ATHENS – Two days after the Milwaukee Bucks were crowned NBA champions, Yiannis Tzikas stood behind the bar at his Sepolia-neighborhood cafe and framed yet another photograph of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
He climbed onto a stool and centered the picture — showing the Bucks star smiling while holding Tzikas’ face in his hands during one of his trips to Athens — between Antetokounmpo’s 2018 All-Star Game jersey and a handful of other memorabilia featuring the Greek Freak.
“We’re very happy,” Tzikas said of the championship game in which Antetokounmpo, who grew up in Sepolia, scored 50 points and was named NBA Finals most valuable player.
The Kivotos Cafe owner has a special bond with the Antetokounmpo brothers dating to 2010 when the now-NBA champions would stop by the cafe “almost every day” to ask for water and a snack after playing basketball at a court across the street.
That relationship has remained close over the years, and Tzikas last week kept his shop open late to watch Game 6, which began at 4 a.m. in Athens.
“They’d play basketball all day until 10 or 11 o’clock in the night, and they would come to the coffee shop and ask for one glass of water,” Dimitris Dribas, Tzikas’ son who used to work at the cafe, said of the brothers. “All the times (Giannis) comes back to Greece, the first place he visits is Sepolia and Kivotos. This is the place he began.”
Photos of Antetokounmpo, who was born in Athens to migrant parents from Nigeria, were featured on a number of newspapers in Athens a day after the Bucks' win. Some called him a “very nice man,” while others dubbed him “King Giannis.”
Signs of the Bucks star’s popularity in his hometown are also sprinkled throughout the city. A mural on the side of an apartment building overlooking the basketball court in Sepolia features a larger-than-life Antetokounmpo, alongside his brothers, about to dunk. And blue and white No. 34 Greek national team jerseys can be found on street corners throughout Athens.
But for some in Greece’s capital, the Antetokounmpo brothers’ success goes beyond winning titles on the court.
“The most important thing for me,” Dribas said, “Giannis and Thanasis — they didn’t forget where they (came from). When we first met them, they didn’t have money, they didn’t have all this they have now. And they don’t forget where they began their life.”
'Even today, Giannis is helping the community'
Christos Lazaridis, communications officer for the Athens-based advocacy organization Greek Forum of Refugees, echoed that sentiment, noting Giannis continues to give back to the Sepolia community. He cited an instance in November 2020 in which the Bucks star distributed boxes of food to those in need — doing so at night and without major media following.
“Even today, Giannis is helping the community,” Lazaridis said. “But he doesn't say it out loud. He doesn't want to. He’s very modest.”
Lazaridis, whose organization focuses on self-advocacy for refugees in Greece, emphasized the troubles migrants and their children have gaining recognition, let alone getting citizenship, in Greece. Antetokounmpo, he pointed out, was given citizenship around the time he was drafted by the Bucks and after Nigeria showed interest in him.
“Giannis’ case,” Lazaridis said, “it shows us, from one perspective, what a person with dreams can achieve, but also from the other perspective, all the gaps that the state authorities have regarding this legal framework.”
Nkwocha Chinonso Nelson, a DJ in Athens who emigrated from Nigeria 13 years ago, recalled a time about 11 years ago in which he unknowingly bought a “very skinny and tall” Antetokounmpo a cheeseburger at a McDonald’s in central Athens. Nelson didn’t know who the boy was at the time — his friend knew Antetokounmpo’s father, Charles — and only learned who he was when his friend called him after the Bucks drafted Giannis.
“Of course, I wouldn’t think he’d get this big,” he said.
Nelson, who initially came to Greece trying to play professional soccer, doubled down on the struggles migrants face in the country and called Antetokounmpo’s success “grace” and part of “God’s plan.”
“As a foreigner in this country, it’s difficult. It’s hard,” he said. “It’s not giving you any opportunity. If you make it from Greece, you can make it anywhere.”
But for Spiros Velliniatis, Antetokounmpo’s first coach whom the Bucks star has credited with putting him in the position he is now, the success is something he saw from the start.
“I said from the first day: This kid will be one of the greatest,” said Velliniatis, who “was every day with Giannis for the first four years” at the Athens youth Filathlitikos club, training and mentoring him.
Today, the gym where Velliniatis trained the star features posters of Giannis, Thanasis and Kostas Antetokounmpo. Just inside the entrance, a banner with photos of Giannis and Thanasis representing Filathlitikos at a 2013 All-Star Game is tacked to the wall.
Behind one backboard, photos of the brothers with the dates they were drafted hang next to a poster of the Greek Freak dunking.
Written across the black and white image are the words: "Fate can start you at the bottom. Dreams can take you to the top.”