Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Basketball Against Fascism -- The Rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo

By Josh Kolic

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the future.

At 22 years old he set an NBA record this season by being the first player to rank in the top 20 in total points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals. He also joined some pretty elite company by becoming only the fifth NBA player – after Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James – to lead his team in all five major statistical categories.

His statline of 22.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.9 blocks is incredible, but even more startling when you consider that he hasn’t even come close to his peak yet. Through the second half of the season he’s worked on his jumper, started to become a three point threat and also really displayed some elite level court vision with his passing.

There aren’t many players who are a sure bet to one day be an MVP but Giannis is definitely one of them. He is a generational talent. Dubbed by some to be a “basketball unicorn” due to both his unique proportions (he stands 6’11” with a 7’3” wingspan) but also because of the variety of talents that he possesses. There isn’t any facet of basketball that Giannis seemingly can’t master and no spot on a basketball court where he doesn’t thrive. And he’s only getting better.

His coach, Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd, is already putting his young superstar in some elite company: “That should be his goal, to be a winner and put yourself with the likes of LeBron, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, and to get there. He works extremely hard like those guys and has the ability to play at the level of guys like Magic and LeBron. He’s a 7-foot player with the ability to play both ends, and affect both ends. He has the killer instinct. He’s shown it in practice and he’s shown it in games.”

Perhaps more remarkable than Giannis the basketball player is Giannis the man.

In time for the playoffs, Nike released a video about Antetokounmpo entitled “Come Out Of Nowhere” which touched on his unlikely origin story and rise to the NBA.

It’s a story that is extremely touching, inspiring and incredibly relevant. As we’ve seen the rise of anti-immigration sentiment all over Europe, in the United States with the rise of their current hate monger in chief, and even here in Canada within the current Conservative Party leadership race as well as with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s policy of immigrant detention in maximum security facilities which contradicts the friendlier face he gives the Canadian public.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise as western politicians look to scapegoats on which to blame their failed policies and blow dog whistles in cynical attempts to get themselves elected.

Greece is no exception to that.

Giannis was one of four children born to Nigerian immigrants – Veronica and Charles – in Greece.  His family faced a hard battle of being constantly persecuted, living in abject poverty and constantly being evicted.

Additionally, the family often found themselves the only black family in their neighbourhood and Giannis was often shut out of playing basketball and other sports due to the colour of his skin.

They struggled to survive and as the Nike video alluded to, young Giannis and his brothers had to sell sunglasses, wallets and watches on the streets to survive. Antetokounmpo would  recall to the New York Times: “Sometimes, our fridge was empty. Some days, we didn’t sell the stuff and we didn’t have money to feed ourselves.”

Beyond that the rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Greece, which intensified after the economic crisis of 2007, caused the family to live in constant fear of arrest and deportation.

Giannis recalled “It’s very hard to live for 20 years without papers. Very, very hard. You have children and you have to go out and work without papers. At any moment, the cops can stop you and say come over here and let me send you back to your country.”

Of course, the path to change would happen when a young Giannis picked up a basketball and proved to have a natural talent that would soon catch the eye of second league Greek team Filathlitikos, where he thrived through their youth programs before joining the senior squad in the 2012-13 season and thrived in Greece’s A2 league putting up 9.5 points, 5 rebounds, 1.4 assists and a block per game on 46.4% shooting (62.1% from the field and 31.3% from 3 points range) and put up what was an astounding performance for a 17 year old against grown men while getting only around 20 minutes a game on most nights.

He wasn’t allowed to participate in the A1 league due to the fact that he was not a Greek citizen.

Giannis’ play was so impressive that his coaches selected him as a special participant in the Greek League All-Star game even though he was in the second league and even though he was only 18 years old. The thinking was that his play was so remarkable for a young man that he would be included as a treat for the fans. It was also remarkable because it was the first of many times that Giannis’ basketball talents would allow him to overcome the harsh political realities facing immigrants in his country.

It’s also a testament to the power of sport to transcend political and social barriers at times. Despite a rising tide of hatred toward immigrants and the lifelong racism that Giannis and his family often encountered, his A2 league games were sold out attractions as people flocked to watch the promising young superstar. Word of mouth, the presence of international scouts and Giannis’ exciting style of play made him a sensation in Greece’s basketball world – even while he still faced discrimination outside of it.

The budding talent captured imaginations all over the globe with the Spanish league and the NBA both expressing interest. Executives such and Masai Ujiri, Danny Ainge, Danny Ferry, Darryl Morey, Sam Presti and Ryan McDonough were spotted in the stands at Giannis’ games. Antetokounmpo was selected 15th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks and it began what should have been the happiest time of his life.

Instead it brought with it more complications. First was the question of citizenship. Giannis was technically not a citizen of Greece. There was a very real possibility that he would not be able to fly to Brooklyn for the draft as he did not have any citizenship papers. Due to the rise of neo-fascism in Greece and a heated anti-immigrant sentiment, they remained – with those thousands of other immigrants – locked in a drawer as the immigration process was frozen for two years due to a combination of anti-immigrant hysteria and the government and much of Greek society being paralyzed by the recent financial crisis.

It took a major push by the Greek Basketball Federation, agents, NBA representatives, and legendary Greek basketball coach and then-Secretary of Sport, Giannis Ioannidis, to pressure the Greek government to grant Giannis and his brother Thanasis – also a basketball player – Greek citizenships and passports. They would be free to pursue their basketball dreams.

Giannis' basketball talents captured the imagination of more than just the country’s basketball community. Soon he was feted by then-Greek Prime Minister Antonio Samaras who thanked Giannis for waving the Greek flag at the NBA draft and hoped that he would make the NBA “go crazy with his dunks”.

It should have been a feel good moment for a family that had faced so many hardships as black immigrants in Greece. It should have been a celebration of Giannis’ journey to the NBA – one that started with he and his brother having to share one pair of sneakers to play basketball. But instead it was tainted with controversy, hatred and danger.

Golden Dawn is a neo-Nazi political organization founded by Nicholas Michaloliakos in 1980. The group came together when he met some of the leadership of the military junta that ran Greece from 1967 to 1974 while in prison on a variety of charges including assault and illegal possession of explosive materials.

The group has been responsible for a number of violent hate crimes against ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community, political opponents and immigrants. One of the most disturbing aspects of the group is its close ties to various police agencies in Greece with officers going so far as to assist in Golden Dawn attacks and killings.

The group received new life in wake of the rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Greece following the financial crisis and poses a very real threat to anyone they deem to be an enemy.

So it was chilling when Michaloliakos took aim directly at Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“If you give a chimpanzee in the zoo a banana and a flag, is he Greek?” That was the way the leader of Golden Dawn chose to characterize Giannis’ recent victory. With cold, hateful racism from the head of a group that was literally being tried for a series of political killings as the time.

It’s not like it was the first time Giannis had encountered racism. He spent a large part of his youth growing up in Sepolia, a neighbourhood with a large immigrant population near the centre of Athens, where racist violence is common and as a young boy Giannis was chased by a group of skinheads.

And yet, in spite of that -- in spite of facing that level of hatred and rejection daily -- Giannis chose Greece. He spent the first 18 years of his life without a country and could have sought refuge or status elsewhere. He didn’t. He was born in Greece and he lived in Greece and wanted to be a citizen of Greece. It was the only homeland he had ever known.

He even went so far as to alter the spelling of his last name – originally Adetokunbo – to the Greek variation.

Then Prime Minister Samaras eloquently spoke up in Antetokounmpo’s defense when he said: “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 chose 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 colour of his skin and then burn our flag. Those people disgrace our country.”

It is interesting to consider Giannis’ struggle in the context of our current political climate. Identity and belonging have become more politicized than ever with the rising anti-immigrant sentiment across the western world. Perhaps nobody embodies it more in popular culture than the current President of the United States who attempted multiple times to pass legislation banning citizens from Syria, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan from entering the United States.

When you consider it in the context that the US has and continues to heavily bomb or has forced regime change in each one of these countries (or continues to threaten to do both in the case of Iran), the hypocrisy is clear. The United States is destroying nations and preventing refugees from seeking shelter in their borders after they destroyed their homes and killed their families.

The realities of this hit home for Giannis and his Bucks teammates when there was a very real concern that Thon Maker – a Sudan born rookie for the Bucks – would not be allowed to enter back into the US should he leave the country which he would have to in order to play games against the Toronto Raptors or potentially participate in the many international games that the NBA has in places like Mexico City and London, England during the season.

Ultimately US courts struck down this legislation, but imagine how much that would have hit home for Antetokounmpo. After years of struggling against racism and anti-immigration hatred to finally become a citizen of his country, only to witness a teammate potentially face a terrible ordeal as the result of an identical sentiment.

Here in Canada, we continue to support the current anti-immigration rhetoric of the current US government and play a role in the persecution of immigrants by maintaining the safe third country agreement with the United States, which means that none of the people who could potentially be persecuted by the US President and his administration could seek refugee status in Canada as long as our own government recognizes that someone in the US is “safe”.

Combine that with the previously mentioned anti-immigrant actions and growing detention centre population as a result of our own Trudeau government and it’s becoming clear that the two countries that currently house NBA franchises are becoming as unwelcoming to immigrants as Greece was.

In this current climate, we can look to Giannis Antetokounmpo as a role model. Someone whose example we can follow to make our own countries better.  He stared down hatred. He fought against oppression and succeeded. He was a man without a country that fought for and secured a place in the only home he ever knew. It is up to us now to fight as he did to protect anyone in our own countries from having to face such an ordeal simply because of their origins.

Nobody is illegal.

Since I live in Toronto, many of you will be cheering for the Raptors in the current series with the Bucks and that is fine. But when you see Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor, remember his journey to the league and remember what he overcame.

Don’t just marvel at the otherworldly talents that he possesses, but marvel at the man he is and all he has had to contend with at just 22 years old.

Regardless of how this series turns out, Giannis has already won a battle that most of us could never imagine fighting -- one for his very right to belong.

Wins and losses on the basketball court can seem pretty important when we’re wrapped up in cheering on our favourite teams and players, but there are far more important battles to be fought off the basketball court.

One of the major ones in our current political climate is the struggle against fascism.

In that ongoing struggle we can all remember the example of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

This piece was originally published on the exceptional sports blog, The Hoop and the Harm and is reprinted here with permission. 

Other notable article include, No Matter Who Wins, the Green Bay Packers are the Real Champs, Colin Kaepernick is the real MVP and Jimmy Snuka probably murdered Nancy Argentino. Don’t forget that.

Josh Kolic is the founder and head writer of The Hoop and The Harm. He lives in Toronto, Ontario and his passions include basketball, professional wrestling, political activism and globe trotting. You can find him on twitter @josh_kolic or facebook.com/joshkolic or via e-mail at thehoopandtheharmblog@gmail.com

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