Heated Debate Around Antetokounmpo's Home Reflects Rift in Birthplace of Democracy

Long a man without a country after his parents emigrated from Nigeria, Antetokounmpo's meteoric rise has encountered opposition inside of a financially unstable Greece -- some so strong that the No. 15 pick in the Draft almost couldn't leave Greece.

By Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA.com/Greece

In 2007, a lanky kid with an impossible name in the outskirts of Athens picked up the basketball for the first time in his life. Two years ago he stood out only in the stands, as the tall guy cheering after one of his brother's thunderous dunks -- not the one on the court.

From the time the Greek basketball community started to take notice of the boy, he was an attraction for the way he looked, not yet for his game. You simply don't find many 6-foot-9, athletic basketball players in the junior league of Athens. But this year his hard-to-pronounce name was all over the place: in every scout's mouth, in Brooklyn at Draft night, even in the Prime Minister's office and the Greek news, after he became the stormy petrel in the middle of political controversy.

This is the story of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

You can debate for hours if, at the age of 19, he is the most talented player the nation has ever seen, but there is no doubt that he is the one with the biggest potential. "The sky is the limit" spelled in Greek. Even now he still remains a raw talent. He has only played for one year in a professional league (A2, the second division in ranking) and put the white-blue jersey of the national team for the first time a couple of weeks ago. He might be the next best thing of Greece, but he faces a lack of high-level experience from the A1 league or FIBA competition, in comparison to Spanoulis (Rockets), Rentzias (Sixers), Fotsis (Grizzlies), Papanikolaou (drafted by the Knicks).

In 2011-12, he had limited amount of playing time on the men's team, so it was kind of easy - even for a guy who looks like him - to stay under the radar. This year, he was kind of a LeBron James in the Juniors and played a significant role to Filathlitikos men's team in their run towards the big league. As the fuss around him got bigger and bigger, he became the "it kid" of Greek basketball. Most of his games were are sold out, thanks to both fans and NBA scouts.

And here comes the "but" -- a word that seems to go along with every good sport story.

Antetokounmpo was born by Nigerian parents in Greece and had no papers, neither from Nigeria, nor from Greece. His brother and he were players without a country. So he couldn't play in the national team or the A1 League (long story short: in the first division, every player plays under contract, so he has to be Greek or European-Bosman --- Giannis didn't have any of those papers), or even travel abroad.

Yes, that's right. If things had stayed the same as in May, the No. 15 pick the 2013 NBA draft couldn't fly to Brooklyn.

Giannis and Thanasis (his brother who waved the Greek flag at Draft night) were stuck between the gears of the governmental machine. For two years all the procedures of applying Greek papers to immigrants were frozen, as neo-fascism was growing in the financially dissolved Greek society. Antetokounmpo was born and raised in Sepolia, Athens. He studied in a Greek school. Greece is the only thing he knows. He filled all the conditions to be granted the Greek citizenship, but he was one of the thousands of immigrants whose papers were kept locked in a drawer.

The Greek Basketball Federation tried to move mountains in its way to get him a Greek passport. "Forget it. We don't want to risk going to elections, because of some guy that plays basketball" was the state's (unofficial) answer to the Federation requests. After of a series of appointments with the players agents and the Goverment and the thrust reaction of the Secretary of Sports, Giannis Ioannidis (the legendary coach of Aris Salonica and the National Team), the problem was solved. The process was accelerated as Giannis had to travel to the States for the 2013 NBA Draft and finally at the 9th of May they were grant the Greek citizenship.

"A dream came true. We are now officially Greek citizens, as we felt all these years," wrote the brothers in their first statement. And after that Giannis started practicing with the U20 National Team and was selected at No. 15 with the Bucks, jumping to the spotlight.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, leader of "New Democracy" a center-right political party, invited him to his office to congratulate him. "We are proud to see you in the NBA," he said. "We have to thank you for raising the Greek flag during the draft. We all hope that you will make them go crazy with your dunks." Not an every-day reaction from a head of state.

Then came the controversy.

Nikos Michaloliakos, the leader of "Golden Dawn" -- the right-wing extremist political party of Greek Parliament -- lashed out a verbal attack to the Prime Minester and the player after their recent meeting. It wasn't the first time Antetokounmpo saw the face of racism. In the land of Democracy, fascist attacks towards immigrants -- especially ones of color -- have become a common story in the newspapers. And Giannis lived in Sepolia, a neighborhood with a lot of foreigners near the center of Athens, where racist outbreaks are heightened. One night he came face to face with a group of angry bullies with shaved heads and had to run away to his rescue.

A couple of months after that, Antetokounmpo had the right to choose: Nigeria or Greece. The home country of his parents, or the nation that attacked him because of his color and was not willing to recognize his right -- and above all -- his desire to be called Greek. He chose the blue and white, the only country he knows.

It was something the Prime Minister Antonis Samaras used in his fierce response to the "Golden Dawn" party: "Giannis didn't become Greek in 'papers.' He fought for it. He went to school. He learned to speak Greek better than many people. Nobody asked him to do it, but he was baptized as an Orthodox Cristian. We started from the playgrounds of Athens to find himself in the NBA. He choose to be Greek. He fought for it and he deserves it. He is one of us. He makes us all proud. He is more Greek than those who talk bad about him because of the colour of his skin and then burn our flag. Those people disgrace our country.'"

He was born in Greece. He was raised as a Greek. And now as the pride of a country with great basketball culture and heritage he waves the blue and white stripes in the NBA. He had to overcome poverty, fascist attacks and all the difficulties a immigrant could face and he made it.

So now it's time to change the old Winston Churchill's quote: "Giannis didn't fight like a hero. Heroes fight like Giannis."