SWITZERLAND, JUNE 25 – Giannis Antetokounmpo, a Greek boy originally from Nigeria has emerged the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for the 2019 season.
Antetokounmpo, a forward for the Milwaukee Bucks, is known as the Greek Freak due to his imposing height and his country of adoption. He led his team to the Eastern Conference Finals, but lost to the Toronto Raptors who went on to win the NBA Finals.
As he received the award on Monday night, he gave a heartfelt speech thanking his coaches, teammates and his father, Charles, who died in September 2017 of a heart attack.
“I want to thank my dad. Obviously, you know, he’s not here with me. Two years ago, I had the goal in my head that I’m going to be the best player in the league and I’m going to do whatever it takes to help my team win and I’m going to win the MVP,” he said.
“Everyday that I step on the floor, I always think about my dad and that motivates me, that pushes me to play harder and move forward.”
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Many did not know that he was actually a Nigerian and his surname, ‘Antetokounmpo’ was an error on his passport to make him look more Greek. His original name is ‘Adetokunbo’.
Now, Antetokounmpo wants to go back to his roots.
“Obviously, a lot of people don’t know where I’m from,” Antetokounmpo said during a recent interview.
“A lot of people think my mom or my dad are from Greece, but no. Both of my parents are black. Both of my parents are Nigerian.”
Charles and Veronica Adetokunbo moved from Lagos to Greece in 1991 in hopes of a better future for themselves and their family after struggling to find employment. The Adetokunbos’ eldest son, Francis, was left behind in Lagos to be raised by his grandparents. Charles Adetokunbo worked as a handyman and wife Veronica as a baby sitter in their struggle to make ends meet for their family, which was the only black one in the area, according to The New York Times.
The Adetokunbos had four more sons, all born in Greece, including Giannis on Dec. 6, 1994. (Antetokounmpo became Giannis’ surname after it was spelled that way on his Greek passport instead of his birth name of Adetokunbo.)
Antetokounmpo grew up in Greek culture learning the language, going to school and eventually starting to play basketball at age 7. But when he was home with his family, he learned and lived the Nigerian way.
“I grew up in a Nigerian home,” Antetokounmpo said. “Obviously, I was born in Greece and went to school in Greece. But at the end of the day when I go home, there is no Greek culture. It’s straight-up Nigerian culture. It’s about discipline, it’s about respecting your elders, having morals.”
Veronica Adetokunbo spoke to her sons in the Nigerian language of Igbo, which is one of the four official Nigerian languages and is spoken by about 18 million people in Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, according to several websites.
“I can understand it a little bit. I can count. It’s not like I’m fluent,” Antetokounmpo said of Igbo. “It’s not like I can go back home to Nigeria and they can understand what I am saying. It’s kind of funny.
“Both my parents are from Nigeria. But Nigeria is like 250 dialects, so my mom and my dad don’t speak the same language.”
Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, who is arguably the greatest international basketball player of all time and one of the greatest NBA players, also has a Nigerian connection with Antetokounmpo. Olajuwon told said that he and Antetokounmpo are Yoruba.
“I know from his last name that we are from the same tribe, the Yoruba tribe. His last name, which in Yoruba is spelled Adetokunbo, means ‘the crown has returned from overseas,’ ” Olajuwon said.
“I’m sure Nigerians are very proud of him, especially because of the way he has conducted himself and how he is dominating the league,” Olajuwon said. “He has accomplished a great deal in such a short period of time.”