It would be an easy thing to turn the Giannis Antetokounmpo story into something so full of cringe and schmaltz that it loses all meaning (unrelated – the Disney Studios biopic of Giannis is due out next year). The opening pages of Mirin Fader’s Giannis: The Improbably Rise of an NBA MVP (Hatchette Books) hint at the hackneyed story that could be – a scrawny kid with an incredible gift who works his way up from oppressive poverty to achieve his dreams and win fame and riches. It would be easy to tell this story because, well, it’s mostly true. But over the course of 400 pages, Fader manages to pull at the threads of Antetokounmpo’s Horatio Alger-esque tale to reveal a deeply human story that is as forged by politics as it is by sport.
Fader frames much of Antetokounmpo’s story through his stateless person. Born to Nigerian parents in Greece (a country without birthright citizenship), Antetokounmpo’s youth was a fraught with anxiety over his family’s immigrant status. It was only his athletic stature that allowed him to get the passport necessary to travel to the US to join the Bucks and – after a rookie season in which he was so lonely without his family that he would sometimes sleep at the team’s practice facility – only the political connections of Bucks’ owner Sen. Herb Kohl that allowed his family to join him in Milwaukee.
Fader’s exploration of the climate of Greek politics during Antetokounmpo’s time there is one of the more shockingly interesting parts of the book. When he joined the Bucks, Golden Dawn, a neo-nazi Greek political party, held more than a dozen seats in the Greek Parliament. A party spokesman used the occasion of Antetokounmpo being drafted to denounce him by name, referring to then-18-year-old as a “chimpanzee” and demanded that his family be arrested and deported. These experiences in Greece – a nation he still loves and considers to be a home – were the basis for his political awakening in the U.S. during last summer’s police brutality protests. What has been framed by some as an athlete stepping outside of his lane was, as Fader makes clear, part of Antetokounmpo’s long-time awareness of prejudice and injustice.
Food also plays a surprisingly large role in Fader’s story. Hunger was a formative experience for the Antetokounmpo family in Greece. Facing discrimination as immigrants during the late 2000s Greek economic collapse, there was rarely enough food to go around for the family. During his ascendency as a basketball prospect, making sure Antetokounmpo had enough food was a constant worry for his coaches. This awareness of how it felt to be without followed him to the US where, even with a regular NBA paycheck, he kept count of the number of Oreos he had in his home pantry – able to lightheartedly (and accurately) accuse a friend of taking three of them while waiting there for the cable company to arrive.
Overall, Fader has done something pretty remarkable. With his incredible NBA Finals’ performance and the Bucks’ first world title in 50 years fresh in readers’ minds, a Antetokounmpo biography could have dropped this month feeling like it had been written a year too early. But the depth of Fader’s Giannis – using basketball as just one of many lenses to view its subject – manages to create a work that feels complete, even while only being the beginning of the story.