In his fifth season, Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.9 points per game and finds himself in the MVP conversation.
LOS ANGELES — In late November, Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks teammates had just finished practicing at the University of California in Berkeley. On the walk back to the team bus, Antetokounmpo was approached by a few autograph seekers holding portraits of him.
The 6-foot-11 forward obliged and continued on his way. Before hopping on the bus, one of his teammates asked why he chose to sign the items, knowing the autograph seekers would probably only attempt to hawk them. Antetokounmpo responded: “I signed them because that used to be me.”
Struggling and hustling is what the two-time All-Star is all too familiar with.
“You can just never forget where you came from,” Antetokounmpo told ESPN. “I know that they’re going to go out there and they’re going to sell it, but I used to be that little kid or that little guy that was selling stuff in the street.
“So, just growing up and going through life and how tough life was for me and my family, I’m always going to stay humble. Even now, it doesn’t really matter if I’ve got a $100 million contract or a $100 million Nike contract, it’s the way I grew up, it’s the way I go through life. I’m not changing.”
Growing up in his native Greece, it was a day-to-day struggle to survive. Antetokounmpo’s parents were Nigerian immigrants and found it difficult to obtain steady work. Securing funds, food and shelter became a collective family objective, and a young Antetokounmpo and his older brother, Thanasis, helped his parents sell products in the streets.
“I was young,” Antetokounmpo recalls. “I was selling stuff probably since I could remember, like 6 or 7 years old. I was always out there helping my mom and dad sell watches, glasses, CDs, DVDs, stuff like that. Whatever we could put our hands on. I did it until I was around 17. But I was just doing it because I had to. There was no other option. If we didn’t sell that night, we wouldn’t have food. Or if we sold, we’d have to think if we’re going to pay the rent or buy some food. It wasn’t easy. And that’s something that wasn’t long ago. Like five years ago, six years ago; it’s not easy to forget.
“But those moments back then, they were beautiful, man. Going through the struggle and making it out of it and seeing your family doing good now, it’s unbelievable. I remember those moments and I’m happy I went through those times.”
He’s now considered by many people as the future face of the NBA, and the financial struggle is over for him and his family. Still, the hustle remains.
This year, each player on the winning All-Star team will receive $100,000, with the losing team’s players pocketing $25,000. That’s a $50,000 boost from previous winning purses given to entice players to compete harder during the midseason classics.
But don’t expect it to alter the way Antetokounmpo performs Sunday.
In last year’s All-Star Game in New Orleans, Antetokounmpo’s first All-Star appearance, he was the only player taking the game seriously — picking up players full court on defense, attacking the basket relentlessly and hustling from end to end.
On Saturday, Antetokounmpo was going through his usual pregame prep during All-Star practice, which was surprising since these practices usually doesn’t involve a lot of effort.
Warriors guard Stephen Curry, who drafted Antetokounmpo with his first pick in the inaugural All-Star draft, detailed what he saw before practice:
“Giannis was getting ready before practice today, getting some stretching, some core work in, a little soft tissue rubdown and coach [Mike] D’Antoni walked up and was like, ‘Hey, does he know we’re actually not really practicing?'”
But taking it easy is not what got him here. He doesn’t know any other way but to work hard and give it his all. Those are principles instilled by his father, Charles, who died of a heart attack on Sept. 29 at age 54. It’s a tragedy with which Giannis is still trying to cope.
“It’s tough for me,” Antetokounmpo says, “it’s tough for my family. As I move forward, it’s going to be a lot easier. But you know, my dad is always going to be in my heart, he’s always going to be on the court, he’s always going to be in the stands sitting right there watching me play. He’s always with me right now, and all I can do is help support my mom, try to support my family, be a leader, make sure my little brother is doing well in school and that’s all I can do right now.”
Antetokounmpo is doing everything in his power to keep the 32-25 Bucks in the playoff mix. But this is his current hustle: elevating Milwaukee to a championship-caliber team. As the cornerstone, Antetokounmpo is committed to leading the franchise to greater heights.
“As long as Milwaukee does the right moves and we’re a championship [contending] team, I’m not going nowhere,” Antetokounmpo said. “This is my home. All I know is loyalty and this is an organization that [has preached that] since day one and hopefully I can help them bring joy to the fans and bring joy to the city in the future with a championship.”
Meanwhile, as his popularity grows, and more people grab at his attention, his focus remains on what has gotten him this far.
“A lot of people know who I am now,” he said. “They want a little bit of me, a little bit of my time. But at the end of the day, I still have to remember who I am. What’s the reason I’m playing basketball? I do it because I love it, I do it because of my family and that’s it. I don’t do it because of the money, I don’t do it because of the fame, I just do it because I love it and I do it for my family because my family enjoys it.”