Updated: 3:09 p.m.
For Chicago basketball fans, nobody can ever top His Airness, Michael Jordan.
But for Greek Americans here, there’s a new hoops idol: the Milwaukee Bucks’ Athens-born All-Star Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo.
Hundreds of people from the Chicago’s large Greek community area trekked north of the state line to Wisconsin recently for Greek Night at the Bucks’ arena, the Fiserv Forum in downtown Milwaukee.
“You see a lot of the Greek pride come out,” said Manolis Olandezos, a son of immigrants from the Greek island of Samos who was raised in northwest Indiana. “Greeks want to gravitate toward someone. Especially when there hasn’t been someone like that in the NBA. Now we have someone we can wrap our arms around.”
Like many of the Chicago Greeks at the Bucks’ Greek Night game last month, Olandezos grew up as a Bulls fan, celebrating the six championships won by Jordan and his supporting cast in the 1990s.
“I probably wouldn’t go for a game in Milwaukee if it wasn’t for Giannis,” Olandezos said.
With his African roots, Antetokounmpo does not look like most of the Greeks in the stands on Greek Night. His parents were immigrants themselves, having moved to Greece from Nigeria.
His rags-to-riches story is well known by now. Antetokounmpo rose quickly from peddling DVDs on the streets of the Greek capitol to winning the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award last year. His next contract could be the richest in league history, at about $250 million over the next five years.
Antetokounmpo’s growing stardom was underscored on All-Star Game weekend in Chicago. He appeared at a fireside chat alongside former President Barack Obama on Saturday and captained one of the two teams in Sunday night’s game.
Obama chose Antentokounmpo, 25, to participate in a panel to highlight the player’s off-court work with children in Greece and Africa. At the event, Antentokounmpo said Greek neighbors helped his parents when they were immigrants.
“They were illegal, basically, so we had to have our circle really tight and really close and trust people that put us in the position that we are in today,” he said. “All I know is that people gave to me. I’ve got to give back.”
Obama told him, “I do want you to be a little more public, Giannis, because you have something to give.”
Olandezos said Antetokounmpo’s success story has special resonance with Greeks in this country and their descendants.
“A lot of our parents and grandparents have come over to the States with $5 to $10 in their pocket and made it big,” he said. “Giannis started with nothing, developing into this worldwide superstar.”
During the Greek Night game against the Denver Nuggets on Jan. 31, the Bucks pre-game player introductions were made in the language of Plato and Aristotle.
Milwaukee’s starting lineup that night actually included two Greeks: Giannis as well as his brother and teammate, Thanasis.
After the game, a couple thousand Greek fans waited in the stands and the Antetokounmpo brothers posed for a group photo with them. Many of the fans wore blue and white Greek national team jerseys with Giannis’ name and number.
Giannis sang along and nodded his head as the crowd belted out the Greek national anthem, “The Hymn to Liberty.”
Then Giannis took the microphone and addressed everybody – in Greek, of course.
“Greek night was tremendous,” he said. “We appreciate you supporting our family. The best is yet to come.”
With Giannis having another MVP-caliber season and the Bucks in first place, he could soon reach even greater, Olympus-level heights in the NBA playoffs.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ – and the son of immigrants from southern Greece. Follow him @dmihalopoulos. The Associated Press contributed reporting for this story.