By Jake MalooleyShortly after Milwaukee Bucks Media Day begins, it becomes evident that Giannis Antetokounmpo will be doing none of his celebrated mean-mugging. As the team meets the press inside Fiserv Forum on the eve of training camp, the franchise’s famous face is all smiles.
Giannis has no shortage of things to be happy about. Striding between interviews and photo shoots in his Bucks home uniform, through the concrete corridors of the year-old arena built upon the foundation of his generational talent, the Greek Freak surveys his domain on this day as something of a conquering hero. The 25-year-old is a bona fide international superstar, the reigning NBA MVP, the leader of a team that last season notched a league-best 60 wins and made its first conference finals appearance since 2001.
In the offseason, Bucks General Manager Jon Horst saw to retaining the bulk of Giannis’ supporting cast and made some smart-looking acquisitions. These Bucks, as presently constituted, are the odds-on favorite, come playoff time, to be the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
All of these things please Giannis. But at this moment, what contributes most to the big man’s wide smile is the presence of one particular new addition to this year’s roster: his 27-year-old brother, Thanasis.
Amid a makeshift photography studio at one end of the Fiserv Forum court, Bucks players are having their official team portraits taken. This one happens to be a family photo: Giannis affectionately resting his arm on the shoulder of Thanasis. As youths, they played together in the Greek amateur leagues and more recently represented Greece as members of the national team. Standing 6-foot-6, big brother is shorter by a full 5 inches. But the two have the same sinewy build. The same high-and-tight haircut. The same magnetic smile. Their jersey numbers lend the impression of one being a reflection of the other: Giannis wears 34, Thanasis 43.
“It’s amazing,” Giannis says later, sitting next to Thanasis in front of the assembled media. “From where we started to where we are right now, it’s been an amazing dream, an unbelievable journey.”
Just as unbelievably, the brothers Antetokounmpo aren’t the only sibling duo on the photographer’s shot list today.
Eventually the 31-year-old Lopez brothers, Brook and Robin, plod onto the white backdrop. The 7-footers are identical twins, but their differing grooming preferences give their side-by-side portrait the quality of a barber’s before-and-after. On the left, Robin smiles tight-lipped through an unkempt beard, his head crowned by a mop of frizzy brown locks. On the right, there’s Brook, the older brother by a minute, with his close-cropped hair and clean-shaven face, offering a toothy grin. He holds a basketball that appears, in his massive hands, comically tiny, as if he were gripping a piece of fruit.
The LoBros last played together during their two years at Stanford. They entered the NBA draft together in 2008 and have spent the previous 11 seasons competing on separate teams. Off the court, they’ve become known for sibling-to-sibling trash talk. Brook has called Robin an “idiot.” Robin has slagged Brook as “not the best-looking Lopez.” Today, they seem to say little to each other. Brook explains with a wink that they’ve advanced beyond speech. “Our communication is on a completely other level,” he says in his sonorous surfer accent. “It’s pretty much nonverbal. With a look, you just know.”
Dozens of siblings have been colleagues in the NBA. Very rarely do they become teammates. And this year’s Bucks team is only the second time in the league’s 73-year history that two sets of brothers have played on the same team.
It’s not a complete fluke. “We’re very much trying to create a family environment,” head coach Mike Budenholzer tells me. “We want to be a team that’s very together and has good chemistry and respect for each other but can challenge and push each other – and that’s what brothers do.”
When he came to the Bucks last season, Budenholzer was intentional about cultivating a familial culture. He began organizing team dinners, often during road trips, a tradition he calls “breaking bread.” “Those are things that bring guys closer together off the floor,” Bucks guard Pat Connaughton says, “and that translates to the floor.”
Now, with the Antetokounmpos and the LoBros, the Bucks have become a literal family affair. This is the unlikely story of how Giannis and Thanasis, Brook and Robin – the Bucks Brothers – wound up together in Milwaukee, in the rarefied air of the NBA. It is a tale of two families that spans generations and continents, a saga of hardship and triumph, a parable about the enduring ties of flesh and blood and basketball.
“IT STARTS WITH GIANNIS,” Brook Lopez tells me, a statement that could apply to just about anything pertaining to the Bucks. “He’s always talking about how the team is like a family and how important family is to him.”
To call Giannis Antetokounmpo a family man is an understatement on par with referring to him as a “good” basketball player. In his mind, family comes before all else, except God. So, too, with his fellow Bucks. “All of my teammates are my brothers,” Giannis tells me, coolly leaning his 6-foot-11 frame against a wall in the bowels of the arena. “It’s no different with Thanasis.”
But here’s the thing: It is different with Thanasis. How could it not be? They are not merely brothers. They’re best friends. Closest confidants. Growing up in the Sepolia neighborhood of Athens, they would hit the streets to sell a variety of cheap wares – DVDs, sunglasses, watches, handbags – to help their Nigerian immigrant parents, Charles and Veronica, make ends meet.
“When you’re going through that together, and you understand that every single day, if you don’t sell that knockoff Justin Bieber CD or whatever else you have that day, you don’t eat – it creates a bond where everybody’s trying to help each other out in the family,” says Alex Saratsis, Giannis’ Greek-born, Chicago-based agent, who has become like a member of the Antetokounmpo family. “That’s why Giannis always says, ‘Family over everything,’ When you grow up like he and his brothers did and you go through those experiences together, there’s a unity and a bond that will never be broken.”
“All the stuff we’ve been through has been so tough,” Thanasis tells me, “that there was no time to fight the way brothers usually do.” “We never fight and tell one another, ‘I’m better than you,’” Giannis says. “We just try to push one another, make one another better. I thought all siblings were like that. But when I got older, I realized not everyone is.”
As children, Giannis and Thanasis shared almost everything. That included a coveted pair of Kobe Bryant basketball shoes. Today, they both wear crisp Nike Zoom Freak 1s, Giannis’ first signature shoe that debuted over the summer. Inscribed into the soles of each sneaker are the names of Giannis’ parents and his four brothers: Francis, Thanasis, Kostas and Alex. The words “I am my father’s legacy” are etched into the outsole, a tribute to his late father who died of a heart attack in 2017 at the age of 54.
Critically, it was Thanasis who, as a 15-year-old, set aside the soccer ball and picked up a basketball, inspiring Giannis, Kostas and Alex to do the same. “They started playing basketball because I was playing,” Thanasis tells me, proudly setting the record straight. “Most people don’t know this.” Kostas is now on the roster of the Los Angeles Lakers. Alex, a standout senior at Dominican High School in Milwaukee, has netted offers from Division I universities and has been projected to enter the 2021 NBA draft. Not to be outdone, Francis, the elder Antetokounmpo brother and the only one born in Nigeria, made his way in the world of professional soccer.
“Those brothers are a single unit,” Saratsis says. “They talk about everything. They know everything about each other. They push each other, work out together, watch each other’s games, critique each other, motivate each other.”
In November 2018, Giannis bought a $1.8 million mansion in River Hills to share with his fiancée, Mariah Riddlesprigger (the couple are expecting their first child), his mom and his brother Alex. Adorning the basement are framed basketball jerseys that he and his brothers once wore on the court. Thanasis keeps a residence of his own but visits Giannis’ house regularly.
There are times the two are together that they look like children at play. At one point during Media Day, Thanasis slaps Giannis on the back as if to say, “You’re it!” There is a pregnant pause. They exchange mischievous smiles. Then Thanasis sprints down a hallway with Giannis giving chase in a blur of long limbs, the two laughing and teasing each other in Greek.
The scene recalls the moment in 2007 that Giannis was first discovered as an athlete. Spiros Velliniatis, the head coach of a Greek amateur team, spotted the 13-year-old with Kostas and Alex, playing tag on an outdoor Athens basketball court. “I could see that Giannis had real skills in changing direction,” Velliniatis told The New York Times. “The moment I saw him, lightning struck me.” Velliniatis offered Giannis’ parents jobs in exchange for allowing their son to play for his team.
If not for Thanasis, Giannis says he would have skipped the 2013 draft. Then just 18 years old, he had never before traveled outside Greece. The prospect of a 5,000-mile trip to the U.S. without family made him nervous. Thanasis agreed to accompany his brother. On draft night, there was Thanasis, Greek flag in hand, cheering and hugging Giannis when the Bucks selected him with the 15th pick.
In a poignant speech after accepting the MVP statue at the NBA Awards in June, Giannis praised his brothers as tears ran down his face. “You guys are my ride-or-die,” he said. “You guys are my role models. I look up to you guys.” At a press conference after the ceremony, he elaborated: “Everything I do, I always want to have my family around me. We started from nothing as a family, and we’re going to be in every stage as a family.”
Such talk from Giannis legitimized the cries of nepotism that emanated from the peanut gallery that is NBA Twitter after the Bucks signed Thanasis to a fully guaranteed two-year deal worth $3 million, the rate of the veteran’s minimum salary. It didn’t help that Thanasis had played just six total NBA minutes in a brief stint with the New York Knicks during the 2015-16 season. Over the last couple of seasons, playing in the country’s top-tier Greek Basket League, Thanasis helped his team, Panathinaikos, win back-to-back championships. He collected the MVP award of the 2019 GBL All-Star Game and consecutive Most Spectacular Player Awards, given to a player who consistently delivers dazzling dunks and other highlight-reel fodder.
Thanasis’ modest résumé did little to assuage those who saw his spot on the Bucks merely as a strategic bargaining chip for the front office, as Giannis’ contract is set to expire in summer 2021. “It’s hard to imagine Thanasis getting another NBA shot if not for his last name and his brother’s stature,” SB Nation’s Tom Ziller wrote last year. “The Bucks signing Giannis’ brother two years prior to Antetokounmpo hitting free agency is a pretty flagrant attempt to curry favor.” But that doesn’t make it a bad move, Ziller wrote: “If Thanasis’ presence makes Giannis even 1% happier in Milwaukee, or 1% more focused this season, then it’s likely more valuable than any other end-of-the-bench asset.”
No matter how it happened, Thanasis’ presence on the team and in Milwaukee, everyone agrees, is good for Giannis. And what’s good for Giannis, the thinking goes, is good for the Bucks. “Obviously, it’s great to have his brother close to him. It’s great to have another influential figure in Alex’s life,” Saratsis says. “But at the end of the day, Giannis looks at Thanasis as another piece of the organizational puzzle that can help the team win. Someone who can defend, someone who’s a utility guy. For him, that’s just as important as having his brother around, and he wants to make sure that Thanasis blazes his own path. He told him, ‘You’re here now. It’s on you.’”
Thanasis may have to stand on his own this season, but that doesn’t mean little brother isn’t in his corner. “I’ve talked with coach a lot about Thanasis, like: ‘This guy right here … I trust him,’” says Giannis, performing a bit of pro-bro boosterism during their dual press conference. “I know that if you tell him to run through a wall, he’s going to run through the wall, and he’s going to get up and say, ‘Which other wall do you want me to run through?’”
Thanasis looks over at his brother and flashes a smile of gratitude.
FOR THE LOPEZ TWINS, playing together in Milwaukee represents a return to family roots.
It was basketball, in part, that brought Brook and Robin’s maternal grandparents to the city 70 years ago. Their grandfather, Bob Ledford, had been an all-conference standout at the university now known as Northern Colorado. In 1949, the 6-foot-7 center was invited to try out for the fledgling National Basketball Association.
“They were only paying $300 a month,” says Bob’s daughter, Deborah Ledford, the twins’ mother. “It was kind of an iffy proposition because you only got the money if you were picked up in the process of trying out.”
At that time, Bob’s wife, nicknamed “Inky” – a standout athlete who became a gymnastics coach – was pregnant with Deborah, their first child. So Bob decided to turn down the NBA audition and signed on instead at Allen-Bradley in Milwaukee. The job provided the young family a reliable income but also gave Bob an avenue to pursue his passion for basketball. For three years, he played center for the Allen-Bradleys, the company-sponsored team in the National Industrial Basketball League, going up against fellow worker-players for such teams as the Peoria Caterpillars and the Fort Wayne General Electrics.
The Ledfords left Milwaukee in 1952, and Bob would teach and coach basketball at high schools and colleges across the West until he retired in in 1989.
Right up until he passed away in 2013 at age 90, Bob steadily bestowed on Brook and Robin the nuggets of basketball wisdom he had accrued over his decades of playing and coaching. But it is their mother, the twins say, who was perhaps their biggest influence.
“It’s completely my mom,” Brook says. “She knew what it took to compete, the preparation, the training – everything that came to athletics.” From an early age, Deborah, who stands 6 feet tall, distinguished herself as a gifted swimmer. In 1966, at age 16, she swam the world’s then-second-fastest time in the 400-meter individual medley. After graduating from Stanford, Deborah pursued a career in teaching. In 1975, she married Heriberto Lopez, who had played baseball in his native Cuba. They had four boys: Alexander, Christopher, Brook and Robin.
The couple divorced in 1994, when Brook and Robin were 5. Deborah raised her sons as a single mom, teaching high school math and German to put food on the table. “The four of us brothers are very thankful for everything she did for us. She sacrificed for us,” Robin says. “She’s a wonderful person who’s done so much for us. That’s where it starts.”
“Our two brothers became our father figures,” Brook says. “They were our role models, our idols, both on the court and o the court. We wanted to be just like them.” Alexander, who is 6-foot-10, would go on to play basketball at Santa Clara University and the University of Washington. He’s now a teacher and the twins’ personal trainer. Christopher, 6-foot-7, balled in high school, but his artistic talents pulled him toward graphic design and illustration.
The driveway of the family’s home in Fresno, California, was outfitted with two basketball hoops, forming an abbreviated full court. Alexander and Brook would usually take on Christopher and Robin. One-on-one games between the twins were heated. “If Robin beat Brook, then Brook could be exceptionally angry,” Deborah recalls. “Balls flew, there was yelling, and feet were stomped.”
It was a case of iron sharpening iron. “We’d go out and compete every single day against one another,” Brook says. “We’d get physical, we’d get into fights. One of us would go running back to Mom. But we’d be back out there every day making each other better.”
Basketball wasn’t the twins’ sole focus. Deborah raised each of her boys to be more well-rounded than the typical jock. She wanted them to be creative, sensitive, intellectually curious. As often as her budget would allow, mom would take the kids to museums, historic sites and national parks. The brothers became enraptured by the vision of Walt Disney during trips to his Anaheim theme park. Robin learned to play the drums, Brook the saxophone. They acted in plays and musicals. They read comic books voraciously.
“Our mom never forced anything on us,” Brook says. “She let us try everything. We did a ton of different sports. All sorts of extracurriculars. We were always encouraged to be creative. To read.”
“My parents never pushed me to become a swimmer. They provided me the opportunity to do the best I could,” Deborah says. “I wanted to do the same, to give my kids opportunities, whether it be in athletics or the arts or whatever, and then support them in whatever passion they might choose.”
Over the years the twins’ distinct styles of play on the basketball court – Brook the offensive threat, Robin the defensive force – organically took shape. They were teammates at San Joaquin Memorial High School, then at their mother’s alma mater, Stanford. After two years, they entered the 2008 NBA draft and faced the prospect of being rivals for the first time. The New Jersey Nets selected Brook with the 10th pick; the Phoenix Suns used the 15th pick to get Robin. Over the next 11 seasons, the twins’ teams would go head-to-head more than 20 times.
“The games where they played against each other were the roughest. They were the ones I enjoyed the least,” Deborah says. “The success of one was based on the other one making a mistake or something. It was hard because you love them equally and you want them to both do well.”
During these sibling-versus-sibling games, the LoBros adhered to a strict code of silence: no trash talk on the court. Instead they developed a tradition of sniping at each other through the media. On one occasion, Robin called Brook a “crappy center.” Brook snapped back, calling out Robin’s “dumb beard.”
Their waggish sibling contretemps put them in stark contrast to Giannis and Thanasis, who act more like BFFs. That’s one reason why, during the negotiations last summer for what would be Brook’s four-year, $52 million contract extension, Budenholzer flew out to broach a potentially thorny topic with his starting center. “How do you feel about playing with your brother?” Brook recalls the coach asking.
“I feel like a bad brother for saying it, but I was pretty focused on my free agency. I wasn’t aware Robin was a free agent,” Brook says during his presser. “He doesn’t talk to me about that stuff. I’ll hear from him about some Disney thing or some comic book thing that makes him mad or something like that. That’s really when I hear from him. So when coach Bud brought that up, I was genuinely shocked [Robin] was available in that way and that we were really looking at him. He had to actually tell me, ‘We’re serious about this. We’re not messing around. So we want to know how you feel about it.’”
He pauses a beat, then delivers the punchline: “Despite my feelings, they pulled the trigger anyway.” Robin returns fire during his own presser, when asked about Brook’s initial shock at the notion of his brother signing with the Bucks. “Brook and I aren’t talking that much, so you best believe I didn’t run it by him first,” he says. “I don’t have to run my decisions by Brook, I don’t think.”
“They both have a good sense of humor,” Deborah says. “It’s not serious. It’s all just joking because they always have each other’s back.” She considers it a dream come true to have her twins reunited as NBA teammates in the city of her birth. “I feel like a circle has been completed,” she says.
AS MEDIA DAY WEARS ON at Fiserv Forum, the non-sibling Bucks players begin to bask in this season’s familial atmosphere.
“Must be some good genes, man. Real good genes,” says point guard Frank Mason III as he watches Giannis and Thanasis having their photo taken. “Oh, I forgot about Kostas! And their littlest brother is coming up, too? Pshhh. Damn! They might all play with each other one day, huh? Sign ’em all! Saddle up, brother! Imagine all four of ’em starting.”
“It’s too bad I have no brother. I have sister, you know?” muses forward Ersan Ilyasova. “If I had brother, I’d definitely bring him over.”
“I think it’s going to make the locker room a lot more fun,” Khris Middleton says, “to see the brothers bicker at each other for little stuff.”
“It’s easy with Thanasis,” Giannis tells me. “This is going to be our eighth year playing together. I know how to deal with having your brother on the team.” Thanasis finally saw his first regular season playing time this season in game 5, a blowout against the Orlando Magic. He made the most of the few minutes, dramatically dunking in the face of Orlando’s Wesley Iwundu. Giannis’ proud reaction – a hands-to-the-face Home Alone scream – helped the clip go viral. “I think it’s harder for Brook and Robin,” Giannis adds. “I haven’t seen them talk to one another.” He laughs. “They’re just on their phones, just playing games and reading books and stuff.”
It didn’t take long for the LoBros to reignite their war of words. In the first preseason game against the Chicago Bulls, Brook sank a 3-pointer and celebrated by pantomiming drinking tea, which has become Robin’s signature. After the game, Robin weighed in on his brother’s performance: “It was a poor mimicry of mine. It didn’t have any of the insight or any passion. His miming skills aren’t what mine are.” Brook responded: “He’s a poor mimicry of me in general.”
“We’ve all been joking, ‘If there’s a fight between Brook and Robin, who’s gonna break it up?’” teammate Kyle Korver says. “And I’m like, ‘Not me! I’m gonna watch this thing! It’s gonna be amazing!’”
“We’ll stop them short of fisticuffs,” Budenholzer promises.
During Media Day, Brook assures the press corps that, sibling antagonism aside, he and his brother can indeed get along. “Whenever Robin and I play together, we have each other’s backs. If one of us makes a mistake or a defensive assignment gets beat, we’ve got the other one. That’s the way this team works, too. So he fits perfectly in that regard,” he says. “His defensive ability, his energy – it fits right in here. We want to be the best defensive team in the league again. We’re going to need to be. We’re going to need to step it up even more, and he brings that in spades.” Everyone waits for Brook to punctuate his compliment of Robin with a backhanded jab, but it never comes.
“The siblings add to the camaraderie of the team,” Connaughton tells me. “You have four guys you know are going to like each other. Maybe not all the time, but the majority of the time. They can’t hate each other forever!”
Eventually, Giannis is asked what it would mean to bring Milwaukee its first championship in 49 years – and to do it with his brother by his side.
“That’s a question that I think is too far,” he says. “But if we’re playing in the Finals and win a championship and Thanasis is right there? Lifting up the trophy is going to be amazing.”
For a moment, Giannis appears spellbound by the fantasy: the brothers Antetokounmpo, arm-in-arm in victory. “But,” he adds, returning to earth, “we’ve got a long way to go and a lot of work to do to get to that point.”