Thanasis Antetokounmpo: "We cannot forget where we came from"

Nov 07, 2018 by Print
Thanasis Antetokounmpo: "We cannot forget where we came from"

Thanasis Antetokounmpo is a distinguished member of a successful basketball family. Two of his four brothers, Giannis and Kostas, play in the NBA. The youngest brother, Alex, is a highly thought of prospect in high school. And Thanasis is in his second Turkish Airlines EuroLeague with Panathinaikos OPAP Athens. Though they have all found success, things have not always been easy for the Antetokounmpo brothers. The boys grew up as illegal immigrants in Greece, where their parents emigrated to from Nigeria in 1991. Their parents Charles, who passed away in 2017 from a heart attack, and Veronica moved from Lagos, Nigeria, to Athens as part of a wave of immigrants seeking better lives. They left Francis, their oldest son, in Nigeria with his grandparents. Thanasis, Giannis, Kostas and Alex were born and raised in Greece. All of them sold different items in the streets - DVDs, sunglasses, bags - to raise extra money for food and rent.

Originally, Thanasis Antetokounmpo committed to an eight-minute interview for this piece, however, when he learned the topic would be about his and his family's story, Thanasis smiled and blurted out: "That story is not for eight minutes! But I am so happy that I get to tell it.

"For me, my parents are everyday heroes, and all people who can do this - go to a different place not knowing anyone and raise a family there, giving them whatever they need to succeed in life."

"It has been tough but through basketball and how Mom and Dad raised us, it made us who we are today. My parents were very brave, coming from Nigeria to Greece. For me, my parents are everyday heroes, and all people who can do this - go to a different place not knowing anyone and raise a family there, giving them whatever they need to succeed in life... Along with firemen and policemen, these are the everyday heroes in life - a mother who can take care of her kids, a father to works three or four jobs to support their family, these are the real heroes."

Life was hard for the Antetokounmpos but they never stopped smiling, and that positive attitude did not go unnoticed. All the boys spent time selling items on the streets of the northern Athens suburb Sepolia, where Thanasis is certain they left a good impression.

"The most important thing is that we were really nice kids and everybody there liked us," Antetokounmpo said. "They saw us and noticed that we were always smiling, happy. In the back of their heads, after all these years, I am sure they are really happy for us right now. Most people were great to us, that is the most important thing. They saw us as kids and were not afraid of us, but helped us."

There were many lessons learned by the Antetokounmpo boys on those long days on the streets, who came to believe in karma, which would affect their everyday interactions with customers in those days and family, friends and even fans today.

"That is the circle of life; you do something good for somebody and somebody else will do something good for you. We tried to sell sunglasses and other stuff to help our family. It was tough, but at the same time, everybody in the world has something in their DNA that makes you tougher when you go through a situation like that. You just have to find that, get through the day and then get through the next one, and the next after that, and see where it gets you."

The Antetokounmpo family lived in Greece for almost 20 years without citizenship - neither Nigerian nor Greek - and had to avoid immigration police for a long, long time. Eventually, the Antetokounmpo brothers received the Greek citizenship, after a whole life in the country. It was time for Thanasis to make one of his dreams come true: playing for the Greek basketball national team.

"We were really happy when we got the papers. We were born in Greece, went to school here and speak the language. We didn't get the papers because of the basketball. Okay, we all play basketball, but we were not players taken by the national teams to play with them, we were born and raised here. After that, we were able to say: 'Okay, now I can work hard and if I work hard enough, I can play for the Greek national team', which is something that we really wanted to do."

In their mid-teens, Thanasis and Giannis joined Filathlitikos, a second-division Greek club, and through hard work and determination, everything changed for the family. Thanasis is thrilled that not only did all his hard work pay off, but that he gets to work doing something he truly loves.

"Basketball changed everything for us. I read something the other day: you work most of your life, the statistics say you work from ages 24 to 65," Antetokounmpo explained. "So for anyone, to work and being able to do what you love is really important, because what you do the most in life is work. For me and my brothers, my family, being able to work as professional basketball players is great, something amazing. I feel blessed and really grateful for that."

All of the Antetokounmpo brothers play with heart and character - you just need to see Thanasis's intensity in any Panathinaikos game to figure that out. Nothing should be taken for granted and Thanasis knows that better than most.

"For sure, that fighting spirit is always there. It is there on a daily basis," Antetokounmpo said. "We always say to each other that nothing is easy in life. You may think that some stuff is easy, but it is not. I am not talking about when you don't have money or stuff like that, I am talking about everyday life. Maybe someone has everything, but psychologically, it is not easy for him to go through this day. You have to fight for everything because nothing is given in this life, you have to go and take it in a good way, by working hard and making sure you deserve it."

"We always say to each other that nothing is easy in life. You may think that some stuff is easy, but it is not."

Thanasis Antetokounmpo is truly in love with his country and believes that it is only a matter of time until we see three Antetokounmpo brothers – and maybe even four! - playing for the Greek national team.

"There are no words to describe Greece. You find out when you come here," Antetokounmpo said passionately. "I think that everyone in the world should come to Greece at least once in a lifetime and see how it is, how people are... It is an amazing place and has great history and culture. If you go to the islands, the beaches and the water are amazing. The food is great pretty much everywhere you go. You can go sightseeing and see a lot of historical places, stuff that will inspire you."

Even though Antetokounmpo wants to look forward and see where his future will take him, he will never forget to look back from time to time and remember what his parents did for him.

"We cannot forget where we came from. It is very important not just to stay motivated, but also because you want your family and kids to know who you are and where you came from. I would like my kids to know that their grandparents came from Nigeria and fought hard to make a living. I want our family story to go on through our own generations."