Watch him gallop! Watch him soar! Watch him cradle and rock the baby! Watch him leap and swat! Watch his limbs — impossibly long, but perfectly in sync — as he glides across the court. Nine steps end to end? He grew up destitute on the fringes of Greek society, with a loving family of Nigerian immigrants. This time last year he was playing for a second-division Greek league club in a small neighborhood in Athens. Now he’s a rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks shredding the Internet, one breathtaking weakside block at a time. Now he’s a 19-year-old millionaire, an all-grinning, all-dunking testament to the sheer might of the American Dream. His name is Giannis Antetokounmpo. But you can call him the Greek Freak.
And just in time for his dramatic Midwestern arrival — the Milwaukee Bucks are cratering. They’ve got the worst record in the league, their stadium is falling apart, and their fans are fleeing. In Seattle, a ravenous ownership group awaits, primed to hijack an NBA franchise. If things don’t turn around, Wisconsin might lose this team forever.
And so in Brew City — in the midst of the coldest winter in 30 years and the worst season in the history of the once-proud Bucks — the question is already being asked: Is Giannis the man who will save professional basketball in Milwaukee?
It’s the Saturday before All-Star Weekend, and the A-list Houston Rockets are in town. But outside the Bucks’ famously shabby Bradley Center, there’s none of the usual en masse bonhomie. Clusters of fans speed-walk through the frigid air, and a few brave scalpers call halfheartedly, “Tickets? Tickets?” One enterprising fellow does so from out the window of his warm and idling car.
Inside the Bucks’ locker room, the vibe is markedly cheerier. Apparently, someone’s wallet has gone missing, and a jokey investigation is under way. Giannis is the prime suspect. A team trainer is trying to coerce a confession with creepy-animal-based threats: “My boy got a pet store in Kenosha. Get a couple of snakes and a couple rats …” Giannis smiles wide, and shouts down the hall: “This guy says he gonna bring roaches and that! I don’t like that!”
Scenes like this are the norm. In less than half a season, Giannis has become the team’s de facto favorite kid brother. And everyone’s got a story to tell.
Zaza Pachulia recalls the first time Giannis got his check: “He saw half of the money was going to taxes. He ask me, is there any way he doesn’t pay taxes?” Brandon Knight remembers Giannis carrying free food home from the players’ lounge: “You’d see him with like six or seven boxes, trying to save money — cakes, drinks, all types of stuff.” Caron Butler1 remembers tossing out a pair of sneakers, only to have Giannis intervene: “He pulled the shoes out the garbage like, ‘What are you doing? These good shoes!’”
Larry Sanders, speaking of footwear, has bought Giannis not one but two pairs of Gucci shoes, although Giannis says he’s saving them for “something good — when I’m gonna go out. I test them, wear them a little bit in the house. They’re very nice. Very nice.” Meanwhile, John Henson mostly can’t believe that Giannis has never sampled Chipotle.2
Up to the final weeks before last year’s draft, Giannis was an unknown. But then his unbelievable story — sharing one pair of basketball sneakers with his brother, selling trinkets to tourists to get by — trickled out. It didn’t hurt that he was a teenager with mouthwatering athleticism and eye-popping length and all that other stuff that gets Jay Bilas’s heart aflutter. That he would then be plucked out of Europe’s fractious xenophobic battles and plopped down in Milwaukee — with all due respect, perhaps the most comfortingly bland bit of America the NBA has to offer these days — seemed almost too perfect.
Once Giannis arrived in the States, he drank it up with an epic smile and zestful glee. He tweeted about the wonder of his first smoothie and blogged about guarding his “idol” Kevin Durant for the first time. Then he managed to block the living hell out of said idol. In increasing minutes, Giannis’s highlights were perfect click-bait. One chase-down block or baseline cram at a time, he was becoming an Internet folk hero.
Just before the All-Star break, and after sorting through months of visa issues, Giannis’s parents and two younger brothers finally arrived in Milwaukee. Lucky enough to catch a rare Bucks buzzer-beating win (over the Knicks, of course) and ecstatic at seeing Giannis play in the NBA for the first time, the family was overcome. For most of the game, their hands were on their heads in Kevin McCallister–esque shock. The result was a blooming GIF sensation.
Seeing that kind of joy from afar, you might assume Milwaukee had been overcome with Greek Freak fever — that the city had effectively been flattened by sausage-guzzling partisans squawking sonnets in the name of Giannis. But from the looks of the fans around the arena wearing outdated Brandon Jennings jerseys, it appears that being Twitter’s favorite hardscrabble success story doesn’t translate into quite as much on-the-ground fame.
Before the game, Doug Russell, the sports DJ at Bucks flagship station WTMJ, had cautioned me that Giannis Mania is fighting years of entrenched Bucks apathy.
“You’ll see it at the [arena],” he said. “There’ll be — charitably — 7,000 people there? But for those that are paying attention, they’re falling in love with this kid.” And when I asked coach Larry Drew if he could remember anything like the Giannis phenomenon, his answer summarily tempered my excitement: “Yeah. I was in L.A. when we traded for Kobe. And the attention was much greater than it is here.”
If Giannis’s career takes off, as many expect and pine for, then real-life fame will follow. But right now, it appears, the Rise of Giannis exists primarily online and almost independent of the floundering, fumbling, wounded Bucks.
Taking my seat, I look out for some of the Bradley Center’s famed shortcomings. The 26-year-old building is, by NBA standards, small and barren. It’s also crumbling: It’s got a leaky roof, rusting doors, and a cooling system so ancient that it relies on a refrigerant “that is no longer permitted to be manufactured or sold in the United States.”3 Commissioner Adam Silver has indicated the Bucks will not be able to stay here beyond 2017, when the team’s lease is up.
But to have a new home ready by then, the Bucks need to get going. Owner Herb Kohl — the 79-year-old former U.S. senator and department-store heir who now slings flavored milk for fun — is pledging to fund a new arena with a chunk of his own money while angling for public funds.4 He’s also looking for investors who will commit to keeping the team in Milwaukee.5 Meanwhile, a flush ownership group in Seattle, led by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, is ready to splurge on a new, toast-of-the-NBA arena, and to redeem the brutal 2008 murder of the SuperSonics.
Here, as with everything, Giannis comes into play. If the team has a budding international superstar on its roster, then finding arena funding becomes significantly less impossible. But that’s theoretical. Right now, Giannis is averaging seven points a game and looking lost on defensive rotations as often as he looks brilliant on the break. And right now the Bradley Center is marked for death and could just take the Bucks down with it.
This time last year, the Would-Be Savior and his Would-Be Savees began to get acquainted. That’s when NBA scouts started flying to Athens to find the rickety gyms where Giannis was dominating competition not fit to carry his souvlaki. Milwaukee believed in Giannis enough to draft him with the 15th pick. “The first time that I hear about the Bucks was at the draft,” Antetokounmpo recalls. “I never, like, watch them play.” So when did he hear how cold Milwaukee would be? “The GM told me. At the airport.”
That’s a neat enough story on its own. But ask Spiros Velliniatis, Giannis’s excitable mentor back in Greece, and you’ll hear a more expansive tale.
It starts in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Greece was transformed by a wave of immigrants — including Giannis’s parents, who left their native Nigeria and had four sons in their adopted country. Velliniatis had played pro ball in Germany before he began pinging around Europe as a “have clipboard, will travel” type of coach. He saw Greece’s changing demographics as a way to help others (and perhaps boost his own career). He began scouring Athens’s new immigrant communities, seeking transformative basketball talent. And for a decade, he failed.
“My personal life was going to nothing, my basketball career was not successful, and I said to myself, ‘I will not have big goals in life anymore,’” he tells me over the phone from Greece. He hadn’t played in the NBA; he hadn’t become a big-time coach. Then, a week after he had decided to give up: “I see Giannis.”
It wasn’t one of his regular scouting trips; he was just walking through the neighborhood of Sepolia to visit a friend. This is not happening to me! This is not possible!, he said he thought when he spotted the 13-year-old Giannis. “You are chasing for 10 years immigrant kids to play basketball for a mediocre level, and suddenly you have in front of you Julius Erving! Magic Johnson! Michael Jordan!” Never mind that Giannis wasn’t actually playing basketball when Velliniatis first saw him. He was just running around with his brothers. But Velliniatis knew.
“It was mostly like a blackmail,” Velliniatis says, explaining how he convinced Giannis to hoop. “I told him, if I find work for your parents” — their work papers had long expired — “will you play basketball for me?” Then he took Giannis and his brothers to Filathlitikos, a smaller club where he hoped they would get more personal attention. He talked the club into providing a 500-euro monthly stipend — without Giannis ever touching a ball.
For the first few years, it was tenuous. “Many times the kid stopped,” Velliniatis says. “He was going and working, selling little things in marketplaces. I had to go back to the family and drag Giannis back to basketball.” The family had no money; at times, Giannis could go two or three days without eating. The fear of hunger was always a concern, Velliniatis says. “You could see it in the hardness of the kid.” Meanwhile, as Antetokounmpo recalls, “I get taller and taller and taller.”
Eventually, he fell in love with the game. “When we were playing basketball,” says Giannis’s older brother Thanasis, now a swingman for the NBA D-League’s Delaware 87ers, “[we] forget everything else that was happening in our lives.” Giannis would run with every one of Filathlitikos’s units: the senior men’s team, the women’s team, even the 10-year-old juniors. He crafted himself as a point guard, not envisioning he’d one day grow to 6-foot-10.6 Once Giannis understood his potential, Velliniatis says, he “grabbed it from the throat.”
In 2012, Spanish club Zaragoza signed Giannis for 250,000 euros a year. Then the path accelerated, faster than Velliniatis or the Antetokounmpos imagined. “We’d go and play outside of Athens, in little towns up north,” Thanasis remembers. “And you could see scouts. How come they came here? It was amazing.”
“At the beginning I feel nervous,” Giannis says. “I go in the morning, practice a little bit, get my mind ready. I walk in, I see them sitting. I start to put some cones, show them my skills, my ballhandling. And then it’s my job. They come, like, every day. I don’t feel nervous. I just do my job.”
Remembering draft night, Velliniatis gets choked up. He never had a financial arrangement with Giannis; he just wanted to shepherd the kid’s greatness. He takes a minute, lets a couple sobs go, and finally gets the word out: “We fighting the impossible, and we beat the Greek system.”
Back at the game, it becomes apparent that the Bradley Center’s most pressing issue is not its dinginess. It’s that the place is half-empty.7 And how does the industrious Bucks promo team address the situation? Why, wiiiiith —
Mustachioed dudes dance-off! Free-pizza-coupon Frisbee toss! Pogo dancers, a T-shirt AK-47, a baby race!!!8 We get Bango, the Bucks’ anthropomorphic deer mascot, in so many forms: Big Head Bango, Mini Bango, Somersaulting From the Ceiling Bango. But nothing tops Inflatable Zeppelin Bango, a mascot float that hovers sloooowly about the arena, leering creepily as if Bango’s cold, dead eyes are scanning the crowd for his next human sacrifice. To witness the full whiz! bang! pow! of NBA promos in a cavernous, largely empty space, it turns out, is a little like having a psycho clown get right up in your face to do his evil cackle.
To my right, amid the wilderness of empty seats, I notice a small oasis of fans stomping their feet, toting giant cardboard Larry Sanders faces, and tossing confetti with every Bucks basket. Nick, one of these excitable fellows, tells me this is a “fan zone” called Sector 7: Ersan Ilyasova buys everyone tickets, and all you have to do is “make as much noise as possible and cheer for the Bucks.” You also have to stand up the entire game.
I ask Nick if it’s been tough fulfilling Sector 7 duties for such a bad team. “They tried to build a halfway-decent roster again,” he says. “But honestly, I’m really happy it’s going terrible.”
While other struggling NBA franchises chart out five-year plans to build championship-level contenders, the Bucks have become notorious for their never-ending pursuit of low playoff seeds. That has often meant trading young talent for midpriced veterans who can help the team notch a few extra wins and snag the 8-seed.9 It has also kept the Bucks locked in a hellish limbo: The best Bucks teams are usually just good enough to get demolished in the first round of the playoffs.
But when this year’s batch of vets flamed out, the Bucks found themselves in unfamiliar territory: sliding far enough down the standings to get a likely top-three pick in 2014’s loaded draft. “We’re stuck in the middle of it,” explains Bucks GM John Hammond. “We have nowhere to turn … With the weather and the way we’re playing, this has been the winter from H-E-double-L. And so we’ve come to the realization that, for a small-market team like ourselves, if we’re gonna add an impact player, the most logical way to do that is through the draft.”
This is the part where Bucks fans slam their foreheads with indignation. You’ve come to the realization?! What the H-E-double-L took you so long?
That Milwaukee resisted this rebuilding strategy for so many years is generally believed to be a mandate from Kohl, and it’s unclear how much Hammond bristles against it. Without addressing any specific move, Hammond says: “In hindsight, we’d do a lot of stuff differently. [But] this isn’t a video game. We can’t do anything over.” And then, once again: There’s Giannis. Not only did Hammond pick right — re-pick the 2013 draft and Giannis probably goes first — but now both the GM and the team have also got a wonderful distraction.
Back near Sector 7, I solicit the help of an usher to help me spot the Antetokounmpos. With Giannis struggling through a ghastly 0-for-8 shooting night — probably the worst game of his professional career — there aren’t too many ecstatic high fives going around. A few times, Giannis gets the ball on the break, and seeing him start to trot gets the crowd nearly as riled up as the free-pizza Frisbee coupons. But tonight the ball keeps getting away from him. Bundled up for warmth in their awesome new Nike gear, the Antetokounmpos mostly sit quietly.
At the top of the stairs, the usher grumbles that the Bucks better not do with Giannis what they always do with their good players: Give them away. I was incredulous: You don’t think they’ll manage to hold on to Giannis? And he answers, with the labored sigh of 100,000 Bucks fans, “I have no reason to believe that they will.”
To understand Bucks fatalism, you have to remember the team’s glories. For the first two decades of its existence, the franchise was the city’s pride: Lew Alcindor, Oscar Robertson, and the championship in 1971; then Don Nelson, Sidney Moncrief, and the endless string of Central Division titles. Sure, they could never get past Philly and Boston in the ’80s, but those were years of spit and pluck and vitriol. Goddamn, those were teams.
But those days are long gone. The Bucks have sunk so low that some in Milwaukee are ready to write them off. Bucks loyalist Andy Gorzalski — an executive at the kind of hip ad firm where elegant outdoorsmen types with free-flowing beards and fitted oxfords hum along at standing desks — describes the mind-set: “Just wait out the clock. Then they get moved to Seattle and who gives a shit.”
Gorzalski gives a shit. He is currently working to salvage the iconic hardwood from the team’s old MECCA arena. In a quirk of Bucks history, that floor was designed by pop artist Robert Indiana: It’d be a priceless piece of art if it weren’t a giant basketball court. Gorzalski is developing an “agora,” or community space, built around the floor — anything to preserve the Bucks’ proud history. He calls himself a “civic activist” for the team.
If Gorzalski and his fellow basketball fans in Milwaukee’s arts community represent the more urbane side of Bucks fandom, then the members of the online community Save Our Bucks are the G8 protesters with the Molotov cocktails in hand. The group grew out of the lively Bucks forum on RealGM.com; now its members publicly hammer the franchise for its sins. Earlier this year, they stirred up quite a hubbub when they crowd-funded a billboard, near the city along Interstate 43, that reads “Winning Takes Balls” — the ones bouncing around inside the NBA’s lottery machine.
I meet Paul Henning, the 33-year-old public face of Save Our Bucks, at a footbridge near the billboard. Befitting the renegade vibe, the group’s primary benefactor has chosen to remain anonymous and no one — not even Henning — has met him. “He’d rather be the Hannibal Smith,” Henning says. “He just loves it when a plan comes together.”10
The highway below us, Henning explains, “is how you get to the airport. So when the team’s going on the road, they have to drive right past the billboard.” If we stand outside in the cold any longer, our faces are going to snap off, so instead we head to Major Goolsby’s, a warmly scrappy pub brimming with sports history. (If nothing else: Reggie Jackson choke-slammed a dude here.) Inside, for several hours and over many pitchers, we meditate on failure.
At the problem’s bewildering core is Herb Kohl. When he bought the franchise in 1985, he saved the Bucks from almost certain relocation. In 2003, he pulled out of a deal to sell the team to a group fronted by Michael Jordan because he wasn’t given enough assurance they’d keep the team in Milwaukee.11 Kohl’s dedication to the city is Milwaukee’s no. 1 bulwark against losing the Bucks. As Bucksketball blogger Jeremy Schmidt says of Kohl: “He doesn’t have a wife and kids. He doesn’t have heirs. That’s his child, essentially. This organization is his family. Like, he’s been wearing the same green Bucks hat for the last 25 years.”
And, yet, the sad truth: The world’s biggest Bucks fan has overseen the longest reign of incompetence in franchise history.
Save Our Bucks wants smart new management that’s in tune with current analytics-heavy NBA philosophy. They pine for a crusading member of the local media to call out the team’s years of ineptitude. But they also just want to remind people that they’re here. “It’s a very sick relationship that Bucks fans have with the franchise,” Henning says. “But I love the city of Milwaukee more than anything. And I love the Bucks basketball team. And I’d be crushed if this team leaves.”
Over the next few days, I hang near Giannis. One evening after shootaround, I see him sign every last autograph requested; one morning after practice, I see him storm past the media in a sour mood. “I’m not doing nothing,” he says. Before long, however, he is coaxed out from the locker room and he lapses back into his smiley self. And then, promptly, I see one reporter ask him, surely for the 10,000th time: “So how the heck do ya pronounce your name?”
The beat reporters explain that Giannis has started having good days and crabby days. One of his reps tells me Giannis has recently complained of feeling “suffocated,” and that journalists from Greece have even popped up unannounced at his house. “I don’t like to go out and be talking to the media,” Giannis tells me at one point. “But, you know, it’s how it works.” And it’s incredible — with his family trying to get settled, and outlets from here to Thessaloniki wanting his time — how well he handles it all.
Thinking back to before he got here, about what he knew of the United States, he says: “I didn’t have any idea. Just, I know that there gonna be biiiiig buildings, you know? To the sky. In Greece, we don’t have big buildings. The biggest building like eight floors.”
While his family was still in Greece, “they was calling me all day,” he says. “They was telling me, ‘Hey, they just showed you on TV! Hey, you was in the newspaper this morning!’” Now, they’re actually here. “In the timeouts, I look at them. They look so happy, and I’m happy, and I just play my game.”
They like Milwaukee, he promises. “Everybody gonna talk about the cold. My mother and father, they not used to the cold. So, what can you do. We gonna buy some coats and wait till summer.”
He’s watching his younger brother Kostas — who grew three inches, to 6-foot-7, since Giannis last saw him — settle at local powerhouse Dominican High School, where he’ll represent a local extension of the Antetokounmpo legend.12 “They practice today, and the coach told him he got a better jump shot than me!” Giannis says.
I’d heard that Giannis was taking driving lessons. And when I ask, he breaks out a huge smile and cuts me off:
“I got my license already. Yeaaaaah! First try! Come on, man! Talk to me!”
I can’t help it. I start laughing. So you got a job, a place to live, a license? What’s left?
“Nothing. Just get a ring now.”
Currently, Antetokounmpo exists as a symbol — a few times over. Online, he’s a cooked-down core of feel-good highlights. In Milwaukee, diehards salivate, but with some wariness, waiting for him to reach his potential and deliver their team from the purgatory of NBA mediocrity. In Greece, the stakes are higher. The country is a gateway of illegal immigration to Europe: As the New York Times reported in 2012: “The 126-mile border between Turkey, which is not in the European Union, and Greece, which is, has become the back door to the European Union, making member countries ever more resentful as a tide of immigrants from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa continues to grow.” And, without a choice, the Antetokounmpos have been pulled into the debate.
Greece’s extreme right wing is represented by Golden Dawn, a virulently racist and xenophobic political party. After the NBA draft, now-imprisoned Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos took aim at Giannis’s popularity in the country. “If you give a chimpanzee in the zoo a banana and a flag,” Michaloliakos asked, “is he Greek?” Later, when Giannis was invited to meet the prime minister at the Maximos Mansion, Greece’s answer to the White House, Michaloliakos suggested the Antetokounmpos should be arrested on the premises.
Prime minister Antonis Samaras ably shrugged off the horrible ugliness, telling Giannis: “I want to thank you for honoring our national colors. I want to tell you with great emotion … I hope you drive them all crazy with your dunks in America.”
Last spring, the formerly illegal Antetokounmpos received a special exception and were granted citizenship based on Giannis’s potential contributions to Greek society. It was a glorious moment for the family, but one laced with cynicism. Giannis was born and raised in Greece. Greek is his first language. He’s never even been to Nigeria. Yet, until his late-breaking naturalization, he would not have been allowed to play on the Greek national team.
The national embrace of the Antetokounmpos was heartwarming, but it’s the freakishly lucky exception. And the starkness of it — from persona non grata to favorite son — is discouraging. There are hundreds of thousands of immigrant families in the EU toughing their way through the purgatory of transit centers and asylum applications. And as long as none of their sons are singular basketball talents, they will likely continue living in the margins.
But yes, as a symbol, Giannis is pure inspiration. One afternoon, I Skype with Nikos Papaioannou, an NBA journalist in Greece who has breathlessly followed Giannis’s rookie year. He can’t contain his glee: Papaioannou says that after all the recent ugliness in the country — from skyrocketing unemployment to violent austerity riots — Greece needs Giannis:
“The underprivileged kids, the ones born here from parents from Africa, they say that Giannis is — how do you call this? When on a seaside? The castle that has the light on top? Light tower? Beacon! That’s exactly how they call him here. I’ve heard the teachers in the schools. They say that he is the beacon for all the kids to see where you can go.”
On the court at the Bucks’ practice facility, Giannis is finishing a shooting drill with assistant coach Nick Van Exel. The last few losses haven’t been kind to the Freak — or to his jump shot. He has seemed confused during games. At one point, against the Celtics, he lost a pass out of bounds and responded with the sheepish, palms-up “Who, me?” gesture. After recent games, he has often been the last player in the locker room, lingering with his phone in one hand and his head in the other, unable to hide the stress of the defeats and miscues.
But right now that J is falling, and Giannis is feeling all kinds of turned up. As he splashes the last shot of the drill, he trots back to the locker room, shouting behind him, “I told you, Coach! I’m a shooting guard!”
Afterward, Giannis is roped into taking group pictures with a handful of Greek journalists. Meanwhile, I stand on the other side of a glass partition with the other Bucks rookie, point guard Nate Wolters, and watch.
Wolters has quietly had himself a nice season. He’s managed to work his way into the starting five, the only second-round pick from last year’s draft to have done so. On stats alone, Wolters has got Giannis matched, if not edged. But he’s an American college kid with a respectably ignorable vertical leap. He doesn’t have parliaments bending laws to claim him as one of their own. Unlike his buddy, he doesn’t look, in full sprint, anything at all like a beautiful future human. He’s from St. Cloud, Minnesota, and his name is Nate Wolters. And so he hangs on the side, with me, waiting for Giannis to finish his phenom duties.
Afterward, the two trudge toward Nate’s car. It’s a Mazda sedan, encrusted in snow-dirt and dinged to all hell. One day, Giannis Antetokounmpo might save the Bucks; one day, he might be another case of unfulfilled potential. For now, he’s just another rook, hitching a ride home in a crappy Mazda6.