The Antetokounmpos Take New York: Thanasis' NBA Draft Day
After a season in the NBA D-League, Greek forward Thanasis Antetokounmpo is attempting to follow in brother Giannis’ footsteps to the NBA. The two returned to New York City on Thursday for the 2014 NBA Draft -- one year and one day after the Bucks made Giannis the surprise 15th overall pick in 2013 -- and this time they were joined by parents Charles and Veronica, brothers Kostas and Alexis, friend Nicole Jovanovic, and one of Thanasis’ Greek agents, Tim Lotsos.
And NBADLeague.com was right there with the Antetokounmpos on their big day. Take a look inside what turned out to be a surreal 24 hours for the newest New York Knick, the No. 51 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft:
A night that will end with 3 a.m. McDonald’s hamburgers begins at a New York City steak house.
Thanasis Antetokounmpo will get drafted by an NBA team today. And not just any NBA team -- he will get drafted by Phil Jackson’s New York Knicks. Days like that begin at New York City steak houses.
But at a restaurant billed as one of the finest in America, Thanasis doesn’t have a bite to eat. There’s too much to do, too many people to call and text. “I’ll just answer like 15 messages,” he’ll say later, “and then after another hour I’ll have like 24.”
Instead, he stands over empty plates from the rich meal his family just finished, smiling about the circumstances that have brought him back to America's largest city. A year ago, it was younger brother Giannis -- back when he was just a timid 18-year-old, "just" 6-foot-9 (he's now 6'11), and not yet a cult sensation -- who made this fairy tale a reality.
Thanasis was there to share in the moment, furiously pumping his clenched fists, his precious Greek flag shivering along with him upon hearing then-NBA Commissioner David Stern slowly enunciate Yah-niss Uh-teh-tuh-koo-po’s name to announce the Milwaukee Bucks’ 15th overall selection. He sat by his brother’s side during the press conference that followed, wearing a matching green Bucks hat and feeding him phrases when his English lapsed.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Thanasis says now, still shaking his head in disbelief. “This is us; this is what we want to do,” they’d told each other that night.
Now Giannis tweets, Instagrams and Vines like most American 19-year-olds (albeit one with more than 30,000 followers on each). Thanasis has watched enough American movies to become so well-versed in English that people often don't believe that he’s from Greece.
And now the rest of the family has joined them. Younger brothers Kostas, 16, and Alexis, 12, hunch over the ornate Shula’s table like kids in a candy store -- gangly, baby-faced, 6’8 and 5’7 kids.
Parents Charles and Veronica watch over their family proudly. They don’t say much -- they remain quiet throughout the day, in fact -- but they look radiant; they look the way you’d expect a mother and father to look when their family is no longer selling sunglasses or watches or toys to make money, when their sons have transformed them from poor Nigerian immigrants to the parents of professional athletes.
The Antetokounmpos leave the restaurant hardly prepared for their first day together in the Big Apple, having spent the past five months in Milwaukee. Giannis is sure it won’t be the last. “We’ll be back. Yeah,” he nods. He points to Kostas and Alexis. “These two.”
The normal, peaceful portion of their Draft day ends the minute they step outside the Westin Hotel at the corner of 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue. A half-dozen teenagers are lined up for autographs. One reels in Giannis for a picture with their hands pressed together. “Oh my god, Giannis!” he says.
Another grabs him for a selfie, no wait, two selfies: “One more time, Giannis -- just look down.” A 5’10 blonde woman struts over to measure herself against him. “I’m used to being the tall one. I just want to see.”
Two kids bring basketballs for Thanasis to sign, figuring out that he’s Giannis’ older brother.
There’s no exit strategy to the next stop of the day because there’s no mode of transportation. 25-year-old Greek agent Tim Lotsos, joining them just weeks after finishing his Master's in sports management at Georgetown, checks with the cab drivers in front of the hotel, but they’re all booked. Thanasis paces over to a black sedan labeled “Carter-Williams” and laughs: “Hey, are you waiting for Michael?!”
Giannis, a concerned look on his face, scrambles away. Thanasis says his brother’s worried they’re wasting valuable family time before the Draft. “What time’s the 60th pick?” Thanasis asks. He has no inkling as to which team might choose him, or when; he simply points to the sky when asked if he thinks it will happen.
Giannis hustles back to the row of cabs, signaling to a few only to be denied. “In Milwaukee, this would never happen,” he says. “I can’t imagine living here.”
"In Greece, if you see a car, you let it go. People don't stop here," Thanasis explains on the ride to Express after, at long last, Giannis catches two cabs. The specialty apparel and accessories retailer has arranged with Lotsos for the brothers to promote its products on social media.
But Midtown traffic causes Thanasis' brush with the business side of professional sports to start a half-hour late. It's yet another reminder of how much his world has changed in just a year.
His arrival in the NBA D-League had been a footnote to Giannis’ story -- with his long body, long arms and long strides, Giannis “got people to come and see him,” Thanasis explained to a pack reporters at the Draft Combine in mid-May; “I’ve got to go show people what I can do.” But there he is dunking on the back page of Thursday’s USA Today, which he shows Kostas in the cab.
“Antetokounmpo impresses with promise, personality,” the headline reads. Kostas sends out a Snapchat of Thanasis’ face, typing out a two-word caption: “My brother.”
Inside the store, on the third floor of a stone Fifth Avenue building, Thanasis laughs and shrugs his broad shoulders. “I’m supposed to pick something?” he says, eyeing the rainbow assortment of dress clothes neatly laid out on tables and shelves in front of his family.
“You just gotta make sure everything gets done before they leave here,” the store manager tells the clerks. “Alright kids, have fun!”
The four Antetokounmpo brothers glance around at each other. Their parents stand to the side. No one makes a move. “It’s free -- work it out!” says the manager, clucking his tongue and puffing his shoulders.
Before long, a swarm of wide hands and long fingers is scavenging the table of ties, dress shirts and watches. Kostas searches for a tie that could possibly fit his stick-figure frame. Alexis slips a red one with blue stripes over his red-and-white plaid shirt.
“It’s like Christmas!” says Giannis. He and Thanasis move to the arcade games and Run DMC poster in the adjacent room to pose for a picture, posting it on Twitter with #EXPSTYLE.
The family walks out with four bags of clothes. Giannis smiles. “All for a tweet,” he says, shaking his head.
Thanasis wears a new short-sleeved denim button-down, but he’s still unsure of what he’ll wear to the Draft. “I’m a simple guy,” he’d said on the ride over. “I don’t like wearing suits.”
"You guys made our day," he tells the store employees at the end of the half-hour shopping spree. "We should come here more often," he tells his family as they walk through the front doors back into sunny Manhattan.
As the 20 draft prospects invited to the Green Room prepare for a group picture on the Barclays Center stage, eight miles uptown, Giannis balances his massive all-black Nikes against the step of a black sedan, takes another glance down Eighth Avenue and checks his silver wristwatch.
Thanasis hasn’t been picking up his phone. Their car was supposed to leave for Brooklyn at 5:30. The nerves hit Giannis, still every bit the teenage little brother, like a sugar rush to a toddler. He takes a selfie, then ducks under the roof to snap a family photo. “The stars are always late,” he jokes.
He steps down and paces around the sidewalk. “Where ees Thun-aaah-seee, where is Thun-aaah-seee?” the forward sings in his high-pitched, almost cartoonish voice. His mind wanders: Back to Draft Day 2013, as he explains how he remained composed while a crazed Thanasis celebrated beside him. “That’s how I am,” he insists. “Even if it’s NBA Finals Game 7 and I score buzzer-beater, I stay calm.”
And forward to the 2014-15 NBA season as his imagination runs wild. "Maybe next year I'll make a dunk over Howard and be like, 'Aaaaahhhhhh!'"
People walking by crane their necks to see this impossibly long and lean Greek Freak bouncing an imaginary ball and shimmying with delight. "Or I'll come off screen and make a shot and be like, 'That's what I do! I get buckets!'"
At 5:58, Thanasis strolls up Eighth Avenue flanked by Lotsos. Giannis and Kostas grin at the sight of their big brother dressed to the nines, having traded the Express outfit for a gray jacket over blue-and-white plaid, a brown bowtie, shiny earrings and large-framed glasses.
“You look fresh, you look fresh,” Thanasis says to his brothers.
“You’re supposed to say, ‘You too, bro,’ Giannis tells Kostas.
They step inside the black sedan. Thanasis exhales. "Whooo!"
The seemingly endless ride through New York -- through hectic Midtown East to FDR Drive, down the East River and across the Brooklyn Bridge -- is over. Seventeen minutes after departing, the car had crossed five Manhattan avenues. The Green Room invitees had taken their snapshot. The Antetokounmpos had sat together quietly, passing around a container of bite-sized Snickers.
"What time does the game start?" the driver asked 20 minutes into the ride, triggering a stream of questions from the back seats.
"What time is the first pick?"
"Do you think we'll make it?"
"Do you think it's gonna be crowded?"
But all of their uncertainty evaporates when they pull through Atlantic Avenue traffic and reach their destination. Their arrival causes a stir. "Who are these guys?" asks a security guard outside the Barclays Center. "They're from Greece? Like, they speak Greek fluently?"
The walk to their seats turns into a 20-minute maze, from the VIP boxes and finally down to their correct section in the lower bowl to the left of the makeshift stage. Security guards offer their congratulations as they pass through the main concourse. Fans gawk: "That's the Greek Freak!"
Lotsos, six feet tall with short, dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard, puts his right arm around Thanasis’ back. This is the moment Tim, the son of prominent Greek agent Nick Lotsos, has been waiting for since he came to the U.S. nine months ago. Thanasis stayed in his Arlington, Va., apartment for a month and a half while training before embarking on a month of workouts, city by city and team by team (14 in all).
“I was living his every moment, hearing everything he was thinking,” Lotsos explains later. Now, neither of them say a word. They just look at each other and take a deep breath.
They reach their seats 24 minutes before the announcement of the No. 1 pick, as the crowd lustily boos Celtics fans on the jumbotron. "I'm a little bit nervous. But I think he's gonna be OK," says Lotsos, who sits between the two pro athletes and the rest of the family.
“I sat in this exact seat last year,” says Giannis. “It’s a lucky row.”
Two years ago, when Thanasis and Giannis tried to tell their parents about the magical game they were playing together for Greek club Filathlitikos -- “Dad, you can’t imagine! I was passing the ball to Giannis, he was passing to me, we were dunking…” -- Charles would simply nod. “Oh, OK.”
When Charles, Veronica, Kostas and Alexis first traveled to Milwaukee and watched the 8-39 Bucks beat the Knicks in February, their delirious reaction became an internet meme.
At the 2014 NBA Draft, they mostly remain glued to their seats, their eyes glued to the jumbotron or stage. The first round lasts three hours and five minutes, and the Antetokounmpos are uncharacteristically stoic.
At pick No. 30, the spot where Bleacher Report and the Sporting News speculated the Spurs could reach for Thanasis, the crowd erupts in cheers as the Nets entertainers throw T-shirts into the stands. San Antonio selects Kyle Anderson from UCLA.
Veronica pulls out her Samsung to take a selfie with Charles. Asked how she feels, she pauses for several moments, unconfident in her English. Finally, she leans forward and whispers, “I just hope they pick him.”
“I don't care how long it takes,” Giannis had said earlier in the day. “I’ll wait there for five days as long as Thanasis gets drafted.”
Fifty other players hear their names called over the span of 259 minutes.
By the second round, the noticeably thinner Barclays Center crowd turns its attention to the players remaining in the lower bowl. One by one their time comes -- from Clint Capela to Bogdan Bogdanovic to KJ McDaniels to Walter Taveras -- and the players feel the joy and relief wash over them as the strangers in the stands erupt.
The Antetokounmpos sit stone-faced, politely clapping as the families surrounding them celebrate. They watch the Bucks and Sixers, the two teams with natural connections to Thanasis, pass over him six times in quick succession in the early second round.
Scouting reports had described concerns about his lack of offensive polish and limited understanding of the game. At the top of the “positives” section was his character. How many kids who came through the American system list being “a reliable person” as the No. 1 quality they can bring to an NBA team, or defend the basket like it’s a relative, or address reporters as “sir” and “miss”?
By 11:42, pick No. 51, the energy that defines Thanasis is sapped. He leans forward, his hands clasped and his elbows pressed against his thighs, and closes his eyes.
"With the 51st pick in the 2014 NBA Draft," Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum announces, "the New York Knicks select Thanasis Antetokounmpo":
“People, let’s start wrapping it up! Please head toward the exits!”
As Thanasis makes the rounds with the media, bringing Giannis and Kostas with him, security is clearing the Barclays Center before the maintenance staff arrives. Only the Antetokounmpos, Capela, the 25th pick to the Houston Rockets, and Doug McDermott, the 11th pick to the Chicago Bulls, remain with agents, friends and family members.
“We can’t leave without him,” Alexis says.
“Of course not,” says Nicole. “We cannot leave without him and he cannot leave without us.”
Lotsos instantly recognizes the two creators of the Giannis Antetokounmpo and Thanasis Antetokounmpo Facebook fan pages. “I love your sons,” they’d told Charles and Veronica minutes after Thanasis disappeared backstage. “Welcome to New York.”
Alexis, reserved all day, jumps at the chance to talk to someone his age. He has the same earnest demeanor and inviting smile that Thanasis inherited from Charles (Giannis and Kostas are more like their mother). “You guys play basketball?” he asks.
“We play baseball,” Phil responds. They measure their hands against each other. “I have long hands, not long fingers,” says Alexis.
Fifty-one minutes after hearing Thanasis’ name called, Giannis leads him through the doors to the front entrance, where the family is now waiting.
“Daddy, daddy, he go to the biggest industry of basketball: New York!” he yells, now skipping down the hallway. Charles and Thanasis embrace 20 steps behind them, swaying and laughing.
Giannis raises his 7-foot-3 wingspan into the air as he strides through the curtains back into the stands.
“I think he’s more excited than me,” says Thanasis.
Sixty-nine minutes after being drafted by the New York Knicks, Thanasis is asking an NBA employee how to get out of the Barclays Center. They’d boarded a bus in the bowels of the billion-dollar arena, only to discover that there was a car waiting for them outside.
“Man, I’m so tired,” he says. “I haven’t slept in two days.” He hasn’t eaten anything since a fruit cup for breakfast.
“Thun-aah-see, Thun-aah-see!” Giannis yells to get his attention. Then he uses about two-thirds of his near-40-inch vertical to leap into the air and click his heels. Alexis copies his brother’s celebratory move.
Three teenage Knicks fans swarm them the moment they step into the cool Brooklyn night. This time the attention is split between the two Greek Freaks. They pound Thanasis on the back and chest.
“I’m gonna come to MSG and see you!”
“You’re the future!”
“Let’s take a pic, let’s take a pic!”
“Can we go home with you?”
Giannis can’t contain himself. He skips away and doubles over with laughter. “He’s famous now! He’s famous!”
They duck inside the black sedan and take off into the chaotic, welcoming streets of New York City.