There’s no doubt at all that Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the most exciting players in the NBA today. The “Greek Freak” played a pivotal, defining role in the Milwaukee Bucks’ stunning Finals win in 2021. The Bucks could never have done it without their two-time League MVP. However, Giannis endured incredible hardships to reach these lofty heights.
So today, we’re going to look back at 25 obstacles and challenges Giannis overcame on his road to superstardom. Of course, there is the inspiring story of his struggles on the streets of Athens. But there were also the challenges he faced when he entered the NBA and how he became stronger. Check out the list via Niskanen Center and Marca below.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Giannis’s upbringing is the remarkable poverty his family endured. After arriving in Greece from Nigeria, they had to work extremely hard to survive. Giannis didn’t dream of becoming a professional basketball player because life was so tough. He worked as a street seller alongside his brothers in the dusty heat of Athens.
Many American basketball stars rise from tough places. However, they understood that the NBA is a possibility if they maximize their talents. There are scouts at every level of the game in the U.S. but Giannis never had the same exposure. Finally, when he came to the sport, his abilities spoke for themselves. Scouts watched him because of his reputation. There was nobody else to see.
As Giannis and his family were stateless, they hardly stayed afloat and lived below the poverty line. His coach literally found jobs for his parents. Meanwhile, his father brought Giannis and his brothers to practice so they wouldn’t get involved in street crime. Some helpful neighbors provided some support for the struggling family. One of these was a cafe owner named Giannis Tzikas.
Tzikas often made sandwiches and gave them to the brothers for free because he recognized their poverty. Some people criticized him for this because they felt he was enabling illegal immigrants. But Tzikas believed in doing his part for his fellow man. Giannis never forgot this and visited the cafe owner when he returned to Greece. He also keeps one of ‘The Greek Freak’s’ jerseys on his wall.
Nowadays Giannis is one of the faces of the NBA but basketball wasn’t the sport of his choice. In fact, he was a massive soccer fan. Meanwhile, he supported London team Arsenal and imagined lining up in the Premier League. If he pursued soccer instead of basketball, he may never have reached such incredible heights.
Giannis has an amazing physical frame that suits the NBA perfectly. It’s difficult to imagine him being so effective on a soccer field because of his size and weight. Panagiotis Zivas coached Giannis at Filathlitikos and actually paid his parents to ensure he came to training. If it wasn’t for his coach, Giannis may have flitted in and out of basketball without ever gaining focus.
Giannis’s exploits in the Greek League attracted the attention of global scouts. But the reality was that the standard wasn’t very high. He was essentially playing against older men, of whom most were part-time athletes. In the end, it was Real Zaragoza who took a chance on him. The Spanish team thought that they had a gem on their hands and snapped Giannis up like a raffle prize.
However, he never played in Spain because of a clause in his contract. This enabled him to play in the NBA if a team drafted him. We all know that the Bucks used their first-round pick on him but things could have been very different. Giannis’s raw qualities were enough for him to shine bright like a diamond in a pile of coal. In an earlier era, he may never have received the same opportunities.
In 2019, Giannis entered the annals of Milwaukee history as he followed in the giant footsteps of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He won the NBA MVP after a stunning individual season for the Bucks. Coach Mike Budenholzer deserves a lot of credit because the team jumped forward under his guidance. Meanwhile, Giannis’s MVP award created a conversation over his capacity to take the team forward.
We’ve seen league MVPs come and go without leading their teams to victory. There are plenty of one-hit wonders but Giannis proved that he is not one of them. He added a second MVP award to his trophy cabinet the following season as the Bucks stormed their way through the league. Giannis was also only the third player to win the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season.
Game six of the NBA Finals saw Giannis put in a superhuman effort. The Greek Freak dropped a sensational 50 points in the defining match of the series as his franchise sealed the Larry O’Brien Trophy. This was also historic because he tied Bob Pettit’s record for the most points scored in the final game of a Finals’ series.
“This is stuff you don’t want to take for granted,” Brook Lopez told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “But that’s Giannis. That’s what he does, and it’s just, I mean, completely awe-inspiring. His performance tonight, this whole series, this whole year, there’s no words for that. You’ve just got to look at the numbers.” Add in his five blocks and it’s clear why this was a career-defining game.
Giannis missed the last two games of the Conference Finals against the Hawks. All he could do was sit back and hope that his teammates were up to the task. Luckily for him, they were. Khris Middleton had a phenomenal postseason. Meanwhile, the likes of Bobby Portis and Brook Lopez were excellent at times. Finally, Jrue Holiday performed effectively with magnificent defense and clutch scoring in the NBA Finals.
One man can’t win an entire series by himself. The road to the Finals is a long one and the entire roster had to show their skills. This wasn’t a super team but it was a special team. They had the camaraderie and self-belief to inspire each other to greatness. Giannis also knows that they helped him to step out of the shadows and emerge as one of the league’s biggest stars.
2020 was a wild year for the NBA. As well as the global health crisis, there was a lot of social unrest across the U.S. Many players felt like they had to make a statement and represent the people from their communities. But the Bucks took it a step further by refusing to play a game. The Bucks were 3-1 up against the Orlando Magic before Game Five of their playoff series.
This social unrest could have ended their season but they stormed past it. It was another obstacle in Giannis’s road to glory and stardom but he kept going. He also won plaudits for his stance during the troubles in Milwaukee. Unity is essential in these times and he saw the city as his adopted home. This drew the fans closer to him because they felt like he truly cared.
The global health crisis blew the Milwaukee Bucks’ season apart in 2020. They lost all of their momentum after a stunning regular season. The crisis caused them to stumble and in the end, they fell short. However, that wasn’t the end of the Bucks’ struggles with the disease. Indeed, Giannis saw his own brother suffer the consequences of a positive test. Thanasis Antetokounmpo missed the final game of the season because of it.
It would have been easy for this to have had a negative effect on Giannis’s preparation. Even worse, his brother could have infected him. But his mindset was too strong for this to change his course. We all know what happened next as Giannis and the Bucks heroically brought the Larry O’Brien Trophy home. Thanasis was never prouder of his superstar younger brother.
One of the main criticisms of Giannis’s game was that it is so unorthodox. This enables him to play in practically every position on the court. But some analysts believed that this wasn’t the gift that it may appear to be. They said that he was a ‘Jack of all trades and a master of none.” However, Giannis proved them wrong.
In fact, now many critics think that his style of play is the future of the NBA. His all-around athleticism allows for a combination of lethal offense and devastating defense. As a result, the Bucks are better because they gain from his flexibility. Nobody wants him to leave the Bucks but it would be fascinating to see how he would do the same for another franchise.
Milwaukee is a long way from Greece. Initially, Giannis found it difficult to adapt to his new way of life because it was so different from what he knew. Firstly, there was the weather. In Wisconsin, the winters are freezing. This was a struggle for Giannis before he adapted. Then, there was the fact that it was so far outside of his comfort zone. He was lonely as he tried to settle down in another country.
Furthermore, he had to adjust to the idea of having money. Early in his NBA career he bought a PlayStation and was excited to use it in his spare time. But this was the most expensive non-essential item he had ever bought. Suddenly, he felt wracked with guilt because of his indulgence. His brothers also felt this way when they went to an all-you-can-eat buffet on their first visit to Milwaukee.
Chris Paul may never win an NBA ring. Karl Malone never won one either despite a last-ditch move to the Lakers. The list of players goes on and on. However, Giannis has got that off his back and did so in the best way possible. There is no doubting his greatness now because he helped inspire a small-town franchise to victory in the NBA Finals. He also won the Finals MVP award in the process.
Many fans believe that a player can’t be an all-time great without a ring. Of course, this is stupid but it is the way that a lot of people think. It’s fantastic that Giannis ended this conversation before it even began. Even if he never wins another title he will always have this victory. The manner in which he achieved it was like something from a fairytale. The question now is how many more will he win?
Few players possess a winning mentality like Giannis and that’s because of all the challenges he overcame. After the Finals in 20201, his teammates gushed praise. “It’s so indicative of who Giannis is as a player, as a person,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said. “He has that mindset always to just take care of business and he’s been our leader throughout my time.”
Giannis acknowledged this is just part of who he is. He said: “I can disconnect myself from the world because I want this so bad. I wanted this so bad, and I was able to get it. That’s why I was tearing up.” In short, he refused to allow his status to define his life. Instead, he used his experiences to create a new life for himself. Because of this, he’s one of the most admirable figures in the NBA today.
The Bucks had an incredible regular season in 2020. It looked like they were on course for a 60 win season but then the wheels fell off the bus. The global health crisis threw everything they worked for into disarray and injuries mounted. Giannis suffered an ankle sprain and missed a significant chunk of the conference semifinals against Miami. The Heat went on to the NBA Finals but that was little consolation for Milwaukee.
It was an extremely unfortunate turn of events for Milwaukee because they lost all of their pre-postseason momenta. The global health crisis forced the NBA into a hiatus before they decided that a bubble format was the best solution. Surely, the Bucks wondered what could have been if the season continued as normal. But at least they rebounded to achieve their glory.
It’s a credit to his family that Giannis never went down a darker part. Many young immigrants find themselves involved in a life of crime after arriving in Eastern Europe. It’s very difficult to escape this because of the dangers involved. Luckily, Giannis and his brothers stayed on track and avoided making the mistakes that so many others made. That’s because the risk was very real.
Meanwhile, there are also many anti-immigrant elements active in Athens and other Greek cities. They actively target immigrants and brutally assault them. Furthermore, the police are unhelpful in these situations because the immigrants are undocumented. They risk deportation or even another beating if they try to press charges. To sum it up, it’s a no-win situation for these unfortunates.
Most people refer to the Greek star as ‘Giannis.’ This is because ‘Antetokounmpo’ isn’t the easiest name to pronounce. Meanwhile, as a foreign athlete, he had his work cut out to become a major NBA star. The NBA’s main fanbases are in the U.S. and China. Historically, not many European stars have become household names with some exceptions. However, Giannis broke the mold.
He is one of several athletes from the same generation who are lighting up the NBA. The likes of the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic and Denver’s Nikola Jokic show that European players can be major players in the league. They’re also helping to make the NBA more well-rounded. This can only be a positive for the future of the competition because nobody wants to see the Lakers win every year.
In an era where franchises like the Lakers and Nets attempt to buy the league, Milwaukee’s victory was all that. much sweeter. The likes of Anthony Davis and James Harden are high-profile faces who left their franchises in a bid for glory. Meanwhile, LeBron James did so on two occasions. It’s difficult to compete with teams that have so much pull power but the likes of Milwaukee and the Toronto Raptors show what can be achieved.
Giannis was also derisive about abandoning franchises in the pursuit of rings. After Milwaukee’s stunning victory, his words were cutting. “It’s easy to go somewhere and go win a championship with somebody else,” Giannis said. “It’s easy. I could go to a superteam, and just do my part to win a championship. But this is the hard way to do it, and we did it.” Those are fighting words.
Playing for a small-town franchise helped Giannis because it connected him to his environment. Fans recognized him on the street and even gave him lifts to the mall in winter. However, Milwaukee is a city that has struggled over the past couple of decades in the sport and wider social issues. Giannis and his Bucks teammates injected a new sense of hope into the district.
They were playing for the pride of an entire state. Many fans felt like they were a part of the team’s journey to their first NBA Championship in 50 years. It wasn’t since the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that the city had such a talented icon on its hands. With this came immense pressure because Giannis knew they would feel disappointed if the Bucks fell short again.
The Phoenix Suns had all of the momentum when they made the NBA Finals. Chris Paul stole the headlines because it looked like he was finally going to break his Championship drought. Then, they went on and won the first two games of the series. A sweep looked like a distinct possibility. While Giannis put in a brave performance in game two, it was clear that that they had an uphill task.
But then the series left Arizona and went to Milwaukee. As a result, the Bucks force their way back into the series. The role of Giannis as their best player cannot be understated because he had such an influence upon them. It takes a team to win a Championship but an elite star like Giannis brings the best out of his teammates. This made their victory all the more special.
It wasn’t easy being a young African immigrant on the streets of Athens. This is because Giannis and his brothers endured a lot of racial abuse. Many people resented the constant stream of immigration across the Mediterranean. They also didn’t believe that he was really Greek because of his personal history and appearance. This went to the highest level because even politicians got involved.
Golden Dawn is a far-right anti-immigrant party with a militant wing. As well as being openly racist, Greek police also link them to actual murders. Their leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, angered the nation when he commented on Giannis’s citizenship. In 2017, he said: “If you give a chimpanzee in the zoo a banana and a flag, is he Greek?” The Greek Basketball Federation issued a furious response denouncing his words.
“Everybody’s out there anticipating a miss,” Suns star Chris Paul said. “Hell, even he is.” These words seem very silly now, but Paul once had a point. Giannis has struggled with free throws throughout his career and it’s one of the clear weaknesses of his game. He went 39-for-66 by Game Five of the NBA Finals with a success rate of 59 percent. In short, it wasn’t very good.
Maybe Paul’s words lit a fire under Giannis because the Greek star rose to the occasion in Game Six. He went 17-for-19 as the Bucks overwhelmed the Suns to win the series. Giannis knows that his success rate with free throws is average but he produced in the clutch. He also made a fool out of Paul who endured many reminders about his words on social media after the game.
The Milwaukee Bucks were both a blessing and a curse for Giannis. Arguably their smalltown vibe was perfect for him as he arrived from Athens. It’s possible that the likes of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles would have been overwhelming for him. However, the problem is that the Bucks are the smallest market in the NBA. This restricted his marketability from the very beginning.
But Giannis took advantage of this. He became a big fish in a small pond and his phenomenal performances spoke for themselves. Furthermore, he made Milwaukee more attractive as a destination for quality NBA stars. Before this, it was more difficult to convince them to choose Wisconsin over other markets. Finally, Giannis never focused on being a star because he was just interested in basketball.
Many people think that Giannis could have left the Bucks for a bigger franchise. As a two-time MVP and multiple-time All-Star, any team would love to sign him. But Giannis claimed that it was never an option for him. He knew that he would have a better chance of winning a ring with another team. However, it wouldn’t have meant the same to him because he loved Milwaukee so much.
After Game Six of the Finals, Giannis spoke to the media and claimed that he was too stubborn to leave. In the end, this paid off but it meant that he had a much longer road to the top of the game. Now he is one of the league’s biggest stars and very clearly a generational athlete. The reality is that he gambled on his future because it could have gone either way for him in Wisconsin.
One of the Bucks’ star’s biggest obstacles in 2021 was a knee injury. He also dealt with calf, groin, and back problems throughout the season. But things came to a head in the Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks. Giannis hyperextended his knee in Game Four and there were real concerns that his postseason was over. Luckily, we know what happened next.
The Bucks pulled through and made it to the Finals against the Suns. Giannis was a doubt for the first two games but pulled through and put in some career-defining performances. That knee injury could have stopped a lesser man but Giannis had such a strong mentality from his tough upbringing. It would take much more than this to stop him from fulfilling his goal of winning his first ring.
Possibly the most insane aspect of the Greek star’s story is that he was stateless for a huge chunk of life. His family arrived in Greece without any papers because they had more important things like surviving on their minds. But this left them vulnerable because there was the potential for the authorities to deport them back to Nigeria. Giannis didn’t receive his Greek passport until 2013. In 2015, he obtained dual Nigerian citizenship.
Crazily this was just a couple of months before he entered the NBA Draft. Despite his Greek passport, Giannis always felt close to his Nigerian heritage. This was because of the language he spoke at home with his family and their food. However, he’s also proud to represent Greek basketball fans as well as young immigrants who face massive obstacles in their lives.