Giannis Antetokounmpo visited Sepolia, the neighborhood that he grew up in Athens, and invited friends to play with him. Athens on May 12, 2015. Photo: FOS PHOTOS

The Greek Freak Was Passing by My House, Now He Is the NBA’s Most Valuable Player

The story of a migrant in Greece, who is now a reporter and comes from the same neighborhood as Giannis. Ten years ago no one knew it existed and now the whole planet knows about it.

lidia bajraktari
Jun 27, 2019 · 6 min read

A few years ago if you asked the average Athenian to tell you what or where Sepolia is, they would probably reply “no idea”. In 2013, Sepolia became known not only to all Athenians but the wider public, and now, in 2019, the word Sepolia was heard all over the world.

Sepolia is a neighborhood at the intersection of the central sector of Athens and the so-called western suburbs of Athens. It is the home of thousands of ordinary people who get up in the morning to go to work, go for an afternoon coffee, eat souvlaki at the small kiosks by the entrance to the subway. The days roll calmly by in Sepolia; its almost boring sometimes.

In the infamous Sepolia, Greeks, Albanians, Pakistans, Russians, Bulgarians, Romanians, and Chinese are living side by side. And there is also a family from Nigeria.

This is the neighborhood I grew up in. But more importantly, this is the neighborhood where Giannis Antentokoumbo grew up. He is known as “the Greek Freak” and he has just been named NBA’s Most Valuable Player for 2019. Because of the award and his very emotional acceptance speech during the ceremony, he made a whole country cry with national pride. If there’s something I usually don’t tolerate, of course, it is such so-called “national pride”, but in Giannis’ case, I will let it pass, and I’ll explain.

Giannis has managed in his very own magical way to pick up the MVP trophy, and momentarily to eliminate hate speech that dominates social media in Greece. The miserable types of users had to shut up for a while. Even when Giannis, who has shown how much he loves this country, was injured and could not play with Greece’s national team, some Greeks were found to call him again “black Nigerian” and chose to remind him that “Greeks are born with Greek DNA, you were not.” The best basketball player in the world, however, for 2019, had the Parthenon sewn onto his jacket and so even the miserable types finally shut up for a while, for one more time. As always, this fine silence was broken by politicians like Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of the opposition party, New Democracy, who is also ultimately prime minister in waiting.

The New Democracy chairman tweeted how proud he was of the achievements of the #GreakFreak, forgetting that he had voted “NO” in 2015 when the Greek Parliament took a vote on the acquisition of Greek citizenship for immigrant children born in Greece. He also forgot that his party’s deputy is Adonis Georgiades, who a few years earlier mocked and could not pronounce the name of Giannis Antetokounmpo. It was an extremely sad moment because elsewhere in the world, his name is pronounced perfectly. Finally, do not forget Mr. Kyranakis, a spokesperson for New Democracy who openly said that when New Democracy comes into power in the upcoming elections, child benefits and child-raising allowances will be allocated only to Greek children. “Greeks only” is another expression that makes me sad because I’m a migrant kid myself. I am a migrant kid and one of those people with a strange name; one of those people with names that politicians cannot pronounce. We will always be the others, the outsiders. Fortunately, however, we are equally talented as the Greek kids and we were taught by our immigrant parents to think that we are better than Greek children.

What makes Giannis even more special is not his unique basketball style, nor the rebounds or the dribbling nor his speed. Nor is it that he has an arm span of 2.21m.

What makes him special is his ethos. It is that he does not hold any grudge against all those who have treated him unfairly. He does not seek revenge for the fact that he was denied basic, self-evident rights. What makes him special are his tears as he uttered the words at the ceremony at dawn on June 25th, about the love he has for his family and his friends. It is the fact that he still seems to be that same boy who was passing by his brothers place under my balcony in Creontos Street in Sepolia, always holding a basketball in hand.

I would very much like to say that Giannis’ prize is an award for all those children with difficult names, but unfortunately, it’s not. It’s his own, a very personal award for him and his family. It’s unfair to reap another’s success and hard work. However, Giannis is the example that must come to our minds when it comes to immigrants, a term that I was sick of but now I have learned to love.

In early 2010 a former centrist Interior Minister called Yiannis Ragousis, established the citizenship allowing those who had been born to immigrant parents legally living in Greece to be granted Greek citizenship for at least five years, provided they had studied at a Greek school for a minimum of six years.

Later when the “Ragousis” law was paused by the conservative New Democracy, thousands of immigrant children were once again found to be stateless, especially those who were older than 18 and had to go through the unbearable bureaucratic procedures of their residence permit application alone, without the protection offered by their parents’ work stamps proving that they were living in Greece for 18 years.

The government of Antonis Samaras, (New Democracy) who had then called for the pause of this law, overcame this obstacle for Giannis Antetokounmpo to help him find his way to the NBA. Of course, he did not do the same for dozens of excellent high school students who wanted to go to study in Europe and the United States. I was tired of the boy walking beneath my balcony because he had more talent than me and got what I and thousands were entitled to.

But I was lucky enough to realise some things quickly. It felt like I had just woken up and got nervous with the hypocrisy of the state, but also of society. Greek society is really proud about the fact that Giannis Antetokounmpo grew up in Sepolia and made his way to the top from the bottom when he literally had nothing but his family. But part of this society votes for Golden Dawn, Greece’s neonazi party that is currently on trial, votes for those who want “Greeks-only” benefits. It is basically the same society that since the 90s still uses the term “Albanian” as a derogatory slur and accuses Albanians of thefts and rapes. It’s the same society that was protesting against migrant kids who were awarded Greek flags just because they are excellent students. (Yeah that’s a thing in Greece). It is the same society that considered the children of foreigners, lesser children, because in reality, they could not accept that their cleaning lady’s child was smarter than their own. They did not care for any flag.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, who ‘feels’ Greek, might be an MVP, but as long as we turn our backs on people who go into makeshift dinghies and come for a better future in a Europe of ideas and values, we deserve no prize.

Giannis Antetokounmpo will keep on doing great things, I will continue to feel cool because I grew up in Sepolia like him, politics will continue to rot, some people around us will continue to vote for Golden Dawn, and the other far-right parties.

Fortunately, however, the next Messi may be in a tent in the European Union’s refugee hotspot of Moria, on the Greek island of Lesvos. The next Serena Williams may grow up in a basement in Kipseli and the next Giannis Antetokounmpo may be crammed with another 50 asylum seekers on a boat with crossing the Mediterranean.

Until then, let’s finally take the borders off the map, let’s treat all people the same, whether they are scoring 3-pointers or not, and if we are miserable, let’s keep the misery for ourselves and not for the comments on Facebook.

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This article was originally published in Greek on


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lidia bajraktari

Written by


AthensLive is a non-profit, on-the-ground source for stories from Athens and throughout Greece.

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