The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP
The story of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s extraordinary rise from poverty in Athens, Greece to super-stardom in America with the Milwaukee Bucks — becoming one of the most transcendent players in history and an NBA champion…
As the face of the NBA’s new world order, Giannis Antetokounmpo has overcome unfathomable obstacles to become a symbol of hope for people all over the world, the personification of the American Dream. But his backstory remains largely untold, and Fader unearths new information about the childhood that shaped “The Greek Freak”—from sleeping side by side with his brothers to selling trinkets on the side of the street with his family to the racism he experienced in Greece. Antetokounmpo grew up in an era when Golden Dawn, Greek’s far-right, anti-immigrant party, patrolled his neighborhood, and his status as an illegal immigrant largely prevented him from playing for Greek’s top clubs, making his rise to the NBA all the more improbable. Fader tells a deeply-human story of how an unknown, skinny, Black-Greek teen, who played in the country’s lowest pro division and was seen as a draft gamble, transformed his body and his game into MVP material.
Has there been a better-timed book, recently? Shortly before this book’s release date, the Milwaukee Bucks, led by Giannis Anetokounmpo, won their second NBA championship — the franchise’s first was in 1971 (a team led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Like many fans of the NBA, I was aware of Giannis and his incredible impact on the court. However, I didn’t know that much about his past or upbringing. In Giannis, Mirin Fader offers readers an engaging, well-written and nuanced portrait of Antetokounmpo’s rise to greatness, and the forces that have shaped him as a player and man.
Fader’s account of Giannis’s early years is revealing, not just of Giannis’s own life but also the ongoing struggles of immigrants in Greece. Fader contrasts well the difference in the family’s experience in Greece before and after Giannis’s getting drafted by the Bucks. Only after he was drafted, and his star started to rise, did they enjoy any semblance of acceptance. The author presents readers with a detailed account of his upbringing, his discovery of basketball, and his rise through first the Greek youth leagues and then the NBA. Fader provides plenty of political and cultural context, too, and offers an often moving account of the family’s struggles.
The importance of family is a central driver of Giannis’s story. It is clear from the start that there is nobody more important to Antetokounmpo than his parents and his brothers. Fader makes it clear how close they all are, how much they still thrive in each other’s company, and also how one’s success is all of their success. The book also reminds readers of how young some NBA stars actually are. Giannis was only 18 when he was drafted, and whisked away to frigid Milwaukee without his parents and brothers (a situation that made him quite depressed, as the Bucks wrangled with the Greek government to get his family papers in order to come to America).
Considering his comportment on the court, it was interesting and surprising to learn how unsure of himself Giannis was and remains. Again, he was only 18 when he came over from Greece, and still trying to find himself and fit into the team and League as a whole, but that he remains somewhat insecure despite his achievements since joining the league was surprising. This insecurity is well-contrasted with his confidence in his abilities — which developed through a stubborn determination and relentless work-ethic. Fader does an excellent job of tracking his personal and athletic development, and his growing relationship to the Bucks and certain members of the organization, as well as teasing out the experiences and character traits that continue to inform his habits and personality (for example, a persistent, nagging fear of losing the security he has pretty much ensured for his family).
“Nobody is untouchable. The tallest towers in the world can still get torn down.”
The book is not just a story of Giannis. Fader includes a brief and lively history of the Milwaukee Bucks franchise, and the shifting context and culture of the League. Through these details, we really get a sense of how different Giannis is from his contemporary players — in terms of style and personality, but also the ways in which determination and a relentless drive and focus can power someone to the heights of their chosen sphere.
Well-written, briskly paced, and engaging throughout, Fader gives us an endearing and balanced portrait of the newly-minted Finals MVP. Giannis is a must-read for Bucks fans, of course, but it should also appeal to anyone interested in reading about the NBA and/or a new angle on the immigrant experience. I very much enjoyed reading this.