Within six years, not only would Antetokounmpo claim possession of the trophy, but he also would acquire the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy after leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their first championship in 50 years.
“Just believe, man,” Antetokounmpo said after Tuesday’s win. “I hope I give people around the world, from Africa, from Europe, hope that it can be done. It can be done.”
The victory made Antetokounmpo the fourth foreign-born Finals MVP and the third Finals MVP with at least one parent from Africa, after Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994 and 1995 and Andre Iguodala, whose father is Nigerian, in 2015. And it resonated in Milwaukee, where more than 80,000 fans engaged in revelry inside and around Fiserv Forum. It also reverberated back home in his native Greece; in Nigeria, where his parents are from; and throughout a continent that always will claim one of its distant sons.
Olajuwon is considered the greatest foreign player in NBA history. Dikembe Mutombo, a fellow Hall of Fame big man, calls him the “king of Africa” because he was the pioneering figure who won two championships and an MVP award and was so good the Houston Rockets don’t catch any grief for selecting him No. 1 — two slots ahead of Michael Jordan — in 1984.
“Part of the evolution of African interest and passion for the game goes back to Hakeem’s entry into the game,” said Victor Williams, chief executive of NBA Africa. “Giannis is doing the same thing for today’s generation of African kids — and they do recognize him as African.”
Antetokounmpo is known as “The Greek Freak” because he was born in Athens, but he grew up in a Nigerian home. His mother, Veronica, is Igbo. His late father, Charles, is from the same Yoruba tribe as Olajuwon. His last name — Adetokunbo — was Hellenized when he finally became a citizen of Greece and received his passport, one month before the Bucks drafted him 15th in 2013.
“I represent my country, both countries — Nigeria and Greece,” said Antetokounmpo, who received a Nigerian passport in 2015 but still longs to visit the most populated nation in Africa.
Talent and will elevated Antetokounmpo to a place where three countries view him with pride. But he was without a country for his entire childhood. Antetokounmpo’s family fought through poverty, endured overt racism, hustled by any means to survive and lived in fear, as undocumented residents in Greece, of being sent back before they could find a better life. The rags-to-riches tale has been told many times but now extends beyond the mind-blowing generational wealth Antetokounmpo has accrued. He has reached the pinnacle of the sport.
“There are so many elements of it that speak to the broader African story. It’s about a family that was hungry for opportunity, for themselves and their kids, and at great risk left the country to find that opportunity,” said Williams, a native of Sierra Leone. “Many Africans travel in the diaspora. We didn’t have to go through the lengths that Giannis’s family did, but that same drive to tap into everything that the world can give you, the opportunities that are available, to be willing to travel and displace yourself in order to get those opportunities, I think is emblematic of a lot of Africans.”
Amadou Gallo Fall spent more than a decade helping the league gain a foothold in Africa. He helped open the league’s office in Johannesburg and oversaw its grass-roots efforts in the continent before taking over as president of the Basketball Africa League two years ago.
“Seeing a young man like Giannis, his background and doing it at the biggest stage, it’s certainly something that’s special, that means a lot to a lot of people,” Fall said. “It’s inspirational. And that’s what we like to see for the young people across Africa, to have these types of role models that we can follow and be inspired by.”
When the Bucks drafted Antetokounmpo, they believed he had some upside, not realizing that eight years later his potential remained limitless and he still would be positionless. Antetokounmpo is already the only player in NBA history with two regular season MVP awards, a championship, a Finals MVP and a defensive player of the year award before turning 27.
His game still has obvious weaknesses, but Antetokounmpo has compensated for his flaws with a relentless work ethic, untamed passion and stubborn competitiveness. He can’t be contained because he’s determined to bust through any and all obstacles.
“I know I’m a role model. But this should make every person, every kid, anybody around the world believe in their dreams,” Antetokounmpo said. “No matter whatever you feel when you’re down, when you don’t think it’s going to happen for you or you might not make it in your career — might be basketball, might be anything — just believe in what you’re doing and keep working. Don’t let nobody tell you what you can be and what you cannot do.”
Though Antetokounmpo was initially trained in Europe, he is now also part of a greater basketball moment for Africa. The continent of more than 1 billion people has become a fertile ground for talent. The NBA has invested in Africa since 2003, with the creation of development and community outreach program Basketball Without Borders. Late commissioner David Stern established NBA Africa in 2010. And the Basketball Africa League completed its inaugural season in a bubble in May.
Last season, a record-tying 14 African-born players were on opening night rosters, including MVP runner-up Joel Embiid and one-time all-star Pascal Siakam, both from Cameroon. More than 100 players born in Africa or with at least one parent from Africa have played in the NBA, including 55 current players.
In the 2020 draft, nine players from or with at least one parent from Nigeria were selected. Seven players in the Finals had ties to Africa: Mamadi Diakite (Guinea); Abdel Nader (Egypt); Axel Toupane (Senegal); and Deandre Ayton, Jordan Nwora and Giannis and Thanasis Antetokounmpo (Nigeria).
“In a continent that is vastly made up of a young, vibrant, dynamic population, that’s the future,” Fall said. “So to see these young people on the global stage doing big things, I think across borders, whether he’s from Nigeria or Congo or Côte d’Ivoire, everybody is watching the NBA. What they are doing continues to build and add to the narrative and the momentum that’s been shaping up, in terms of basketball development on the continent.”
Two of Antetokounmpo’s four brothers have joined him in the NBA, with both already claiming championship rings. Older brother Thanasis is his teammate on the Bucks, and Kostas won with the Los Angeles Lakers last year. Their younger brother, Alex, plays professionally in Europe.
“I think a lot of credit would go to his parents, right?” Fall said. “Under these circumstances that you talk about, they raised three special young people. Getting to the NBA, that’s no small feat. That just speaks to the entire story. Immigration is part of the African story or narrative, whether it’s voluntary or forced, but now is the opportunity to build on those stories, to ensure that this next generation has better choices.”
Antetokounmpo has never hid his background. As a rookie, he brought his family to the NBA Africa reception during 2014 All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. He embraces the homeland that once shunned him, hugs from afar the place responsible for much of his identity and is grateful for an adopted country that has exceeded his wildest dreams.
“Eight and a half years ago, when I came to the league, I didn’t know where my next meal will come from. My mom was selling stuff in the street. Now I’m here sitting at the top of the top,” Antetokounmpo said. “If I never have a chance to sit on this table ever again, I’m fine with it. I’m fine with it. I hope this can give everybody around the world hope. I want them to believe in their dreams.”