The Giannis Effect: Greece Embraces African-Origin Sports Stars - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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The "Greek Freak" was once compared to a chimpanzee by a racist politician. Now, he's inspiring African-origin kids across Greece to take to sports.

  • Born to Nigerian parents, Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo is breaking race barriers to emerge as the most popular sportsperson in his Greek homeland.
  • That’s inspiring a new generation of young women and men of color in Greece to explore professional sports careers.

On a sunny Saturday in March, a group of players aged between 12 and 16 were ebulliently passing the ball, smiles on their faces, on a spacious basketball court in the northeast Athens district of Labrini.

Head coach Anastasia Kostaki, a retired playmaker and the first Greek player to play in the WNBA (with the Houston Comets), was watching over both the boys’ and girls’ teams. Her assistant coaches were testing the youngsters’ physical limits with a series of push-ups, speed and agility, and footwork drills. They’re among 100 young players selected in November 2019 from underprivileged Athens neighborhoods and refugee camps as the first batch of a pioneering basketball lab called the Antetokounbros Academy, backed by Milwaukee Bucks megastar Giannis Antetokounmpo and his brothers Thanasis and Kostas (both of whom also play in the NBA), Nike, the Onassis Foundation and the basketball organization Eurohoops.

The coronavirus only temporarily put their practice sessions on hold. They’re part of a broader churn in Greece, sparked by the exploding popularity of Antetokounmpo, who was born in the country to Nigerian parents.

Milwaukee Bucks v Los Angeles Lakers

Giannis Antetokounmpo gets together with and his brothers Kostas and Thanasis prior to the start of a basketball game against Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center.

Source Kevork Djansezian/Getty

A recent public poll by Greek sports site Gazetta on the country’s best athlete in 2019 returned Giannis — as he is widely known — at top place, leaving behind the most successful Greek track cyclist of the 2000s, Christos Volikakis, in second place. Tennis whiz kid Stefanos Tsitsipas came in third. In a country where white, more “stereotypically Greek” athletes have long drawn greater mass appeal, while Black players have been subjected to racism, Giannis’ stunning rise is now inspiring other young women and men of color to eye professional sports as an opportunity.

The Antetokounmpo brothers are a source of inspiration for Black basketball players.

Michalis Diamandis, coach, Antaios B.C.

At the United African Women Organization of Greece, which promotes the rights of African-origin women in the country, at least half of the 70 members are now sending their children to play basketball, says Loretta Macauley, the organization’s spokesperson. Then there’s Antaios B.C., the only European basketball team where at least 90 percent of players are Black.

That surge in enthusiasm is a result of Giannis’ popularity across Greek communities.

“Giannis is so popular because of all the adversities he’s overcome,” says Vassilis Skountis, a prominent Greek sportscaster. “Greeks see him as the opportunity to reach the top. He is a rare talent but humble, loves Greece, is a brainchild of the Greek basketball, and epitomizes hard work.” Giannis — also called the “Greak Freak” — once said he “wasn’t supposed to be here” when talking about the NBA. “Yet, he made it,” says Skountis.

Making it with the Greek public was harder — for Giannis, and others before him. In 2006, another Black player, Greek center Sofoklis Schortsanitis (aka “Big Sofo” or “Baby Shaq”) won a silver medal in the FIBA World Championship with the Greek national team. He won — again with the Greek national team — the bronze medal in the EuroBasket 2009.

Still, members of far-right Golden Dawn party questioned his Greekness in 2012 (Schortsanitis was born to a Greek father and a Cameroonian mother). Three months after Giannis was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in July 2013, Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos referred to him, saying: “If you give a banana and a flag to a chimpanzee, he will lift them.” Golden Dawn crashed out of the Greek Parliament in the 2019 elections, but racism persists.

Macauley of the African women’s group came to the country in 1982 from Sierra Leone, led at the time by the authoritarian Siaka Stevens. In Greece, she says, “I’ve been called Black in a pejorative way on the bus, to which I reply you are white too.” The invisibility of people of African ancestry in the eyes of Greek authorities irks her. “African people having lived and worked for decades in Greece are vainly chasing Greek citizenship, but Tom Hanks got it in one day,” she says. The Hollywood star has honorary citizenship in Greece.

Giannis’ wild popularity is offering hope for change — even if only a bit. “The Antetokounmpo brothers are a source of inspiration for Black basketball players,” says Antaios B.C. coach Michalis Diamandis. Yet it’s a challenge. “I still have to chase good players to come to practice and to knock on the doors of their families to convince them of their children’s potential,” Diamandis says. “The financial problems of these people are way too many.”

He says initiatives like the Antetokounbros Academy are great, but wants sponsors to look toward other teams and organizations such as Antaios too.

Meanwhile in Labrini, NIKE has invited famous Dutch street soccer player Roxanne Hehakaija (“Rocky”) to meet and inspire the new generation. These cosmopolitan experiences, the finest coaching and scholarships to two recruits to attend a summer course in Cambridge, U.K., help make the Antetokounbros Academy a “good nursery for future players,” says Skountis.

Kostaki agrees. “There is great talent in the team, so in theory the academy could produce the next Giannis,” she says. If sponsors extend funding beyond their current two-year commitment, “there is a chance we might be having a professional team made up of these players in 10 years.”

But the impact of this shift might extend well beyond the sport. The true test of the “Giannis effect” will lie in whether it can also transform Greek society — and its attitudes towards people of color. He’s already making a dent.

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