NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo's success is a victory over anti-immigrant populist forces

The Greek-born son of Nigerian immigrants fought xenophobia to be accepted by Greece and now is celebrated by the world.
Image: Boston Celtics defenders try to block a shot from Giannis Antetokounmpo, of the Milwaukee Bucks, at TD Garden in Boston on Dec. 21, 2018.
Boston Celtics defenders try to block a shot from Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks at TD Garden in Boston on Dec. 21.Maddie Meyer / Getty Images file
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By Corbin Smith

On Monday night at the annual NBA awards ceremony in Santa Monica, California, the world’s best basketball league named Giannis Antetokounmpo, the “Greek Freak,” its Most Valuable Player for the 2018-19 season.

Giannis’ victory had been a foregone conclusion for months. As the “freak” in his nickname suggests, he is a massive 6-foot-11, 242-pound, long-armed, multitool basketball wizard. He’s a player who can convincingly guard all five positions, score himself or ably create shots for others, protect the rim with particular ferocity and run up the court in transition like no one his size ever has in the NBA. This season, he averaged a whopping 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists a game, leading the Milwaukee Bucks to a league-best 60-22 record and an appearance in the playoffs, where they fell to the championship-bound Toronto Raptors.

Giannis’ MVP award is the biggest individual achievement in the history of Greek basketball, but Giannis wasn’t even considered Greek by the country of his birth for a long time.

Indeed, watching Giannis, 24, is an experience that goes beyond mere athletic accomplishment — his skill, size, speed and competitive drive make his play surreal. When he takes off and dunks, he bends the viewer’s sense of reality itself. The precision of Michael Jordan’s craft was apparent to anyone who watched. LeBron James’ pure force of physical will makes him seem totally inevitable as he rumbles down the lane. Giannis, on the other hand, seems to transcend the physical world. How is this dude REAL? How is a human body THIS?

But while the second half of Giannis’ nickname makes perfect sense, the first part is, ironically, more tenuous. Giannis’ MVP award is the biggest individual achievement in the history of Greek basketball, but Giannis wasn’t even considered Greek by the country of his birth for a long time. He was baptized Greek Orthodox, spoke Greek and had never left the country, but since he was born to Nigerian immigrant parents living in Greece — a nation without birthright citizenship — Giannis grew up as a person without a country.

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Giannis’ life, accomplishments and current status as a Greek sports hero are a testament to the growing absurdity of the nationalist movements that persist in a world that is getting smaller and smaller, where ethnicity and identity have less and less to do with each other. The transnational nature of the NBA, where players the world over congregate to compete at the highest level regardless of national origin, is one of the great manifestations of this new world order — with Giannis the epitome of what it offers the globe but also the victim of the forces that oppose it.

Despite Giannis’ astonishing prowess on the court as he developed his basketball talents, for many years he was subject to a low-hum threat of deportation to Nigeria, a country where he was not a citizen and had never visited. And that wasn’t his only concern growing up as an undocumented person. Giannis’s family lived in one room, he and his brothers had to share a pair of shoes, and he sold sunglasses on the street to shore up his family’s precarious finances. He would practice late and sleep on mats in his gym to avoid skinhead gangs who prowled the streets, looking to beat up African immigrants as they walked home at night.

When Giannis started to come into his own on the court, he was barred from playing in Greece’s first division because he didn’t have citizenship. His registration was put off for two years, his application drifting in bureaucratic limbo, while the only country he had ever known froze citizenship applications to appease the demands of Golden Dawn, the extremist right-wing nationalist party that had gained influence in the wake of Greece’s catastrophic financial crisis.

The Hellenic Basketball Federation tried to expedite the process but was rebuffed out of fear that making an exception would trigger an election. It finally went forward — right in time for Giannis and his brother to travel to America and wave the Greek flag at the 2013 NBA Draft. Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos resorted to using a racial slur as an analogy upon the occasion. Giannis, for his part, has remained unmoved by the braying of the fascists who have poisoned his homeland’s culture: “My brothers and I are Greek-Nigerian,” he wrote in November. “If anyone doesn’t like it, that’s their problem.”

Considering the extraordinary effort that was required to award citizenship to a basketball prodigy who had the full support of the country’s sporting bureaucracy, one has to wonder what it’s like for the mere mortals who have been born to immigrants and find themselves on the outskirts of society, waiting for someone to let them in.

In an interview about Giannis for The New York TImes, Nikos Odubitan, an advocate for second-generation immigrants in Greece, despairs over the impossibly high bar Giannis had to clear to be recognized as Greek: “Of course, we are all proud of what happened. But this is not what it takes to be a Greek citizen. We have engineers, doctors, all kinds of professionals, and the Greek state does not recognize them. Why does it take being a basketball talent?”

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It’s not just a problem in Greece, of course. In America, children of undocumented parents have found themselves stuck in cages, living in horrifying conditions. People die of thirst trying to cross the desert at the southern border, while U.S. Border Patrol agents go out of their way to destroy water jugs left behind for crossers. Italy’s populist government effectively bullied the E.U. into scaling back their migrant rescue operation in the Mediterranean after it threatened to veto the program altogether.

Never mind that the world itself is more interconnected than it's ever been, with basketball only one domain that demonstrates this evolution.

Never mind that borders are arbitrary, while human lives are concrete, and never mind that the world itself is more interconnected than it's ever been, with basketball only one domain that demonstrates this evolution. Corporations, culture and money freely cross borders without a second thought. When it comes to flesh and blood human beings, though, the Western world’s populist right-wing believe that borders staked out hundreds of years ago by men who are long dead have to be upheld to preserve their national self-concept.

I would hope that they can look to Giannis’ NBA as a counterpoint, an actual model for the world as it should and hopefully will soon be: unconcerned with nationality, an open society that doesn’t care about where you were born or who your parents are. The interconnected, global world, manifested on the hardwood.