It was one of those frigid December days in the suburbs of Milwaukee, and Giannis Antetokounmpo slid open the glass doors of his apartment and let the biting winds of Lake Michigan rush over him.
He spread his arms wide with his 6-foot-11 frame, threatening to touch the two distant walls.
“Look at the water!” Giannis bellowed.
“Look at the lake!”
To him, this was the most exotic locale on the planet.
Three years later, he’s agreed to a four-year, $100 million contract extension. He’s “The Greek Freak” now, the tallest point guard on the planet, an athletic wonder with the work ethic of a mason and the athletic gifts of a condor. He was discovered on grainy old footage in decrepit gymnasiums in Athens, where Milwaukee general manager John Hammond managed to score one of the great NBA draft-day coups of the decade with the 15th overall pick in 2013.
No one will ever read one of those stories in which Giannis becomes a cautionary tale, about this $100 million – or the next $100 million – lost in translation to stardom. He has the gift of memory, perspective and family grounding. As franchise cornerstones go, Antetokounmpo is the 21-year-old you don’t lose sleep over after awarding him a near-max contract.
Giannis was spared the blue-chip American system of pampering. He’s been about the work with the Bucks, unrelenting since the moment he arrived in the NBA. He lived through horrific poverty and family illness and the most rudimentary of basketball infrastructures in Greece.
Within the shadows of the Acropolis, out on the sidewalks of downtown Athens, Giannis sold pencils and trinkets and plastic sunglasses. For hours and hours as young teens, Giannis and his old brother, Thanasis, had to push themselves to raise money for the dinner table. On the way home, they stopped at the market and grabbed the essentials. Their father worked two jobs, and their mother had a stretch of illness.
“We would be out on the street together, selling a toy, a watch, something, and we’d raise $10,” Thanasis told me once. “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.”
Eventually, Thanasis told his younger brother: “Let’s do something with our lives so we never have to do this again.”
Together they did. Giannis made himself one of the best young players on the planet, and Thanasis has been working his way through the NBA Development League, trying to find staying power in the NBA.
Inside that modest suburban apartment three years ago, Giannis was a rookie awaiting the arrival of his family to the United States. Visa problems still hadn’t cleared the way for his parents and three younger siblings to leave Greece and come to Wisconsin. He had walked me through his three-bedroom apartment, where he had bedspreads and sheets neatly tucked and prepared on beds for his family’s arrival.
He had purchased a PlayStation, but felt such guilt enjoying it without his younger brother Kosta – now a freshman at the University of Dayton – Giannis sold it to a Bucks assistant coach for the $399 he had paid to purchase it.
Once the Antetokounmpo family arrived in Wisconsin, the Bucks did a marvelous job of making it feel a part of everything there. When it was time to get an extension done this month, Giannis never considered the possibility of messing around as a restricted free agent in 2017. Hammond had always gone the distance for him – all the way back to when he scouted him in Greece – and Giannis has never talked about bigger markets, brighter lights.
Even on the coldest days in Wisconsin now, the Greek Freak still looks out into Lake Michigan and admires it all. From his days and nights hustling coins in the shadows of the Acropolis, the outskirts of Milwaukee remain a beautiful, breathtaking view for Giannis Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s newest $100 million man.
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