NBA: Afro-Greeks struggle to emulate 'idol' Antetokounmpo

Alexandros KOTTIS, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 05 2022 10:07 AM

Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece reacts during the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 group C basketball match between Greece and Ukraine in Assago, near Milan, Italy, 06 September 2022. Daniel Dal Zennaro, EPA-EFE
Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece reacts during the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 group C basketball match between Greece and Ukraine in Assago, near Milan, Italy, 06 September 2022. Daniel Dal Zennaro, EPA-EFE

ATHENS, Greece -- Young Athenians sharpen their shooting skills under the dazzling white lights of an outdoor basketball court, forever dreaming of emulating local hero and global star Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The sport offers the tantalizing hope of obtaining Greek nationality -- and the promise of an easier life -- for the children of African immigrants born or raised in Greece but whose presence in the country is questioned.

But many of the budding basketball players believe the daunting obstacles placed in their path by Greek administration make it hard to follow their role model Antetokounmpo and his rags-to-riches story.

Originally from Nigeria, brothers David and Joshua Nnadi told AFP their efforts to follow in the footsteps of Giannis and his sibling Thanasis have been thwarted at every turn.

"Every year the school organizes a trip abroad. Without the papers, I cannot leave the country," said David, 17.

"I don't understand, the Antetokounmpos were like us... today, they receive all the glory, and we get nothing," he regretted.

Their playmate Tangu shares the feeling of injustice. "They say we all have the same rights, but that's false," he told AFP.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, born in Athens to Nigerian parents, is everywhere in the Greek capital, adorning advertising billboards and acting as a role model for aspiring basketball players of African origin.

An enormous fresco on a basketball court depicts Antetokounmpo, 27, leaping with superhuman agility towards a basket, soaring towards the clouds and a Greek god. 

His number 34 jersey sells by the thousands in city-center alleyways.

Dave Okonkwo, also born in Greece to Nigerian parents, aspires to follow Antetokounmpo's example and become a professional player.

"I dream of meeting him, learning from him. Giannis has always been my idol," said the 18-year-old, as he laced up his trainers on the court.

- Legal limbo -

Antetokounmpo's dizzying rise to international sporting stardom had humble beginnings. Penniless and without a regular legal status in Greece, his family survived off the proceeds of odd jobs and informal trading.

Basketball gave the two eldest children, Thanasis and Giannis, an escape from the precarity of day-to-day life. Scouts spotted their talent, with Giannis joining North America's prestigious NBA league with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013.

Giannis's sporting achievements facilitated the regularization of his status in Greece, where he obtained citizenship at 18 as he jetted off to the United States.

The granting of Greek citizenship to these children of immigrants is not automatic and the criteria vary by age, the situation of the parents and the youngsters' education.

The administrative hurdles often leave youngsters in a legal limbo, especially when the response times drag on seemingly indefinitely.

Nikos Odubitan, who founded the organization Generation 2.0 to help integrate and offer legal support to young people facing such difficulties, said the bureaucratic delays exceed the timeframe stipulated by law.

"The law says the steps should be completed in six months. In reality, the average is more than four years and some people wait for six to seven years," he said.

The uncertainty prevents the children from accessing free healthcare, the organization added. "One Giannis doesn't make a summer," said Odubitan.

- Hard work and perseverance -

Okonkwo took up basketball aged 11 at the AntetokounBros Academy, an organization founded by the Antetokounmpo brothers to give opportunities to "underserved youth" and allow them to change their lives through the power of sport.

It was also at the academy that budding basketball star Benjamin Tangu practiced his first dribbles, after arriving in Greece aged 13.

"He (Giannis) showed that if you work hard enough, you will succeed," said the young man of Congolese and Angolan origin.

"He succeeded through work and perseverance. Nothing is easy but you've always got to follow your dreams," added Okonkwo.

"We always want to compare ourselves to Giannis, but everyone follows their own path. He made it. Now it's our turn to be recognized."

© Agence France-Presse