Giannis isn't just an NBA icon in Greece, he's a symbol of hope

Yahoo Canada Sports

TORONTO — When the Eastern Conference final resumes on Sunday at Scotiabank Arena, Voula McLaughlin and her two kids, age 12 and 7, will be watching intently. McLaughlin is the daughter of an orphaned Greek immigrant and lives in a Raptors household, having been through the ups and downs of the past five seasons with the team — her rooting interests are clear. But she will also be brimming with joy to see Giannis Antetokounmpo continue his push to be the best player in the world.

Antetokounmpo’s rise from a relatively unknown first-round draft pick in 2013 to the favorite to win the Most Valuable Player award this season has been a wonderful basketball story, but to McLaughlin, it means so much more. The “Greek Freak” nickname was given to Antetokounmpo for his freakish wingspan and athleticism, as well as his ability to seemingly run from one end of the floor to the other in just several steps. For McLaughlin, the nickname means something entirely different.

“He represents a new idea, ” McLaughlin said, “He’s showing people you don’t have to fit in a box.”

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For the past five years, after leaving her advertising career behind, McLaughlin has been working to support orphaned and abandoned children in Greece, due to the economic crisis. After successful fundraisers, she founded the Reaching for the Stars Children’s Foundation to help children in need.

McLaughlin has traveled to Greece on behalf of the foundation to visit the children her foundation supports but has also visited refugee centers and has seen up close the racism that divides part of the country.

Antetokounmpo used to be one of those people on the street. A child of immigrant parents from Nigeria, he would sell watches, CDs and DVDs in Greece with his brothers to help make whatever money he could to help his family survive. The story is a familiar one to many children currently in Greece, and Antetokounmpo has become a symbol of hope to them.

“You’re talking about kids who don’t have parents anymore,” McLaughlin said. “They look at someone like Giannis and they can say, if he can do something like this, then there’s hope for me. A lot of them want to leave, and they want to make something of themselves.”

Several years ago, McLaughlin started tagging Antetokounmpo in her social media posts, hoping to get his attention. Eventually, she was connected with the Bucks organization, and a meeting was arranged after Milwaukee won Game 1 of a first-round series in 2017 in Toronto. Wearing a Greek Freak t-shirt, McLaughlin was able to explain the purpose of her foundation to Antetokounmpo in person.

After their initial meeting, McLaughlin flew to Milwaukee and received two signed jerseys from Antetokounmpo which she auctioned off to raise $11,500 for the foundation (for perspective, the foundation raised $25,000 total in their first year). McLaughlin has kept in touch with Antetokounmpo since, sending him videos from back home with the kids whenever she has a chance.

The basketball arena has become the perfect place for Antetokounmpo to give back to his community. The Raptors hold an annual Greek Heritage Night whenever the Bucks come to town. Frank Karantonis’s parents were born in Greece and met in Toronto. He’s had seasons tickets to the Raptors for five years, and is part of a non-profit called the Greek-Canadian Games which sets up an annual Olympic games for kids in the community. They recently celebrated Antetokounmpo as a lifetime honorary member.

Karantonis says he gets goosebumps thinking about the expressions on the kids’ faces when they’ve had a chance to meet Antetokounmpo after Raptors home games. “Sports is about connections,” Karantonis said. “There’s two sides to the coin. There’s the side of getting to that dream, and then the other side is how do you maintain the person that you are. I think Giannis exemplifies that on both sides, the humility and at the same time not forgetting where you came from. Our story is Giannis’s story.”

This is happening across the league, where Greek fans are showing up to road games and belting the Greek national anthem to Antetokounmpo after games, as he sings along and greets his fans. Nick Metallinos is a journalist and ESPN on-camera personality, and has seen these encounters up close at Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center.

Living in Astoria, Queens, traditionally known as the Greek area of New York, Metallinos is regularly approached by people in the neighborhood asking about Antetokounmpo as if he is a close friend.

“With the spotlight on Giannis, it’s as if the spotlight is being shined on the country as a whole, showing the world that there’s more to Greece right now than crippling austerity measures,” Metallinos said. “If he ends up winning the championship this season, I think the country will explode with pride. I guarantee you he’ll never have to pay for a drink or food in Greece ever again.”

McLaughlin is most impressed that even with the stardom and the racism he faced as a kid, Antetokounmpo has not run away from embracing his culture at all. “He’s so respectful of the fact that he is Greek,” McLaughlin said. “He doesn’t shun himself from it even though he experienced [racism back home].”

In one of her visits to Greece last year, McLaughlin dropped in at a refugee center in Athens, and hung out with a girl from Pakistan, who asked her if there were any Pakistani people where she was from. McLaughlin found a globe, and showed her exactly where Toronto was on the map, and explained to her the melting pot of cultures back home. The girl then asked her a follow-up question which took McLaughlin aback. “Do you like Pakistani people?” she asked.

“It just put into perspective how fortunate we are in Toronto to have that openness and acceptance,” McLaughlin said.

She believes the younger generation of Greek folks are more open-minded, but understands the migrant crisis has put a microscope on a country which is now confronting issues of identity and culture.

McLaughlin has allowed herself to dream about a future where Antetokounmpo is playing in a Raptors uniform, not just because it would help her basketball team, but because she believes he would fit perfectly in Toronto.

“He’s loyal to Milwaukee, but I think Toronto is the best fit for Giannis,” McLaughlin said. “His background and what he represents, you take every market in the United States and there’s nothing like Toronto from a cultural perspective. I would want to take him to different areas to walk around the streets of Toronto so he can see the mosaic here. Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the U.S., and maybe he can be a tool in bridging the gap there, but Giannis would be such a perfect fit here.”

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