When Giannis Antetokounmpo takes the court at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, it will be more than his first time playing in the NBA. It will be another improbable step in a journey that has been amazing and unlikely, to say the least.
The 18-year-old Milwaukee Bucks rookie was the subject of an excellent profile by Jim Owczarski of OnMilwaukee.com in which Antetokounmpo opens up about his path to the NBA.
Antetokounmpo and his siblings were born into poverty in Greece. His parents, Charles and Veronica, immigrated to Athens from Nigeria and lived outside Greece for nearly two decades without citizenship. Growing up, Giannis and his brothers sold sunglasses, hats and bags on the street. His mom babysat and his dad worked as a handyman.
"They wanted a better future and a better life," Antetokounmpo told Owczarski of his folks. "They say, to come to Greece and have a better life. Even coming to Greece, they didn't have a better life. Life was still difficult. My mother is 50 years old. And my father, too. For 50 years old, life was difficult for them."
For most of the last 20 years, Giannis' parents had to worry about whether their family would be expelled from Greece.
"For 20 years they were illegal," Antetokounmpo said. "It's very hard to live for 20 years without papers. Very, very hard. You have children and you have to go out and work without papers. At any moment, the cops can stop you and say come over here and let me send you back to your country."
Antetokounmpo did not officially gain Greek citizenship until May 2013.
As a raw but potential-filled teenager, the 6-foot-9 Antetokounmpo quickly earned the attention of NBA scouts. Playing professionally in Greece, he was given the nickname "The Greek Freak." And while he did sign a contract with a Spanish club last year, he has never played outside Greece until this year.
Antetokounmpo was selected by the Bucks with the 15th overall pick in June's Draft, and in the past few months he's already gone a long ways to impress his teammates.
"He has a lot of potential, man, a lot of ability, a lot of things you can't teach as far as length and size and quickness," Larry Sanders said. "His ability to learn, his ability to be a sponge, to absorb everything he can is really what is going to take him over the edge and make him a great player. He has everything, all the attributes to be a great player."