The Milwaukee Bucks star, nicknamed the ‘Greek Freak’, inspired his team to its first NBA championship in 50 years on Tuesday, recording a staggering 50 points and five blocks.
He was the first player to have at least 40 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a Finals’ game since blocks were first recorded in 1974, the NBA tweeted. He also became the seventh player to have at least 50 points in the championship round and matched the achievement made by Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon after clinching the season MVP, the NBA Finals MVP and NBA defensive player of the year award.
But no matter how great he becomes, Antetokounmpo keeps his feet firmly on the ground and credits any success to the people who supported him along the way.
“I started playing basketball just to help my family. Tried to get them out of the struggle, the challenges we were facing when we were kids,” he told reporters, beaming after the NBA Finals win.
“But I never thought I’m going to be 26 years-old, with my team playing the NBA Finals. I was just happy being, like not even winning, just being a part of this, of this journey.”
His parents had left Africa three years earlier in search for more opportunity but, due to the country’s attitude towards immigrants at the time, it was far from an easy upbringing in Greece.
Antetokounmpo wasn’t granted Greek citizenship until he was 18 so he and his brothers turned to basketball for a route out of their situation, sometimes sleeping in the gym where they practiced together.
“I never thought I would be sitting here with this right here and this right here,” he added, looking at the championship and MVP trophies either side of him. “We’ve come a long way.”
‘I want them to believe’
It was in 2013 that his life changed forever.
Having shown promise in the Greek leagues, Antetokounmpo was spotted and eventually drafted into the NBA by the Bucks.
His breathtaking performance in this year’s Finals showed just how special a player the forward has become.
He was 16 for 25 from the field and hit all but two of his 19 free throws. It was a performance hailed by commentators and fellow players as one for the ages.
But, as has been the case with Antetokounmpo throughout his career, success is never just about him.
“Eight and a half years ago, when I came to the league, I didn’t know where my next meal would come from,” he said.
“My mom was selling stuff in the street. Now I’m here sitting at the top of the top. I’m extremely blessed.
“If I never have a chance to sit on this table ever again, I’m fine with it […] I hope this can give everybody around the world hope. I want them to believe in their dreams.”
‘I’m a freaking champion’
Whilst no one can doubt his ability on the court, Antetokounmpo has also been inspiring off it.
After the pandemic forced the league to shut down temporarily in 2020, Antetokounmpo was one of a handful of players to publicly announce they would donate thousands of dollars to those employees missing out on pay.
He also donated thousands of face masks and multiple food parcels to help battle the pandemic in Greece, on the streets where he and his brothers would once sell street merchandise to help support the family.
“Obviously, I represent my country, both countries, Nigeria and Greece. A lot of kids from there,” he said.
“But not just from Nigeria; all Africa and all Europe. I know I’m a role model. But this should make every person, every kid, anybody around the world believe in their dreams.
“No matter whatever you feel when you’re down, when you don’t think it’s going to happen for you or you might not make it in your career — might be basketball, might be anything — just believe in what you’re doing and keep working.
“Don’t let nobody tell you what you can be and what you cannot do. People told me I cannot make free throws. I made my free throws tonight and I’m a freaking champion.”
CNN’s Chris Liakos and Steve Almasy contributed reporting.
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