In 2013, Giannis Antetokounmpo, then 18 years old, finished a season in which he averaged 9.5 points and 5 rebounds for a second-division Greek pro team. Not exactly eye-popping statistics. Yet the Milwaukee Bucks picked Antetokounmpo 15th overall in that year’s NBA draft, betting that the lithe, 6’11” son of undocumented Nigerian immigrants to Greece could one day develop all-around skills that might conjure up comparisons to, say, Golden State Warriors superstar Kevin Durant.
Milwaukee’s gamble has reversed the fortunes of the small-market franchise. Four years after the Bucks drafed Antetokounmpo, the man now known as the Greek Freak is on his way toward joining Durant, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the “best-player-on-the-planet” conversation. Last season, Antetokounmpo became the first player in NBA history to finish Top 20 in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks.
During a wide-ranging interview at the Bucks’ shiny new training complex in downtown Milwaukee, Antetokounmpo—one of TIME’s 2017 Next Generation Leaders —discussed his unlikely journey to the top of the NBA, the lessons he’s learned along the way, and his career goals, which include nothing less than a title and MVP award. The Bucks open the 2016-17 season on Wednesday, when they take on the Boston Celtics in Boston.
(The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity)
What was your reaction to the blockbuster trade this summer in which the Cleveland Cavaliers sent Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas and a bunch of other players and draft picks?
I was sitting at home, smiling. I think we have an opportunity right here, as an organization, to do something great. A lot of people from the East moved to the West. The East still has a lot of great players. But Kyrie left LeBron James. Isaiah Thomas left Boston. So both teams have new faces. They’ve got to figure it out as a team first, right? We have the same core from last year. We’re only going to get better. This our opportunity to go high.
This is the fourth year where we have the same core with this team. Year-by-year we’re figuring it out. We’re becoming stronger and stronger and older and older. And I think we’re going to do great things this year. I think we have a realistic goal of being top four in the East. By saying that, I don’t want to put pressure on my teammates and stuff. But that’s a realistic goal we can achieve.
We’ve seen several players over the years leave small market teams—Kevin Durant exiting Oklahoma City for Golden State the most prominent example. You’re signed with Milwaukee through 2021. Can see yourself here long-term?
Milwaukee is a small market team, but I love it. I’m a really competitive guy. I’m a really stubborn guy. That’s what makes me want to take Milwaukee to the top, make Milwaukee a big market team. That’s a goal I’ve set for myself. Hopefully one day I can achieve it.
Milwaukee is really quiet. The people here are really respectful. They can see me in the street, walking on the road. I can go to anyplace in Milwaukee without people being all over me. I appreciate that.
This is a team that helped me, drafted me with the 15th pick. I wasn’t ready to be in the NBA but they still drafted me, so I appreciate it. The organization, from day one, simple things like fixing me a bank account, moving me into my apartment, things like that I couldn’t do by myself because my family wasn’t here with me. I was 18. I want to show my appreciation for them. They showed me loyalty so I want to show loyalty back to them. Hopefully I can be here on this team for more years to come.
Sports Illustrated reported that at one point during your rookie season (2013-2014) you told teammates “I’m going to be in Milwaukee 20 years!” Do you stand by that?
Oh yeah. I want to be here. There are not a lot of players that have [spent there entire career with one team]. Kobe [Bryant], Tim Duncan and Dirk [Nowitzki]. I want to be one of them. I think I can do it. But I want to make this team great. I do not want to be here just to be here. I want us to win a championship. That’s my goal. As I said, I’m really stubborn, I’m really competitive. When I set goals, I achieve goals. Hopefully the front office can make the right moves, and bring the great players around me, Khris [Middleton], and Jabari [Parker]. And we can make this run for many years to come in Milwaukee.
Does seeing the criticism Durant faced when he left Oklahoma City make you want to double down on Milwaukee?
I did not see that and say to myself that ‘I do not want to do that.’ There is a reason in every move that an athlete makes. Durant was in OKC [for eight years, plus his rookie year when the franchise played in Seattle], they went once to the finals. But I think maybe they didn’t put the right people around him to win the championship. His goal was to win the championship, so he went to Golden State and won the championship. That’s his decision. I feel like I can win the championship here. If eventually my goal—winning a championship here—is not on the map, then you’ve got to make the right decision to win the championship, right? But if me and the front office and the people in he organization are on the same page, we can bring the party to Milwaukee.
What have you learned about leadership in your four years in the NBA?
The first thing I’ve learned is that it’s hard to be a leader. When you’re young, it’s hard to lead people that are older than you. When I was 20, [Bucks coach] Jason Kidd told me you’ve got to lead this team. Be more talkative in practice, be more vocal at the games. It was hard. I was 20 years old. I had to lead people next to me who were 40 years old.
You’ve got to lead by example. I cannot tell them to do something on the court that I wouldn’t do on the court. So I’ve got to be the first one here [for practice]. It’s in me since I was a little kid. I always had to be there for my family. I think that helped me a lot to adjust to the NBA, too.
In early 2016, during your third year, Jason Kidd made you the team’s point guard. Most NBA point guards aren’t 6’11” guys with scant pro experience. What was that adjustment like?
At first, it was kind of intimidating. Because it wasn’t a position I was really comfortable at. My rookie year, my sophomore year, I was more on the wings, more in the corners. I was just waiting for my time, waiting for the ball. But being the point guard you’ve got to have the ball. You’ve got to put your team into the right spot, you’ve got to know the plays that are going on. Sometimes when you’re in the corners and you’re on the wings, you can almost avoid a mistake because you don’t have the ball.
But thank God I had Jason Kidd, I had my coaching staff, I had my teammates that pushed me forward, pushed me to get better. It was kind of an easy adjustment. I was more talkative. I was putting my team in he right spot more. I think that kind of helped me grow my game.
Who are some of the leaders you emulate?
Magic Johnson. I think he’s done great things on the court, as a leader, and off the court, as a businessman. LeBron James, the things he does on the court, they’re unbelievable. There are people who I haven’t studied so much, but I admire. Like Muhammad Ali, for example. I remember, when I was young, my dad told me about Nelson Mandela. He sacrificed so many things for his people. There are people in life, that come on this earth, just to sacrifice their own good for other people.
What’s the biggest struggle you’ve had to overcome to get where you are?
For me and my family, it was kind of a daily struggle. We had to hustle every day to provide a plate of food on our table. I think one of the biggest struggles I had to overcome was when my mother was sick. I was 17. I was kind of young, we were living in bad conditions. My mom was one of the leaders in our family, who made sure we went to school. She did everything for us.
So when she went down, someone had to take that step [up]. I think did it. I had to provide for my family. I had to make sure my little brothers would be on time in school. I had to make sure I was on time for practice.
I was on OK student. But my main focus was basketball. That was wrong. But I gave 100%. I told my mom I’m going to make it in basketball. I’m going to make sure that we have a better life. I’m going to make it for you so you can be better, and enjoy life more.
She’s great now. She’s smiling now, she’s enjoying life. She’s been a colleague right next to me.
It’s 2017. Before last season you signed a four-year, $100 million contract extension. How long ago were you still selling stuff on the street in Athens to make ends meet? It wasn’t all that long ago, right?
2012. Five years ago. I was just helping my mom, my dad. (Note: Antetokounmpo’s father, Charles, died suddenly of a heart attack on Sept. 29th, after this interview was conducted. Charles was 54.) It was kind of hard back then. My parents were illegal. It was kind of hard back then for my dad to work, and to provide for us because at any moment, a cop could stop my parents and deport them. So it was easier for my mom to work. They could show a little bit more pity on my mom when they saw her on the street.
But back then I used to do whatever I could. We used to sell watches, we used to sell glasses, we used to sell toys, clothes. It was fun. If I could do back and relive those moments, if I could press a switch and go back I definitely would. It was hard, but now when you look back, those were fun days man. We’re in a car, we would take trips. Me and my brothers all together, my dad sometimes. We were living family moments, and hustling and struggling together, as a family. That’s why we were so close as brothers.
But yes, I used to sell stuff until 2012. Then I focused on basketball for a year. Then 2013 I got drafted. Then in 2014 my older brother [Thanasis] got drafted [by the New York Knicks. He currently plays professionally in Greece].
Were you a good salesman?
I was the best. You can ask my mom, ask my bothers. Second was Thanasis or my mom. I just had the positive energy, the positive vibe. I knew how to make people buy stuff from me.
Was there ever a low moment? Where you thought ‘we might not make it. We might not eat tomorrow.’
There were a lot of moments like that. For example, if we didn’t sell stuff at night or during the day, you go back home and you don’t have money. So you’re like, ‘what am I going to do?’ You can go ask for money, but we didn’t have a lot of friends. My parents couldn’t have friends because they were illegal. Their friends could tell the cops, ‘come get them.’
So even now that [my parents] are in Milwaukee, it’s tough for them to have friends. Because for 25 years, they’ve lived without having friends. It’s tough to trust somebody.
We didn’t have the same opportunities as the other kids. I didn’t have a Greek passport until I was 18. We didn’t have the opportunity to be who we were destined to be, because we didn’t have the piece of paper.
You’ve said that your parents lived in fear. Did you feel that fear?
Yes. It’s tough. The reason I was afraid was because they’re going to deport my parents. The next day, I could wake up and my parents could be in a different country. They couldn’t deport me because I didn’t have a passport. Deport me to go where? Back to Nigeria? You couldn’t know where I’m from. I was born in Greece, I had a birth certificate. They couldn’t deport me. But they could deport my parents. So we were afraid as kids that one day we could wake up without our parents. That was one of the toughest feelings for us growing up as kids.
Your parents have had trouble trusting people. Is trusting people something you’ve had to learn to do?
Sure. Growing up having parents like mine, I think without them wanting to, it goes to the kids too. When I see my parents having trouble trusting people, growing up I’m going to having trouble trusting people too. But it was kind of easier for me because I went to school. So I was associated with a lot of kids, I had a lot of friends.
But it’s kind of hard. I can be having a conversation with a guy I just met, and my mom can call me and be like ‘Where are you?’ I’m like, ‘I’m having dinner with the guy I just met, we’re talking about this.’ She tells me, ‘make sure you ask this question, make sure you give me his number or his name so I can google him and make sure I know who he is.’ Stuff like that. So she still has that trust issue. I think it’s getting better and better and better since we moved to the States. But for me, it’s kind of easy to now trust people.
There are undocumented immigrants here in the United States who are living in similar circumstances as you and your family did in Greece. Recent government actions could force them to leave. What’s your reaction?
I haven’t followed it. It’s been a busy summer, and I’ve tried to stay more focused on basketball. But the thing that I have to say: people that were in the same situation as me, the most important thing is they’ve got to give them an opportunity. For me, that I’m sitting in this seat today, that I’m able to talk to TIME magazine, to a lot of people in the world, is because someone gave me an opportunity. There are a lot of people, a lot of Mexican people that people are talking about right now, they just need an opportunity to become great in life.
So I don’t want to talk too much about that subject, because I haven’t followed it enough yet to know a lot about the subject. But the most important thing is to give the person next to you the opportunity to become great in life, to become something better.
What’s your advice to someone living in the United States—or anywhere in the world, really—as an undocumented immigrant?
You’ve got to have patience. As a family we were patient, we were hungry for the opportunity. We did whatever it took for years. So when it comes, you’ve got to grab it.
How do you overcome the worry that comes with being undocumented? What’s your advice to someone who might be scared?
You’ve got to be mentally tough. My parents would always tell us, ‘things are going to be all right. Believe in God, things are going to be all right eventually. We are blessed. We are blessed just being in this situation.’ Have patience, believe, and have patience.
What issue outside of basketball do you most care about?
As I grow older and become more mature, I think I’m going to learn about a lot of different causes. Maybe go to the Middle East, Africa, Greece, build schools. One thing for sure, before I leave this earth, I’m going to help people have a better future.
Do you remember the first time you heard the ‘Greek Freak’ nickname?
I think my rookie year. I do not know who came up with it. But I think it’s kind of an awesome nickname. I like it.
First of all, Greek: I always represent my country. And freak: it’s an athlete who does freaky stuff on the court. That’s kind of what I do.
Besides yourself, who do you think is the biggest freak in the NBA?
LeBron James. The things he does, the veteran leadership he brings to the team, how big he is, how quick, how strong. And at the end of the day, how smart he is. He can put his team in the right spots, make the right decision. He is one of my role models.
Is he the best player in the NBA?
Definitely he’s the best player in the NBA. For a few more years to come. There are going to be guys in the league that are going to try and take his spot. I think there are already guys in the league who are trying to take his spot. He’s grabbing his spot so tight, that he’s not letting it go. But I think a lot of players are getting better. Even myself. And hopefully one day we can get that spot from him.
What part of your game do you think has to improve the most?
There’s a lot of things I still have to improve on. I’m talking more with my teammates, talking more on the floor. Defensively we’ve got to talk more. You’ve got to make sure that guys on the perimeter know that you’re behind them, and have their back. My shooting is getting better and better and better. Building my mentality. You have to be a killer out there. I think that’s the most important thing. When you step on that floor, act like it’s your last game.
To help you learn English when you came to the U.S., you watched Coming to America, the classic Eddie Murphy comedy, over and over. What’s your favorite line?
(High voice) ‘Sexual chocolate!’
Can you comment on accepting the ‘Mamba challenge’ from Kobe Bryant?
I saw Kobe on twitter was giving out challenges. I just tweeted back, I was like ‘I’m still waiting for my challenge.’ He gave me the MVP challenge. Win the MVP. That’s one of my goals. You’ve got to make the team better. I know that I’m going to be one of the players that hopefully dominates the game. But I’ve got to still make sure that my team wins, that my teammates get better. It’s a tough challenge. I’ve set that goal since the last game against Toronto last year, at the playoffs. I want to be the MVP this year.
After a wild offseason, there’s lots of anticipation for this year. And given the huge leap you made last year, going from a solid player with tantalizing potential to All-Star game starter, expectations are high for you too. Do you have any message for the fans particularly excited to watch you play this year?
It’s going to be a fun season. We’re going to make sure we put Milwaukee on the map.
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