NBA's ‘Greek Freak' got many assists growing up

ASSOCIATED PRESS
ATHENS
Published 20.02.2017 00:50

He was just a scrawny, hungry kid, the son of migrants from Nigeria, trying to survive in Sepolia, a modest Athens neighborhood.

The club coach who spotted 13-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo and his brother kicking a soccer ball around a neighborhood field says the NBA All-Star grew up in constant fear of the police, and of being deported.

"He could not make a layup and he could not dribble," says Spiros Velliniatis.

But the teenager's character impressed Velliniatis, with a determination and toughness that showed through.

"He was a champion before he was a basketball player," Velliniatis said.

Now the young man born in Athens is known to basketball fans as the "Greek Freak," and he credits Velliniatis for putting him on the road to stardom.

"He was the one that gave us the opportunity to look at basketball, because me and my brothers were more focused on playing soccer because my dad was a soccer player," Antetokounmpo said.

Many still can't pronounce his name, but they are familiar with the athletic 6-foot-11, 22-year-old Milwaukee Bucks forward's ability to play above the rim.

But as a youngster, Antetokounmpo and his older brother, Thanasis, had to be enticed to attend basketball practices.

"I asked him about his parents and (I said) if I found a job for his parents would he (join) my club? He said yes," Velliniatis said.

Even with that, getting the Antetokounmpos to show up to practice with the club, Filathlitikos, which was in another neighborhood, was still a challenge.

"We said, ‘We must find a way to keep the kid on the court,' This would be a success for all of us," recalls Panagiotis Zivas, the Filathlitikos coach. "They were children, they did not understand they had to be consistently committed."

The family didn't have much, but neighbors would help.

People like Giannis Tzikas, a cafe owner, who sometimes prepared sandwiches for Giannis and his brothers so they would not go to practice hungry.

"Some people said to me ‘why are you feeding the black kids?'" Tzikas said, adding the reactions made him even more determined to help.

In one of Giannis' last games with the junior team, he scored 50 points, and that drew the attention of several senior clubs.

Filathlitikos officials made sure the tape was circulated near and far. Interest soared, including from the NBA. One of the people who made the trip to Greece to watch Giannis play was Boston Celtics' president and former star, Danny Ainge.

The Spanish club, Zaragoza, was the first to make an offer to Antetokounmpo.

Antetokounmpo never played for Zaragoza because the Bucks made him a first-round draft pick in 2013 .

The brothers' basketball careers may have taken them around the world, but they continue to make an impact in Greece. Once in constant dread of being deported, Giannis now has his citizenship papers.

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