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Nigerian athletes on what a ‘Greek Freak’ MVP means

Giannis Antetokounmpo joins a rare group of Nigerians to win their respective sport’s top individual prize

Giannis Antetokounmpo goes by many names. The “Greek Freak” for those who love athlete nicknames. Just “Giannis” for those who refuse to learn how to pronounce ethnic names. And “Freaky Greeky” for those fond — or is it “fawned”? — of a very specific Valentine’s Day gift the Milwaukee Bucks forward once received.

What he doesn’t go by, though, is “Giannis Adetokunbo.”

The 24-year-old, with his combined six All-Star appearances and All-NBA selections, as well as top-five jersey sales, is best known by the 13 letters on the back of his jersey, letters that made him one of the NBA’s biggest stars. Yet “Antetokounmpo” isn’t his given name.

In December 1994, Antetokounmpo was born in Athens, Greece, to Nigerian immigrants Charles and Veronica ​Adetokunbo​. He went by “Giannis Adetokunbo” for the first 18 years of his life until it was changed to its current spelling when he received his Greek passport in May 2013, just a month before he was drafted 15th overall by the Bucks in that year’s draft.

Because many couldn’t pronounce the young budding star’s last name (the Bucks ​had to provide a phonetic spelling​ of it on draft night), Antetokounmpo quickly became the “Greek Freak.” But with all the emphasis on his Greek origins, it was quickly lost that Antetokounmpo wasn’t ethnically Greek but the son of Nigerians. And that he had a ​very​ Nigerian surname.

“Adetokunbo,” as professional Basketball Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon ​recently told The Undefeated​, comes from the Yoruba people of West Africa, meaning “the crown has returned from overseas.” According to Ghanaian scholar Adelaide Arthur, ​writing for BBC News in 2016​, the name “Adetokunbo” is a “Yoruba name often given to a child born abroad.”

But now with Antetokounmpo winning this year’s NBA MVP award at the NBA Awards show on Monday, he joins a rare group of Nigerians to win their respective sport’s top individual prize. Of the five major American sports (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, WNBA), only two Nigerians before him, Olajuwon (1994) and WNBA player Nneka Ogwumike (2016), have ever won an MVP award.

Ahead of the NBA Awards show, The Undefeated spoke with athletes of Nigerian descent about following Antetokounmpo’s career up to this point and what an MVP award won by a fellow Nigerian would mean to them and their shared culture. The group includes professional wrestler Sesugh “Apollo Crews” Uhaa; UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman; NFL offensive lineman Russell Okung; and WNBA players Chiney Ogwumike and Arike Ogunbowale.


Sesugh ‘Apollo Crews’ Uhaa | WWE

Sesugh ‘Apollo Crews’ Uhaa acknowldges the crowed before WWE Raw.

This year I really started hearing more and learning more about him. The way he, at that height, being able to handle the ball like that, and he’s just a multiple-threat player. Hard to guard someone like that. It’s a hybrid athlete style; I like to compare it to how I work in the ring: hybrid, just different from everyone else. It’s rare you see guys at that height who handle the ball like that, that well, and just all-around phenomenal athlete like that. It’s pretty dope seeing that.

My parents are Nigerian and came to the United States before I was even born, so I can relate to him on that. I think knowing how Nigerian parents are, at least for me, I know that mine pushed me to do other things other than professional wrestling. It’s not common to see a lot of Nigerians in a sport like that, whether wrestler, basketball player. You usually see doctors, lawyers and that kind of thing. To be able to break out in the NBA as a Nigerian is awesome alone. You see a lot of guys — this year there’s a couple of Nigerians in MMA that broke out as well. It’s cool to see a lot of Nigerians doing other things than just being doctors and lawyers, which, of course, nothing against that, but I know it’s just not common where we’re from to pursue certain things like that.

I just recently found out Giannis had Nigerian parents, so I think that sparked a little more interest in him. It’s just one of those things: You see somebody with Nigerian parents or Nigerian descent themselves, and I feel like you kind of catch or bond with that person instantly off of that. Or you naturally just want to follow them and see how their career goes.

Russell Okung | NFL

Los Angeles Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung raises his fist during the national anthem before an NFL football game against Tennessee Titans at Wembley Stadium in London on Oct. 21, 2018.

AP Photo/Tim Ireland

I follow every African player I possibly can. I’m usually not an NBA fan. I don’t watch many sports. But when you see one of our own — because I am indigenous to Nigeria — thriving and doing really well, that gets me excited about basketball. Innately, I understand the struggle of Nigerian people, of Africans, on a global level. So when I see people like Giannis succeeding in that field, or other people respectively doing the same in their sectors, I’m a big fan immediately.

I went to Nigeria a couple of months ago and heard a good saying: Nigerians are the greatest exporters of talent. Meaning that we send all of our resources out all over the world and we succeed in everything that we do. To me, when Giannis wins, that is a stamp of what our people can accomplish when given the appropriate resources and the structure to succeed.

Chiney Ogwumike | WNBA

Chiney Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks reacts to a play during the game against the New York Liberty on June 15 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

I saw his name and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s Nigerian: Antetokounmpo. But ‘Giannis,’ that’s Greek.’ I was really intrigued by his story. I learned about his family and just became instantly a fan of him the day he was drafted, especially because I think they have boys. We’re a family, Nigerian, of four girls, and we all are in the business of basketball. So I instantly became a fan, day one, when he was a little string bean.

He’s the most improved player, during that span, in the NBA. He has added so much muscle weight and really fine-tuned his body so that he’s no longer just a ‘Greek Freak,’ he’s just unstoppable. He’s not a freak athlete, he’s just a freakish player expanding his game, the tenacity in which he plays with. It’s almost like that African determination of wild abandon, but then you also couple that with the new-age game for versatility. He is the ultimate cheat code.

It’s not just a moment for Giannis if he wins, it’s also a moment for the continent. If you look at what African basketball players are doing right now, not just Giannis. If you look at Serge [Ibaka] and Pascal Siakam and Masai Ujiri, and then obviously my sister [Nneka Ogwumike] has had a role. And it’s even bigger than the sport. There’s so many different avenues in which Africans are now being allowed to pursue their passion, being supported by their parents. And then all of a sudden these things are not only transforming their lives, but they’re becoming the most dominant at what they do. It’s pretty cool to see how it’s a great moment not just for Giannis, who already revealed that he really wants to tap more into his Nigerian roots, because when he goes home, it’s in a Nigerian house. It’s not just for Giannis, it’s for the entire continent. Basketball has arrived for Africans. It’s just a tremendous moment that we have to capitalize on just to create opportunities for those who can really change the game.

Kamaru Usman | UFC

Nigerian wrestler Kamaru Usman participates in a weigh-in event in Santiago, Chile.

EPA/MARIO RUIZ

He’s a Nigerian. I know where all my Nigerians are. We keep an eye on each other. I can’t quote stats completely for you because I don’t follow that closely, but I know what he’s doing over there and I keep my eye on that. I keep my eye on the news, all the headlines that he’s making, and just the amazing things that he’s doing. As Nigerians, it’s just something about us. Doesn’t matter where we are, we tend to find each other and tend to keep a close eye on each other because it’s such a passionate culture and country, and we just gravitate towards one another.

Right now I’m very impressed with how he handles everything that’s coming his way right now. Because there’s a lot of people that think that once you become successful or once you are in the spotlight, the media, the public eye, that you have to do like some of the ones before you have done. Whether it’s wildin’ out, taking it far left with your life outside of your sport, or whether it’s just your life on the court and the way that you do your thing on the court. I’m impressed with the way he’s handled it; he’s still himself. And I feel like I am that same way.

Right now we [Nigerians] are hot. And besides just right now, we’ve been that way. But in today’s society, other Nigerians, for some reason, we tend to get a negative light shined upon us. We’re making waves everywhere, whether it’s the movies or on screen, or whether it’s in combat sports, or whether it’s in basketball or football, we’re making big, big waves. And you see all the positive things that children and people from Nigerian descent are doing now. It’s amazing and it’s wonderful to see, and it would mean a great deal to our nation to continue to motivate every one of us.

Arike Ogunbowale | WNBA

Dallas Wings player Arike Ogunbowale brings the ball up the court during a WNBA game between the Wings and the Atlanta Dream on May 24 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.

Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire

Obviously he’s an amazing player. He’s really helped put Milwaukee back on the map with basketball. I’m from Milwaukee, so the hype that it is, anytime I go home, everybody just loves him.

He makes it look so effortless. Obviously, a lot of the shots he gets are tough, and he has amazing people defending him, but he just makes it look so effortless anytime he plays. And I like watching that.

There’s a lot of great athletes of Nigerian descent. There’s so many athletes out there. Just getting that prestigious award and having that background, that would just be amazing for your team, the culture and your community.

If you see a Nigerian playing professionally or playing whatever, you’re going to root for them. Regardless if they’re a rival, you’re going to have respect for them and want them to succeed, because, like I said, the community is strong and I think we stick together and support each other. So, definitely seeing people from your same background, same culture, is a good feeling.

Liner Notes

The Undefeated senior NFL writer Jason Reid and senior sports writer Jerry Bembry contributed to this report.

Martenzie is a senior researcher for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"