From a skinny unknown from a foreign land, built like a Tootsie Pop and facing questionable competition, Giannis Antetokounmpo has worked and developed himself into the NBA’s reigning Kia MVP.
Here are 10 things to know about the Milwaukee forward and his path to the NBA.
* * *
Going No. 15 overall: It’s safe to say the Greek kid picked at No. 15 overall in the 2013 draft as a dice roll by the Milwaukee Bucks would move to the head of his class. What’s interesting, though, is that former Bucks exec John Hammond wasn’t in a revisionist mood when given a chance to tout his evaluation chops. He didn’t even claim Milwaukee had Giannis rated higher than rival teams — or higher than where the Bucks actually picked him. “Going into that draft night, we had our rankings on our board at 15 and we had Giannis at 15,” said Hammond, now GM of the Orlando Magic, in an interview with NBA.com. “And then we had others, we thought, quality players following him in our grouping. At 15, we probably had four names, maybe a fifth. Somewhere in that range. Whatever 15 means — that could be like 14 to 18.”
Working hard from the start: Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo moved from Lagos, Nigeria, to Athens, Greece in search of a better life for their sons — in order, Francis, Thanasis, Giannis, Kostas and Alex. That meant a lot of mouths to feed. Giannis and Thanasis pitched in to help the family earn a living, selling items on the street to tourists. “I was selling stuff probably since I could remember, like 6 or 7 years old,” Antetokounmpo said in a February 2018 interview. “I was always out there helping my mom and dad sell watches, glasses, CDs, DVDs, stuff like that. Whatever we could put our hands on. I did it until I was around 17. But I was just doing it because I had to. There was no other option.”
Young man with two countries: Or none, for a while. Because children of undocumented immigrants in Greece are required to apply for citizenship at age 18, Antetokounmpo and his brothers didn’t have legal status either in Nigeria or in their new country. By the time Giannis was able to choose, he already was a basketball sensation. Now Greek Americans across North America flock to Bucks road games — back when fans could actually attend, that is — and no one quibbles about his heritage. He is proud of “The Greek Freak” nickname and he has gone on to play for the Greek national team in international competition.
Giannis meets hundreds of Greeks in New York and gives the shirt off his back to a fan wearing a BBB hoodie 😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/qlCQsG16xp
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 4, 2018
Tutored by the toughest: When asked why he didn’t gravitate to offseason workouts with guys like LeBron James or Kevin Durant, Antetokounmpo turned the question back around and asked if superstars such as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett or Michael Jordan ever did likewise. What Antetokounmpo did instead was tap into the ultra-competitive Bryant’s and Garnett’s bags of tricks once each was retired. Bryant took Antetokounmpo under his wing on a more individual basis, instilling not just some of Bryant’s notorious “Mamba Mentality” but also some legit whimsy that helped the Lakers legend win five rings. Bryant also told him to never stop thinking like a kid.
Farewell and thank you: Antetokounmpo and Bryant always had a long, fruitful connection. When Bryant, his daughter, Gigi, and eight others perished in a January 26, 2020 helicopter crash in southern California, Antetokounmpo dealt with a grief beyond the NBA community’s at large. He chose his words carefully when he did share his thoughts a day later. “How did Kobe inspire me?” he said. “Just work hard, be fearless, don’t really care about what people have to say about you, just go out there and do your job, have a smile on your face. You’re going to have to sacrifice a lot, a lot of family time, obviously, to play this game, but your family knows why you were put on this Earth, why you play this game, which is to provide for them because that’s what you’re born to do. Kobe means greatness. He always had that smile, he always had that charisma that he carried with him. I think it touched a lot of people in the world.”
You want a piece of me?!: Antetokounmpo earned himself a one-game suspension late in the 2020 season restart’s seeding games for headbutting Washington’s Moritz Wagner. Antetokounmpo’s willingness to stick up for himself or teammates came well before his lessons from Bryant or Garnett. In the 2015 playoffs, angered by Mike Dunleavy Jr.’s smacks at Milwaukee’s Michael Carter-Williams, Giannis took a blatant, indelicate run at the Bulls wing. He ran from several steps away and tackled him after Dunleavy shot, both crashing into the first row at the Bradley Center. The flagrant 2 foul ended his postseason right there, but it registered high on the feistiness scale, exhibiting Antetokounmpo’s toughness and competitiveness.
Liam Charles Antetokounmpo’s first postseason: Not to go all TMZ here, but one month before the NBA went on hiatus in 2020, a young fella showed up ready to watch the Bucks’ finishing kick toward the playoffs. Liam Charles was the first child born to Antetokounmpo and longtime girlfriend Mariah Riddlesprigger. A couple of facts: Charles was Giannis’ father, and died in September 2017 at age 54 of a heart attack. As for Riddlesprigger, she is a former volleyball athlete who played at Rice University. Her father played basketball at Fresno State. She earned a degree in sports management and worked as an intern for the Sixers and at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
No Mexican? Pizza’s cool: A minor restaurant kerfuffle occurred in Milwaukee in April 2018 when Antetokounmpo and Riddlesprigger weren’t accorded VIP treatment after he’d helped the Bucks to a Game 4 victory over Boston in the first round. The couple waited several minutes at the BelAir Cantina without success in hopes of scoring a table — unacknowledged by the staff, reportedly — before heading to a pizza joint not far away. Fans and some residents were aghast that Antetokounmpo would be so rudely treated, fearing it might lead to a grudge against the city. The Bucks star stayed cool about it, though.
"I did not find it a big deal…it was a beautiful day, there were a lot of people enjoying their Sunday brunch. I've been in the restaurant a lot of times. They are good people."
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) April 23, 2018
Staying in Milwaukee for a long time: Any hopes teams have of luring Antetokounmpo away in free agency ended in December of 2020. It was then that the two-time Kia MVP agreed to a five-year deal with the Bucks by signing a supermax extension. There was a drumbeat coming mostly from media and covetous teams that he should wait until he actually hits free agency to commit, using the deal as leverage to keep Bucks management working overtime to build a championship-worthy roster around him. But Antetokounmpo opted not to pursue that route and instead agreed to a deal worth a reported $228 million.
Getting better and better: Antetokounmpo scored an NBA rarity in 2019-20 by repeating as Kia MVP and winning Kia Defensive Player of the Year honors, too. Only Michael Jordan (1987-88) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1993-94) won both honors in the same season. Antetokounmpo’s boosted his scoring and rebounding averages for the sixth consecutive season in 2019-20, joining only Wilt Chamberlain (who did it twice) and Elgin Baylor in averaging at least 29 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in a season.