A Hunger for a Better Life May Lead to the N.B.A.
Giannis Adetokunbo, 18, has N.B.A. scouts buzzing about his ball-handling, court vision and decision-making. He played until recently for a small Greek club.
His new passport says he is Greek, but Giannis Adetokunbo has lived a struggling immigrant’s life. He has peddled goods on city streets to feed himself and his brothers. While other families ferried off on island vacations, his often changed apartments in search of cheaper rent.
After catching the attention of N.B.A. scouts, he began a weight program to add muscle to his lean, 6-foot-9 frame.
Yet Adetokunbo, 18, stands out from the hundreds of thousands of immigrants trying to survive in Greece. He was born here. He speaks Greek fluently. He completed Greek schooling. He recently became a Greek citizen.
Adetokunbo (pronounced a-det-o-KOON-bo), a 6-foot-9 son of Nigerian parents, also plays basketball. Very well. That is what N.B.A. scouts say. They flocked to Greece and buzzed about his ball-handling, his court vision and his decision-making.
Analysts at DraftExpress.com and HoopsWorld.com, among others, predict that Adetokunbo’s name will be called, perhaps mispronounced, in the first round of the N.B.A. draft on Thursday. If Adetokunbo eventually develops into anything like his favorite player, Kevin Durant, some N.B.A. team will be happy it took a chance on such a mysterious prospect.
“From the time I started in basketball, my dream was to be a big star, to have a big future in basketball,” he said.
Other Greek stars worked their way up through youth national teams and joined top professional clubs like Panathinaikos and Olympiacos. Adetokunbo, essentially stateless before he received his passport in May, has never played above Greece’s second division. He grew up at a tiny club called Filathlitikos, which took him in six years ago, back when he still shared a bedroom with his three brothers and preferred soccer.
He has signed to play in Spain next season, unless an N.B.A. team has different plans for him after the draft. Passport in hand, he also has begun playing with the Greek national under-20 team.
But before N.B.A. scouts located the 500-seat Filathlitikos gym in Zografou, a densely settled Athens suburb, Adetokunbo sometimes put basketball aside to help his family.
Like other immigrants to Greece, his parents struggled to find work. Adetokunbo and his older brother, Thanasis, would help out by hawking watches, bags and sunglasses. In doing so, they jeopardized their roster spots because they were missing practices. They also missed meals.
“Sometimes, our fridge was empty,” said Adetokunbo, who turned 18 in December. “Some days, we didn’t sell the stuff and we didn’t have money to feed ourselves.”
The good days brought “just enough,” he said, to make the rent, pay a water or electric bill, or buy food.
Immigrants in Greece, particularly dark-skinned ones, have been targets of abuse in recent years by far-right nationalists frustrated by the country’s economic problems.
Filathlitikos helped Adetokunbo’s mother find work, and Spiros Velliniatis, the coach who persuaded the Adetokunbo brothers to try basketball, said he and others chipped in to help the family on occasion.
“You’re in front of Mozart and he has no food, what do you give him? You have a dilemma,” Velliniatis said. “The answer is not a violin. The answer is a loaf of bread.”
The young maestro kept growing. Annual team photos in the Filathlitikos gym show that Adetokunbo was several inches shorter than his teammate and older brother, Thanasis, as recently as two years ago. Thanasis, 20, is a 6-foot-7 forward with N.B.A. aspirations of his own.
Scouts arrived for Giannis this season, as well as N.B.A. executives, including the general managers Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Danny Ferry of the Atlanta Hawks and Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets. The Toronto Raptors’ new general manager, Masai Ujiri, a Nigerian, visited while he was working for the Denver Nuggets.
Danny Ainge, the Boston Celtics’ president for basketball operations, watched Adetokunbo collect 19 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks in a victory over Volos on March 30. Ainge’s assistant at the time, Ryan McDonough, who is the new general manager of the Phoenix Suns, was also there.
Adetokunbo played on two Filathlitikos teams. With the men’s team, he was primarily a small forward and averaged 9.5 points and 5 rebounds. He shot 31 percent from 3-point range. He was the point guard for the club’s youth team, which was among the best in Greece.
“He’s on the right track,” Kornel David, then the Suns’ director of international scouting, said after watching Adetokunbo play in April. “Guys who are 6-9 with that kind of skill set, especially at that age, there’s not many running around.”
In the last men’s game of the season, with promotion to the top division on the line, Filathlitikos lost, 89-81, in triple overtime. Adetokunbo scored 4 points, with 9 rebounds. After the final buzzer, he sat on the bench and sobbed.
Even if he is drafted, it is possible Adetokunbo will need another season in Europe. At around 200 pounds, he says he needs to become stronger.
His contract with Zaragoza in Spain’s top league, beginning next season, is worth a total of $325,000 over three years, with a club option for a fourth season, at another $325,000. It includes N.B.A. and Euroleague buyouts each season, beginning this summer.
Watching a video clip with his brother, Thanasis, a 6-foot-7 forward with N.B.A. dreams of his own. Their brother Alex, 11, is a budding point guard.
Wherever he ends up, Adetokunbo’s parents and younger brothers are probably going with him. His younger brothers Kostas, 15, and Alex, 11, are avid basketball players. Kostas is a 6-foot-3 shooting guard, and Alex already shows excellent ball-handling skills as a point guard.
Adetokunbo said he was proud that he could support the family. His parents, Veronica and Charles, have struggled to find work in recession-battered Greece.
His mother said: “I’m telling him, Giannis please go, we will come later. He says, ‘No, you’re coming with me.’ He wants to take care of the family, and he wants us beside him.”
Adetokunbo’s parents arrived in Greece in 1991 and settled in Sepolia, a no-frills neighborhood about two miles north of the Acropolis. They were the only black family for blocks. Veronica earned money baby-sitting, and Charles was a handyman for an electrical company.
But the work was rarely steady. They had to change apartments several times, although they managed to stay in Sepolia so the children would not have to switch schools. They once were evicted for failing to pay their $455 monthly rent, Veronica said.
When they began playing basketball, Giannis and Thanasis took turns using one pair of sneakers. Soon, their athletic prowess impressed everyone. Their mother had been a high-jumper and their father had briefly played professional soccer. The boys earned first-place medals at school and church competitions in everything from table tennis to volleyball.
“They loved competition,” said Alex Matsagas, 18, who was a classmate of Giannis’s. “That’s how they made it through. They were fighters.”
But first, Velliniatis, who was helping Filathlitikos find talent, had to persuade them to try basketball.
“He said, ‘Play one month, just for fun, maybe you’ll like it,’ ” Thanasis said. “I loved it. My brother was like: ‘No, please, don’t play basketball. Come with me and play soccer.’ He wanted us to be together in every sport we played. Then he started coming and playing. And that was it.”
The Adetokunbo brothers qualified for Greek citizenship under current law, Giannis’s agent, Giorgos Panou, said. They met residency requirements, completed school, speak Greek fluently and passed citizenship tests. But the process is difficult.
Hellenic Basketball Federation officials, among others, also lobbied on their behalf. Giannis Adetokunbo is seen as a cornerstone of future Greece national teams. On the passport, his last name is spelled “Antetokounmpo.” Thanasis Adetokunbo, who is weighing offers from European clubs and will still be eligible for the N.B.A. draft next year, says he hopes for a national team call-up.
Filathlitikos Coach Takis Zivas said it was hard to predict which position Giannis Adetokunbo would play in the future because he is still growing. Even if he’s not a playmaker, “he’ll think like one,” Zivas said.