our families.

“Coming back, I was like, ‘This is my city’. They trust in me, they believe in me, even when we were losing series they were still on our side. I wanted to get the job done, but that’s my stubborn side.

“It’s easy to go somewhere and to win a championship with somebody else, it’s easy. I don’t want to put anybody on the spot, but I could go to a super team and just do my part and win a championship. But this is the hard way to do it and we did it.”

At 26, Antetokounmpo has now won a title before both James and Jordan did.

His incredible resume now reads as follows: NBA champion, NBA Finals MVP, 2x NBA MVP, 5x NBA All-Star, NBA All-Star Game MVP, 3x All-NBA First Team, 2x All-NBA Second Team, NBA Defensive Player of the year, 3x NBA All-Defensive First Team, NBA All-Defensive Second Team, NBA Most Improved Player.

It is as complete a resume as any player in the game’s rich history, and it was not lost on Antetokounmpo, who joked that he aimed to come off the bench and win the Sixth Man of the Year award later on in his career to complete it.

Seeing what he’s done in his first eight years, who doubts him? The frightening part for the rest of the NBA is that he’s just getting started.

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