Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo opens up about his African upbringing
By Marc J. Spears
“The Greek Freak” can’t wait to go learn more about his roots.
His roots in Lagos, Nigeria.
“Obviously, a lot of people don’t know where I’m from,” Milwaukee Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo told The Undefeated.
“A lot of people think my mom or my dad are from Greece, but no. Both of my parents are black. Both of my parents are Nigerian.”
Charles and Veronica Adetokunbo moved from Lagos to Greece in 1991 in hopes of a better future for themselves and their family after struggling to find employment. The Adetokunbos’ eldest son, Francis, was left behind in Lagos to be raised by his grandparents. Charles Adetokunbo worked as a handyman and wife Veronica as a baby sitter in their struggle to make ends meet for their family, which was the only black one in the area, according to The New York Times. The Adetokunbos had four more sons, all born in Greece, including Giannis on Dec. 6, 1994. (Antetokounmpo became Giannis’ surname after it was spelled that way on his Greek passport instead of his birth name of Adetokunbo.)
Antetokounmpo grew up in Greek culture learning the language, going to school and eventually starting to play basketball at age 7. But when he was home with his family, he learned and lived the Nigerian way.
“I grew up in a Nigerian home,” Antetokounmpo said. “Obviously, I was born in Greece and went to school in Greece. But at the end of the day when I go home, there is no Greek culture. It’s straight-up Nigerian culture. It’s about discipline, it’s about respecting your elders, having morals.”
Veronica Adetokunbo spoke to her sons in the Nigerian language of Igbo, which is one of the four official Nigerian languages and is spoken by about 18 million people in Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, according to several websites.
“I can understand it a little bit. I can count. It’s not like I’m fluent,” Antetokounmpo said of Igbo. “It’s not like I can go back home to Nigeria and they can understand what I am saying. It’s kind of funny.
“Both my parents are from Nigeria. But Nigeria is like 250 dialects, so my mom and my dad don’t speak the same language.”
Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, who is arguably the greatest international basketball player of all time and one of the greatest NBA players, also has a Nigerian connection with Antetokounmpo. Olajuwon told The Undefeated that he and Antetokounmpo are Yoruba.
“I know from his last name that we are from the same tribe, the Yoruba tribe. His last name, which in Yoruba is spelled Adetokunbo, means ‘the crown has returned from overseas,’ ” Olajuwon said.
With the Bucks owning the best record in the NBA, Antetokounmpo appears to be the front-runner for the 2019 NBA MVP award, competing against the likes of the Houston Rockets’ James Harden, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Paul George and the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.1 points, 12.6 rebounds and six assists and led the Eastern Conference in All-Star votes.
“I’m sure Nigerians are very proud of him, especially because of the way he has conducted himself and how he is dominating the league,” Olajuwon said. “He has accomplished a great deal in such a short period of time.”
Antetokounmpo wasn’t projected to be a superstar when he was selected 15th overall in the first round of the 2013 NBA draft by the Bucks. But former Warriors center Festus Ezeli, also a native of Nigeria, believed Antetokounmpo would be special after seeing him score a game-high 22 points for Team Africa in the first Africa Game in Johannesburg, on Aug. 1, 2015. The exhibition was Antetokounmpo’s first trip to Africa.
“Oh, my God, he took over for Team Africa in South Africa,” Ezeli said. “We were talking about it on the bench, ‘This kid right here. …’ I was thinking, ‘Yo, this kid is really special.’ Just the ease of how he did things and the way he was getting to the cup, the athleticism was there. And in a friendly game in Africa, the competitiveness and edge were there.”
Olajuwon also spent time with Antetokounmpo on the trip and said he enjoyed meeting his family.
“It is always good to trace back your roots,” Olajuwon said.
Antetokounmpo hasn’t traced his roots in person yet but says he hopes to visit Nigeria either this summer or next summer. He said he nearly went to Nigeria last summer, but “my mom said, ‘No, don’t go, because everyone is going to be on top of you.’ ”
Sadly, his father died at the age of 54 after a heart attack in 2017.
“I want to see where my family comes from, where my mom was raised, see my family, see where my dad was raised. That is very important. I hope my kids can do the same thing for me,” Antetokounmpo said. “Obviously, I am going to have kids that are going to grow up in the U.S., but one day I hope they can go back [to Greece] and visit and see where I grew up, the playground I was playing.”
Antetokounmpo said he also got his Nigerian passport in 2015.
When asked why he acquired a Nigerian passport, Antetokounmpo answered, “It’s important. It’s part of who I am. Both of my parents are Nigerian. They wanted me to get it. I wanted to have it, so I got it.”
“The Greek Freak” said during the recent NBA All-Star Weekend that he loves his nickname and it’s “a part of who I am right now.” But he also told The Undefeated that he is much more than just “The Greek Freak” by strongly stating he is also a proud African.
“There are a lot of people that I see and I tell them that I am African. I am not just ‘The Greek Freak,’ ” Antetokounmpo said.
“It doesn’t matter what people may believe because of my nickname. There were a lot of times when I was in Greece where people said, ‘You’re not Greek. You’re Nigerian because you’re black.’ But then there have been a lot of times where it’s been the opposite, where people say, ‘You’re not African. You’re Greek. You’re ‘The Greek Freak.’ ’ But I don’t really care about that. Deep down, I know who I am and where I am from. That’s all that matters to me.”
Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.