In February 2016, Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd told 6 ft. 11 in. NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo—known as the “Greek Freak” for his homeland and for his ability to dunk a basketball with one foot on the floor—that he’d be the team’s new point guard.
The position requires unique leadership skills; a player must start offensive attacks, shout directions and distribute the ball to veteran teammates hungry to fatten their stats. The task intimidated him—at 21, he was still the sheepish kid who had leaned on the Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America to learn English. Most other point guards were way more experienced (and far shorter).
But it’s no wonder that he blossomed into an electrifying talent, a player who last season became the first in NBA history to finish in the top 20 in scoring, rebounds, blocks, assists and steals. The son of undocumented immigrants from Nigeria, Antetokounmpo grew up fearing that his parents would be deported at any moment. “We didn’t have the opportunity to be who we were destined to be because we didn’t have a piece of paper,” he tells TIME. Antetokounmpo sold watches, glasses and toys on the streets of Athens. That hustle put food on his family’s table. Ordering around a bunch of older millionaires? That was easy. “I always had to be there for my family. I think that helped me a lot to adjust to the NBA,” he says.
Antetokounmpo says he hasn’t followed the political debate in the U.S. over immigration closely but that people like him “need an opportunity to become great in life, to become something better.” That’s part of the reason he’s helping sponsor a college scholarship in Greece for a student who is either not a citizen there or who has not received citizenship in the last five years. He also wants to build schools, and cites Magic Johnson, Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela as leaders who inspire him. The power of his platform is not something he takes for granted. “Before I leave this earth,” he says, “I’m going to help people have a better future.”