New York City’s Greeks loves Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the one who calls himself the “Greek Freak” loves them back.
A large group of chanting Greeks gave Giannis a hero’s welcome at Madison Square Garden on January 5 when the Milwaukee Bucks played the New York Knicks.
It’s fair to say he did give his fans a great game— scoring 27 points and adding 13 rebounds in the win, including a game-winning turnaround jumper that put the Bucks in the lead as the clock counted down to zero to end the game in the win column for the Bucks.
A group waited outside to greet their fellow-Greek, who actually got off the bus to greet them, signing autographs, taking photos with them and greeting fans one at a time.
One fan even asked Giannis to sign her flag, during which he shook his head and told her that he wouldn’t deface the Greek flag with his signature.
Watch the moment Giannis tells a fan that he won’t sign the flag:
The move drew respect for the NBA star on Twitter from throughout the world and even from some unlikely folks in Greece, including a right-wing politician named Adonis Georgiadis who a few years earlier was vehemently opposed to granting citizenship rights to non-ethnic-born Greek children of immigrants.
Antetokounmpo was born and raised in Athens to immigrant parents from Nigeria. He was raised in a Greek environment, playing basketball in the streets of the rough Sepolia neighborhood and attended Greek public schools all his life.
There are thousands of kids like Giannis who are in citizenship limbo in Greece because right-wing politicians and pressure from the church has prevented successive governments from granting these Greek-born kids citizenship rights.
Because most of them have nothing to do with the home country of their parents and have never even visited, they are, in effect, kids without countries— without legal status in Greece, or elsewhere.
Only after intense lobbying and pressure was Antetokounmpo able to get his Greek passport when he was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013.
Georgiadis was grilled on Twitter as dozens posted inflammatory messages about the hypocrisy of praising Antetokounmpo for not wanting to desecrate the flag with his signature, but a few years earlier voting against citizenship rights for kids like the NBA star.
The definition of political immoralism (comparative images of newspaper headlines. In one, Georgiadis is quoted as saying ‘we must make things difficult for immigrants’ and in the other he is deifying Antetokounmpo.
— Chris Kympizis (@Kympizis) January 5, 2017
Do you remember or did you forget again? (attached photo of the anti-citizenship vote of Georgiadis and his party peers)
— de facto (@panlabro) January 5, 2017
The win in New York City wrapped a big week for Antetokounmpo, who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline “Giannis Antetokounmpo: The Most Intriguing Point Guard in NBA History.”
For most of his life in Greece, he was, literally, a man without a country. Greek law prohibited non-Greek born children of immigrants in the country to become naturalized as Greek citizens, leaving Antetokounmpo— like thousands of others— in limbo.
This prevented him from playing on Greece’s national team and even from traveling abroad. The matter came to a heated close when he was mentioned as a top draft pick in the NBA draft in 2013.
Giannis was stuck in Greek red tape and archaic— some would call anti-foreigner— laws.
But some heavy politicking and lobbying by the Greek Basketball Federation got Giannis’ (and his brother’s) case accelerated and he was granted Greek citizenship right before he was set to travel to New York City for the draft. He was the #15 pick by the Milwaukee Bucks that year.
When his name was announced, his brother waved the Greek flag proudly.
“A dream came true. We are now officially Greek citizens, as we felt all these years,” said the brothers in a joint statement at the time.
But their dream wasn’t the dream of some neo-fascist racists in Greece who attacked the players and then prime minister Antonis Samaras.
“We are proud to see you in the NBA,” he said. “We have to thank you for raising the Greek flag during the draft. We all hope that you will make them go crazy with your dunks.”
Nikos Michaloilakos, head of Greece’s far right wing Neo Nazi party lashed out at Giannis and the Greek prime minister, calling the 6-foot-9 player a “chimpanzee” in a television interview and said that if an ape carrying bananas was carrying a Greek flag, that wouldn’t make him Greek.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras issued an angry response.
“Giannis didn’t become Greek in ‘papers.’ He fought for it. He went to school. He learned to speak Greek better than many people. Nobody asked him to do it, but he was baptized as an Orthodox Christian. He started from the playgrounds of Athens to find himself in the NBA. He choose to be Greek. He fought for it and he deserves it. He is one of us. He makes us all proud. He is more Greek than those who talk bad about him because of the color of his skin and then burn our flag. Those people disgrace our country,” Samaras said in reference to Greece’s Neo Nazis.
At the time, the American Hellenic Educational and Progressive Association (AHEPA)– an organization founded by Greek Americans as a direct response to racism against Greeks by groups like the KKK in the 1920s– responded accordingly.
The AHEPA released a statement from then president John Grossomanides which said: “We strongly condemn the racial slur directed toward Mr. Antetokounmpo by Golden Dawn’s leader. Simply stated, it is unacceptable. We applaud the Hellenic Basketball Federation for strongly condemning the remark, and we join with the federation in condemning the racial slur in the strongest terms. We wish Mr. Antetokounmpo the best in the pursuit of his NBA dream.”