An NBA star who began playing basketball as a teenager with the goal of helping his family escape poverty won his first NBA title Tuesday night, displaying the humility that has drawn the respect of basketball fans worldwide.
Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 50 points to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to an NBA title-clinching 105-98 victory over the Phoenix Suns in front of 17,000 fans inside Fiserv Forum and 65,000 on the street outside the arena who were watching on a giant screen. Antetokounmpo claimed the Finals MVP award after averaging 35 points in the Finals. He won the NBA’s regular-season MVP award in 2019 and 2020.
Known as the "Greek Freak," Antetokounmpo was born in Athens, Greece as the son of Nigerian parents who immigrated to the country in search of a better life. His family, though, struggled with poverty. As a child, Antetokounmpo and his brother hawked watches and other items on the streets of Athens in order to support the family. He didn’t begin playing serious basketball until the age of 13 – and only did so with the hopes he would make money for his parents.
"I started playing basketball just to help my family," he told reporters.
Antetokounmpo, who is Greek Orthodox, hasn't forgotten his origins.
"I'm extremely blessed," he said, holding the Finals trophy and the Finals MVP trophy. "Even if I never have the chance to sit at this table ever again, I’m fine with it."
Reflecting on his championship and his life story, he added, "I hope this can give everybody around the world hope."
His humility has stood out amidst the sports world's chest-beating culture. During the playoffs, a clip of him explaining how he stays humble went viral. "When you focus on your past, that's your ego," he tells reporters in the clip. "... When I focus on the future, that’s my pride. … I kind of like to try to focus in the moment, in the present. That’s humility." That mentality, he says in the clip, is his "mindset."
Antetokounmpo, 26, was drafted in 2013. He credited God after he won his first NBA MVP in 2019.
"First of all, I want to thank God for blessing me with this amazing talent, for putting me in the position that I am today," he said in 2019, according to Sports Spectrum. "Everything I do, I do through Him. I’m extremely blessed."
He began his 2020 MVP acceptance speech by thanking God: "I always thank God for giving me the opportunity to do what I love."
In a 2015 blog, he said his motto was "Walk by Faith, NOT by sight" – a reference to 2 Corinthians 5:7.
He was baptized in the Greek Orthodox church in 2012, according to Ethnos newspaper.
"I don't remember him ever complaining or having a sense of being wronged by life and being aggressive towards society," Antetokounmpo's childhood priest, Father Evangelos Ghanas, told Ethnos. "He may be flying on the court, but in real life, I think he stands firmly on his feet."
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Justin Casterline/Stringer
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.