Giannis Antetokounmpo tells Jalen Rose he almost didn't become a baller
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Greek Nigerian basketball god Giannis Antetokounmpo is a superstar, with an NBA championship and three MVP awards under his belt. He and his brothers Thanasis and Kostasare form the first trio of siblings to be NBA champions. He’s big, quick and powerful, and he’s bounced back from injuries like he’s Lazarus. There’s a reason why he’s called the Greek Freak.

But with all that winning, the Milwaukee Buck also brings a quirky, lighthearted, almost innocent sensibility to the game. He’s known for making dad jokes and eating chicken wings at post-game press conferences — a food that he saw on American shows while growing up overseas.

“I go to New York. My brother was like, ‘Let’s go get the chicken wings. They say it’s fire.’ So we grab the chicken wings. We get like a big cup of soda and we’re just like, ‘We are American now. Welcome to New York,’” he told me on this week’s “Renaissance Man.” As for eating them at a presser, he likes to “keep things light” in an industry that feels like a pressure cooker.

Giannis is now living the American dream. But there is a part of the culture he still doesn’t quite understand: soda cup size.

“First of all, it’s big. And you guys have refills? I can’t even finish this. Like, how? Why would they refill?”

We’re used to excess here in the States. Giannis had none of that growing up. He was raised in Athens by undocumented Nigerian parents who survived by selling goods on the street under constant threat of deportation. He and his brothers had little means but they fought against the odds to become wildly successful basketball players. Now, his remarkable life story has been turned into “Rise,” a movie now streaming on Disney+.

When Disney approached Giannis, he couldn’t refuse; he saw the opportunity as a way to pay homage to his parents.

Giannis jumped at the chance to pay homage to his parents with the new Disney+ film “Rise.”
Getty Images

The movie, and his story, are “not just about me. It’s about the sacrifice that my parents made early in their life in order for us to be in the position that we are today.”

Ironically, Giannis, who stands at 6-foot-11, almost didn’t play hoops. He wanted to be like his father and play soccer. But he was introduced to basketball via his older brother, who was approached by a coach to try out for a local team. Being the little brother, he wanted to tag along. Also, air conditioning was a cherry on top.

“First of all, it was an indoor court,” he said, which was surprising. “I played soccer outdoors … so I was like, ‘Oh, indoor gym, it has A/C, I’m good.’ you know. But at first I’m like, ‘Man, I won’t play no sport using my hands,’ you know, because I always play with my feet in soccer.”

The 6-foot-11 star’s first sport was soccer, but he fell in love with basketball — and the court’s AC — after tagging along with his older brother.
Getty Images

He gave it a try but stopped playing, opting instead to join his mother selling goods on the streets. But then his brother started excelling in the sport, he decided to give it another try.

“Then I started falling in love with the game. And then I realized I could be good at this. And then when I saw the journey that my parents had [gone on], sacrifices they made, how dedicated they were … I was like, ‘I am going to make it.’ Like, ‘I’m going to sleep in the gym … I’m not gonna eat. I really don’t care’ … I wanted to provide so bad for my little brothers, for my parents, for myself.”

He was 13 then and found himself in a full-on love affair with the game.

“I’m obsessed with basketball,” he said.

But he added a caveat: “I’m gonna be totally honest with you. I don’t watch basketball. I get too tense. I sleep, drink, eat and wake up basketball … It gets too much.”

Switching off is understandable, since he now has other, more important interests. Giannis is the father to two boys, which in my opinion gives him permission to use his dad jokes freely. And during our chat, he added to his repertoire, riffing on Father’s Day presents.

“I always get some socks and some underwear … a book about how can I be a great father. You know, like, at least give me a T-shirt or something,” he said with a laugh.

Then he offered me a joke: “What’s brown and sticky?” Answer: “A stick.”

I don’t see Giannis getting a Netflix comedy special anytime soon, but his cheesy jokes are all part of his charm. He’s a beast on the court and a joyful, endearing human off the hardwood.

And I think his story has a lot to teach us about gratitude.

Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.

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