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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. – Within the walls of his three-bedroom apartment, Giannis Antetokounmpo had come to combat the beginnings of a long winter's loneliness with the preferred passage of untold young NBA players: PlayStation 4. Thousands upon thousands of hours are unapologetically consumed in the mesmerizing grasp of the flickering images on screen, and perhaps few hands so enormous had ever wrapped themselves around the game's controls.
The cold winds had come sweeping across Lake Michigan, colliding into glass doors on a balcony that belongs to the 19-year-old phenom decreed as the Greek Freak. The solitude and dull drone of those November days and nights had been constructed for the mindlessness of the PS4 and it left the Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo (pronounced YAHN-iss Ah-deh-toh-KOON-boh) playing the games the way every NBA rookie in a strange city with time loved to do.
Only, a gnawing sense of dread washed over him. Only, it felt wrong.
"He felt … guilty," his older brother Thanasis says.
Guilty over the retail price of $399, the most Giannis had ever spent on something so frivolous in his life. Guilty over his two younger brothers in Greece struggling with his parents to undo the immigration red tape to visit him in the United States. Guilty over all those long afternoons and evenings on the streets of Athens as hungry, desperate boys, peddling sunglasses and souvenir trinkets to cobble together money for groceries and power bills.
"Let's do something with our lives," Thanasis would tell Giannis, "so we never have to do this again."
"Day by day," Giannis says now, "we got stronger."
Yes, Giannis sold his PlayStation 4 to Bucks assistant coach Nick Van Exel for the retail price and waited the three months until, finally, his family arrived in the United States to indulge himself in a console again. There are reasons Giannis sets aside most of his $1.7 million rookie salary and tries to live on the $190 daily per diem – including the per diems his veteran teammates sympathetically pass his way. There are reasons those teammates furnished his apartment with hand-me-down furniture. Yes, there are reasons why Giannis, together with his 21-year-old brother, Thanasis, who plays for Delaware in the NBA Development League, sat paralyzed early this season in an upscale Philadelphia restaurant staring at the menus.
"Get whatever you want to eat," Giannis told Thanasis.
Together, they stared at the entrees.
"Whatever you want," Giannis told him again.
Together, they stared. And they stared.
"I took the salad," Thanasis finally said. "He did the same thing."
To understand the reluctance of indulging into lives transformed, into the possibilities of excess when so recently there had been nothing, rewind to the years of the two older brothers – through a mother's illness, through a father fighting for steady work – refusing to come back home to a tiny abode near the Acropolis until they could bring groceries, bring back the dollars and coins to pay the power bill.
"We would be out on the street together, selling a toy, a watch, something, and we raise $10," Thanasis says. "And that is good, because we didn't starve today. We're going to go home. We're going to have something to eat. And it is a good day."
Mere months before he was the 15th pick in the NBA draft, before he became a starter for the Bucks, before he turned into a star of All-Star Weekend in the Rookie-Sophomore Game and Skills Challenge, Giannis was playing in Greece's second division against talent that could be classified only sheepishly as professional. Out of the grainy video images, the precise scouting dispatches of Jonathan Givony's DraftExpress website, out of the deft maneuvering of Giannis' agent, Alex Saratsis of Octagon, a groundswell of information and intrigue inspired NBA executives to descend upon Greece for closer inspection.
Now, Giannis Antetokounmpo has grown to 6-foot-10 and could top out at 7-foot, and most league executives inclined to conduct a re-draft on the class of 2013 wouldn't let him out of the top five. Giannis had been a cult following born of the YouTube Greek Freak clips, but he's evolving into a decidedly mainstream attraction. League executives and coaches see such an extraordinary blend of talents within him, such natural and uncanny instincts for the game. His work ethic has been relentless, forged as a young man without practice time in Greece, who forever had to make more out of less because of his family's need for him to earn money. If someone stays after Bucks practice, Giannis won't leave until he's the last one on the floor. Sometimes, this goes on for hours.
His statistics – 6.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and two assists per game – belie an incredible leap in competition level, the most modest to the most elite on the planet. Every day he does something that leaves people shaking their heads. Every day he offers a window into a limitless future.
"I don't want to be a good player," Giannis says. "I want to be a great one."
All around Milwaukee, they look out for Giannis. He's part little brother, part savior. As Bucks owner Herb Kohl searches for financing on a new arena, a financial infusion of ownership with whom to partner, the Greek Freak is mostly the reason people purchase a ticket to Milwaukee's games. The Bucks have the NBA's worst record – 13-54 – and everyone understands the burden it's brought upon Antetokounmpo. From the owner to the general manager, the fans to the Bradley Center attendants, Giannis is something of a shared community project.
They love him here: the front office, the coaches, his teammates, the secretaries. Earnestness rarely walks through the door within a body so talented, within someone who could someday transform the Bucks into relevancy again. They think he's going to be a star, but there is so far for him to go, so much for him to learn.
Bucks front office executive Dave Dean was sitting in his practice facility office, listening to Giannis and a driver's education instructor review the rules of the road. He had never heard such excitement, such a curiosity satisfied with every revelation of the Wisconsin road.
"OH," Giannis bellowed, "that is … HYDROPLANING!"
Then silence, hushed talking and soon another proclamation.
"Bald tires are bad!"
"I want to take the test right now!" Giannis declared.
"I am ready!"
He didn't want to pass the test, he wanted to learn the rules. He wanted to understand. Everything is new. Every day is an adventure. Bucks assistant general manager David Morway watched Giannis bite into Morway's wife's homemade peanut butter bars and howl, "Ooooohhhh," as his eyes grew wide as saucers.
"He had never tasted peanut butter in his life," Morway said. "Everything is a discovery for him. Everything is a first."
When Giannis walked outside Target to find a carriage for the armful of frozen pizzas he was carrying – only to have store security descend upon him – a fan interceded to explain the truth of an innocent mistake. When Giannis went downtown to send money back home through Western Union on a game day, he didn't want to bother his close friend, assistant video coordinator Ross Geiger, for a ride to the gym. He had sent the money in his pockets back home, so Giannis, wearing a windbreaker, started running through the cold Milwaukee streets to reach the arena.
A married couple recognized him, stopped to pick him up and drove Giannis the rest of the way to the Bradley Center.
"Giannis," Bucks GM John Hammond explained to him later, "if you need a ride, you call someone here." Hammond started listing team employees, and finally said, "If you need a ride, call John Hammond!"
Giannis loves the interaction with people – meeting them everywhere – and that inspired a most improbable jealousy with his older brother, Thanasis. In the D-League, commercial air travel includes an exhausting loop of layovers and connections, hours upon hours in airport terminals to reach the minor league's remote locales. And bus rides, too. Hours and hours of bus rides.
This season, Giannis revealed to his older brother a measure of jealousy. For everyone who loves the NBA travel life – chartered flights, lavish food spreads on board, the true trappings of the rich and famous – Giannis has found himself pining for the way Thanasis sees America in the D-League.
"You can see people in the airport," Giannis told him. "You're lucky. We just come and leave. I never see anyone."
Sometimes, Antetokounmpo still can't believe he's here. Before few else did, Saratsis, his agent, believed everything could happen so quickly in the NBA. This time a year ago, general managers were offering Saratsis – who was born in Greece, but grew up mostly in the States – guarantees of selecting Giannis in the late second round to stow him away for years in Europe before bringing him to an NBA roster.
Outside of Giannis' two Greek-based agents, Giorgos Dimitropoulos and Giorgos Panou, Saratsis had watched Giannis more than anyone in NBA front offices, and knew he had someone special. He never backed down and slowly, surely, everyone else began to also understand. Eventually, most league executives believed they had to get ahead of Atlanta with the 17th overall pick to select Giannis.
What's more, most NBA teams believed the Hawks had assured that spot to Saratsis as a ground floor on draft night that Giannis would never fall below. These are common verbal agreements reached in the draft process, and most teams had believed Octagon had shut down Antetokounmpo's once he had a spot in the top 20.
For this reason, teams believed, information had become scarce on Giannis. As draft strategies go, a guarantee at No. 17 for Antetokounmpo was a coup. As one league executive called his competition in Greece – "YMCA level, playing against 35- and 40-year-old guys a lot of days," – cynicism over his talent was inevitable.
Nevertheless, Hammond had scouted Giannis for three consecutive days in Greece. Seventy-two hours before the draft in late June, the Bucks GM had decided: If Giannis reached Milwaukee at No. 15, Hammond was selecting him. Toronto's president and general manager, Masai Ujiri, tried frantically to find a deal to move into the top 15 and select Giannis, but nothing materialized. In the end, here were the Bucks, choosing a young player so naive to the sport – the business of professional basketball – that until late spring of 2010, he had no idea of the NBA draft concept until reading a newspaper story on John Wall's selection as the No. 1 overall pick.
"I thought if the NBA saw you, they like you, they take you with them," Giannis says.
On a cold Wisconsin afternoon this winter, Antetokounmpo was watching NBA highlights on a television over the restaurant bar near the practice facility and talking about all the NBA stars he gets to play night after night. LeBron James. Kevin Durant. Carmelo Anthony. In every way, this has been a season – a meteor – out of his wildest dreams.
"Hey, at beginning, Mike Dunleavy, he bust my ass!" Giannis exclaimed between bites of a steak. Only once, he insisted, though. He studied his tape, learned how to defend the Bulls forward and tried again. He's learning everything here, faster than most ever projected.
Back inside his apartment, Giannis shows off his pool table ("I play for respect, that's what I do!") and the personalized cue that his good pal on the Bucks staff, Geiger, gave him as a Christmas gift. And once his parents and brothers pushed through the red tape and made it to the United States, he was glad to let his agent find him a new PlayStation for his living room. Now, they're together for hours and hours, the guilt washed away.
And when it was still so cold this winter, the Greek Freak slid open the glass doors on his modest apartment, snow beneath his feet, wind blowing through his Bucks hoodie and thrust his arms out wide.
"Look at the water!" he says. "Look at the lake!"
On the worst team in the NBA, in the most remote of NBA outposts, he still struggles to imagine such a wonderful life. The most earnest young talent in the NBA is learning his way, and once he begins to figure it all out, yes, the possibilities are endless for Giannis Antetokounmpo.