Giannis Antetokounmpo’s older brother, Thanasis, can’t watch the Bucks’ star of the future without feeling nervous energy. But his reason is shared by Antetokounmpo’s growing number of NBA fans.
“It’s not nervous like I don’t think he’s going to do good,” Thanasis says. “It’s more nervous out of excitement because I’m waiting to see what’s going to happen.”
While the Bucks went packing last week, Antetokounmpo cemented himself this season as one of the most exciting game-changers in the league. Soon after his fourth triple-double in March after handling more point guard duties, Bucks coach Jason Kidd made a special announcement: the 6’11”, and growing, Greek Freak would be the starting point guard next season.
Antetokounmpo’s special leadership extends to his family life, where he’s a guiding force for his two younger brothers, Alex and Kostas. On off days this season, he could be seen sitting courtside at Kostas’ high school games, being vocal with motivation and even jumping on to the court with elation.
“The way that he mentors all of his brothers is amazing,” his father, Charles, says. “He will do anything for them. He will spare nothing to make sure that they have exactly what they need. He teaches them about basketball, about life, about priorities. It’s really great to see all of the things that I am passing on to Giannis he is passing on to them.”
“That bond is really a strong bond between brothers and family,” Kostas adds. “And I think basketball makes it even stronger.”
Recently, the NBPA had lunch in Milwaukee with the 21-year-old, whose youth-like excitement about seeing a fan wear his jersey is just as strong as watching his brothers play—emotions that come through his animated and expressive storytelling. Through the conversation, he opened up on his life and experiences in the city, connection to Greece, tight-knit family and brotherly bond, how he’s helping Kostas at 18 prepare for college or overseas, and much more.
Jared Zwerling: What are your plans for the offseason?
Giannis Antetokounmpo: This is a really important summer for me, Thanasis and Kostas. We’re going to have our own training camps in Greece, Milwaukee and L.A.—just step away a little bit from everybody and just focus. When [our youngest brother], Alex, is done with school, he’s going to join us.
JZ: You had a big fan turnout in Greece last summer when you and Thanasis showed up at a court in your old neighborhood. Planning to do that again?
GA: Yes. Last summer was pretty crazy. Me and Thanasis were just hanging out at our apartment and tweeted like five hours before that we’re going to be there to just play basketball. I thought there would be like 20, 30 guys, but like 2, 3,000 people came. And camera crews from every Greek channel came. It was the court that I was imitating Allen Iverson growing up. I used to have the cornrows. I wanted to be like him, crossing over my little brothers.
JZ: Do you have a sense of how your popularity is growing in Greece?
GA: I know a lot of people are watching. So on Facebook, I have more Greek people. I go through my timeline and the only thing I see is Kostas, Thanasis, Giannis, Giannis, Giannis, Kostas, Thanasis. I’ve got almost 350,000 [likes from people] and I see everybody talking about us. The first thing they’re talking about in the morning is, like, “Did you guys see that dunk by Giannis?” A lot of young kids are watching what we’re doing right now, so we’ve got to set the right example for them.
JZ: What is life like for you now in Milwaukee—the vibe, the culture?
GA: I love it, especially I’m not such an outgoing guy. Living here, it makes me more focused with basketball and my family—the two most important things in my life. I love to be here in Milwaukee—a really respectful, a really quiet city, not flashy, not fancy. A lot of fans approach me every day and give me words of wisdom.
JZ: What do you enjoy doing on off days with your family?
GA: We usually go to Chicago, and we’ve got a nice restaurant there. It has a buffet with Chinese and sushi. With Kostas and Alex, I usually go play laser tag. I’m very good. I get low so no one can see me. Back in Greece, we all play paintball. And at home in Milwaukee, we have dance-offs for fun. I’ve got some rhythm in me. Can that be the title of the article—”Best Dancer”? I live in an apartment with Kostas, and my parents live downstairs. I’m about to move to a bigger house this summer.
JZ: Reflecting on your childhood, your father was keen on teaching you footwork, being that he was a former pro soccer player in Nigeria. How did he help you?
GA: When I decided to not to become a soccer player, he was sad. But he wanted to do something to help us. We did a lot of soccer footwork drills and ladder drills. He used to take us to the soccer court and getting us in stance, moving our feet. Now, he’s not sad. Now, he’s like thank god [laughs].
JZ: What made you want to transition to basketball?
GA: It wasn’t height; I wasn’t tall as a kid. One day, Thanasis was, like, “I want to play basketball.” I was, like, “Oh, man!” My father was lecturing us for like three hours straight. “Basketball? You’re talking about basketball?” After, he was, like, “OK, you can play basketball.” I was, like, “I’m not going to be a No. 1 player in soccer.” I was going to spend time with Thanasis because he was older than me, and so I always wanted to be with him. Then Kostas played basketball, then Alex.
JZ: What was your welcome to the NBA moment?
GA: When the Bucks picked me up from the airport in July . They gave me a new iPhone and I had like $1,000 bucks [he holds out each hand and looks at them]. I was, like, “Oooh, NBA, I’ll take it!” After, we went to Las Vegas and I met Larry Sanders there. So they gave us per diem again for the trip. It was like $500, $600, and Larry was, like, “Here you go, rook!” I was, like, “Wooo, I love the NBA!” Just like that, your life changes. Everything is taken care of. But I realize how blessed I am to have all those things.
JZ: You were drafted in 2013 and your family arrived in Milwaukee in February the following year after they got their Visas. How tough were those first few months for you?
GA: It was the toughest part. I’m a really tough kid, I can handle things by myself, but I was always living with my family. But I knew that I had to leave for a better future. I was always calling my family on Skype and showing them around the apartment, like, “Alex, Kostas, this is your bedroom.” I was, like, “Mom, this is your and dad’s bedroom. This is our living room. This is our kitchen.” And I was seeing the look in my mothers’ eyes. She was, like, “Maybe one day we’ll be able to be there with you.” I was getting mad, but the Bucks helped me with my situation, bringing my family.
JZ: Who did you lean on that first season for support?
GA: Ross Geiger. He works for Phoenix right now. He was a video coordinator. He was spending so much time with me. Every day for like four, five months he was with me. He was taking me to practice, bringing me back, grab lunch and dinner, watching movies. And he was telling me, “I can’t wait to meet your family.” He was always supporting me. It was a way to go through my day without thinking so much about my family.
JZ: Through the past three years, what’s been your favorite experience so far in the community?
GA: I did an appearance this season with some kids [35 boys as part of Operation Dream]. Most of the kids really didn’t have a father figure, so it was more like a mentoring thing. So that was one of my moments that I felt like I could give back in a different way—not just money. I talked about my life in Greece. By seeing my parents go through all the frustration and difficulties there, that was one of the things that made me who I am today. That’s what motivated me to always be someone great and help my family.
JZ: Where does your family sit during your games and how do they cheer for you?
GA: Opposite of our bench, like the fifth row. My parents have missed three games. Usually last year, when I made a bad play or a turnover, I was mad and showing emotion, and my mother always got sad. Now, I know how to control that and I’m always calm on the bench. Whenever I have an out-of-bounds play, I’m always talking a little bit to Alex. I’m, like, “What’s up, bro. You good?” He’s always telling me, like, “You’ve got some open shots. Shoot it.” I’m, like, “I got you.” I try to interact with them, so they’re like playing the game with me.
JZ: How do your parents help you with day-to-day needs and off-the-court opportunities?
GA: They help me with paying the bills, driving me to the airport—simple things like that. My father is helping me with basketball. My mother is doing everything else. If you could give like an MVP trophy, it’s going to my mom. I did a shoot with ESPN this year and I opened the magazine, and I was, like, “Mom, I did a photo shoot without my shirt.” She’s, like, “Wait, what? Where were we?” And I was, like, “I did it in Houston, so you guys weren’t here.” She’s, like, “Are you nuts? Oh my god!” Now she always wants to be there [laughs].
JZ: How have you been a mentor for Kostas through his basketball development?
GA: I think I’m doing a better job with being at more games, always talking to him, like, “Kostas, you’ve got a great body to be in the league, you can do things that other kids can’t do at your age.” Everything is going to come for him. Whenever I go to his games, I always yell, like, “Let’s go, Kostas! They can’t guard you!” I’m, like, “Kostas, if you go hard for five more minutes, you’ll win the game, that’s it!” He’s, like, “I got you.”
JZ: Your family sits close up at your games. Where do you sit at Kostas’ games?
GA: I’m sitting in the front row. I’m like a coach. Sometimes I get on the court [laughs]. Sometimes the referee is, like, “Sit your butt down!” I’m, like, “I can’t! That’s my little brother out there!”
JZ: What are you teaching Kostas basketball-wise, and is there any parallel to you when you were his age?
GA: We’ve got the same body—he’s just taller than me. I was 6’8-1/2″ at 18. Now I’m a legit 6’11”. But he’s 6’10-1/2″ at 18, and he’s still growing. The only thing that I’ve got to do in the summer is just get his core stronger, his legs stronger, and I think basketball-wise it’s going to come. This summer, me and Kostas and Thanasis are going to spend a lot of time together; Alex, too, when he’s free.
JZ: Do you focus on a position with him, or do you have him think like you — position-less basketball?
GA: Yes. That’s what I’m telling him everyday. When he’s taking the rebound, he goes and passes it to the point guard. I’m, like, Kostas, “Why are you passing? Take it yourself!” But he’s, like, “I’m the 3 man.” I’m, like, “Kostas, in basketball right now, there is no such thing as a position; it’s all about your skill set. If you can bring the ball down, bring the ball down; it’s simple. But you’ve got to take care of the ball.”
JZ: Do you and your brothers talk at all about being in the NBA together one day?
GA: Yes. That’s the goal. And Alex is 14. He’s 6’3″. He’ll be in high school next year. He’s working hard, too—just got to have patience and everything will come to him, too.
JZ: You said you didn’t think you’d be that tall. But you also have massive hands and your Achilles tendon, according to ESPN, is almost double the length of the average adult male’s. Do you ever just look at yourself or the mirror sometimes and say, “What the—?”
GA: I do sometimes, man. My father is 6’6″ and my mother is like 6’0″, and I’m, like, “How did the hell this happen? Long arms, long hands” [he looks back and forth at his palms]. I don’t know, man—just blessed.