Commentary

Freakishly happy

Giannis Antetokounmpo's smile says everything about his love for basketball

Updated: February 6, 2014, 6:35 PM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

Milwaukee BucksMary Langenfeld/USA TODAY SportsGiannis Antetokounmpo (far right) smiles with delight at the beginning of the season.

There's a photo taken on media day of John Henson, Larry Sanders and NBA newbie Giannis Antetokounmpo standing next to one another, arms stretched out, touching fingers.

The key to the pic is not the 21 feet their combined arm length covers, it is the expression on Antetokounmpo's face. Just look at his face. The whole face. Not just the smile; that's too easy. The story of Giannis Antetokoumpo can be found in the soul of what his face says at that moment the shutter on the camera closed.

"I just wanted to get here," the young Antetokonumpo says to me. "Get here to play in the League. When I got here I had to ask myself, 'Can I play in this league?' Then I go out and compete with the other guys, and uh, Coach gives me that chance to go out there and compete, and I see I belong in this League. Even though I'm 19 years old, I feel like I can do something."

It's joy. Pure. Unsoiled and undisturbed. Innocent. The joy of the game. The joy of simply being able to -- at 18 years old at the time of that picture -- know that the feeling you have at that moment can be the beginning of the rest of your life.

When is the last time someone averaging slightly more than seven points and four rebounds per game generated this much interest? Someone who has only been in 44 games in the NBA, started only 21? With only two double-doubles and five DNP-CDs? Why have national magazines, newspapers and websites given Antetokounmpo starlike attention instead of rookie Steven Adams of OKC, who, at 20 years old and from New Zealand, has taken the Thunder by surprise as much as Antetokounmpo has the Bucks? Why Giannis and not the Hawks' 6-foot-11, 260-pound beast that is Pero Antic, a 31-year-old rookie from Macedonia who was averaging 11.4 PPG and six RPG since January before injuring his ankle?

Is it that face and the infectious joy behind it? Or are we just that thirsty to be up on who might be next?

There's something to be said about a kid coming into the NBA who is unaffected by it all. Who introduces himself to us as a child who entered a man's game for no other reason than to hoop.

Blogger Jeremy Schmidt, who has seen Giannis evolve this season while covering him for TrueHoop Network blog Bucksketball.com, said: "An interesting thing I'm seeing with Giannis coverage and reaction is how often people are referring to him as 'adorable.' I can't remember [hearing] that was one of the go-to adjectives when referring to a professional athlete. Everyone seems equal parts excited about what he's capable of on the court and how he feels about having his very first smoothie.

"His naiveté and willingness to be forthcoming about how exciting new experiences are for him have turned him into a mix between an athletic marvel and a cat meme."

[+] EnlargeGiannis Antetokounmpo
Jeffrey Phelps/NBAE/Getty ImagesGiannis Antetokounmpo has grown about an inch since the season started.

The nickname that Antetokounmpo has received, "The Greek Freak," seems to not faze him in any way, good or bad. The hype surrounding his size (length) and his athletic ability (soft touch from 3-point range, runs the floor extremely well, can run the point if need be and great instincts defensively) almost go unnoticed to him. He is seeing how this works. He has seen how he can put out one tweet about drinking his first smoothie and 2,000 people respond. (Note: WTH is going to happen when he goes to L.A. and then tweets about his first visit to Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles?) He's heard/read all the fascination there seems to be about the size of his hands. All 25 inches of each of them.

Before the interview starts, I hear from the Bucks' media director that Giannis doesn't want the NBA to change him, so I ask him whether that's true.

"Who told you that?" Giannis asked, a little surprised.

"Yeah, I'm just, you know, cool guy. Just like to live with what I have," he says. "I'm in the NBA, and it's not like the NBA is a bad place, it's very nice, but I live how I live last year. Simple, you know? Cool."

That explains why, even when the smile isn't there, you still feel a combination of a sense of pride and joy emanating from him. The face doesn't hide the smile. Not even when he isn't smiling.

He lives in a true existence of a good kid in the M.A.A.D. world of professional basketball in America. Where a kid of Nigerian lineage and heritage has the chance to use a sport that he is gifted in to redirect his and his family's lives.

The stories of the racism he and his mom, dad and three brothers had to face in Greece as immigrants from Africa overshadows what they would have had to endure had his parents not fled Nigeria. Racism becomes tolerable when the other option is ethnic, religious, political and economic genocide. Racism vs. survival: You choose.

His route here is less traveled than the one by the multitude of those playing in the NBA. That's where a large part of the interest in Giannis lies. The hook.

Many players in the league went through struggles. Giannis' story is Luol Deng's childhood struggle to London escaping the Sudanese Civil War minus the American prep schooling (Blair Academy) and scholarship to Duke. It's Amar'e Stoudemire's story, where his mom picked oranges in the fields of Florida, often stealing the fruit to survive, where his father died when he was 12, where he lost his older brother to the streets, where he was homeless at times and attended five different high schools while watching his mother do various stints in jail.

It's all the same, yet there's something uniquely different. Something that is drawing the basketball world to Giannis. And by watching Giannis and talking to him, his past hustle, his future in the NBA and the question of whether this promise that has captivated us will amount to something is never immediately evident. He doesn't put it on display. Beneath that smile is a soft-spoken, young, real chill, open yet sort of reserved young man.

A canvas wondering what it will feel like when the paint arrives.


The Bucks need Giannis.

Skip Robinson, VP of community relations and player development for the Bucks, says: "He is the face of the organization. He is our future. I want to be careful how I put this, but Giannis is a special breed, and everyone around here sees it.

[+] EnlargeGiannis Antetokounmpo
Dineen/NBAE/Getty ImagesGiannis Antetokounmpo dunks against the Celtics.

"What Giannis has is 'it.' He's young enough and innocent enough to not really know what the scope of everything is right now. And right now he's holding on to everything, which is a very good thing. We don't want to lose that innocence."

As he runs down the court with Ray Allen's old Bucks number, flashbacks set in. Not of Jesus Shuttlesworth and what could have been, but of what it's like to be in Milwaukee and see hope and promise on the basketball court. Of what could be.

Brandon Jennings' 55 points seven games into his rookie season eventually led to nothing. Allen's, Sam Cassell's, Glenn Robinson's and George Karl's run led to them being one win away from the NBA Finals in 2001. But nothing of true significance after that. Lew Alcindor, Oscar Robinson, Brian Winters, Marques Johnson, Bob Lanier, Michael Redd. Players who fulfilled a level of promise while wearing a Bucks uniform, who at one time or another gave the city and organization a reason to hope. And here we are again.

Giannis. The Prodigy. Not prodigy in the vein or form of a Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Jamal Crawford or Kobe Bryant. But an adolescent in the NBA who is skilled at an advanced level of basketball very early who will grow (literally: Antetokounmpo has grown more than an inch since the season began), develop and mature with all of us watching.

His potential summarized: Scottie Pippen's game with Magic Johnson's personality.

That next player who seems to come along once or twice a generation who we know when we watch him play was put here to do nothing else but what he is doing. Whose soul's purpose is this game.


Giannis reminds me that basketball is a disease. Or it can be to some people.

"I think I'm addicted to this game," he says to me as we sit in his locker stall after a game, the last ones to leave. "I'm sick about this game, you know what I mean? I go home, I think about the game. I go to church, I think about the game. When I go out, I talk about basketball. I call my brother, I talk about basketball. My mother tell me something, she hears about basketball. Sometimes I'm like, OK, I'm addicted, I'm sick. I love this game. I hope I play this game like when I get old, you know. Stay at home, become a coach. Go overseas and play when I'm 50."

The game is his life. Which explains the smile and all beneath it.

His mother and father and brothers arrived in Milwaukee on Sunday to stay with him for good. A cycle complete. A cycle begins.

"Some players here, in the States, this is their job. They come to work, go back home. That's it. Not me. I go home, I think about [basketball]. It's part of my life, I believe. Besides my family ..."

He tails off.

"Basketball, family, that's it."

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist

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