How NBA Super star Giannis Antetokounmpo almost ended up representing Nigeria

NBA Super star Giannis Antetokounmpo almost ended up representing Nigeria or Spain

NBA Super star Giannis Antetokounmpo almost ended up representing Nigeria or Spain

The official Nigerian men’s national team Twitter account brought up the memories of how one of the best basketball players in the world, Giannis Antetokounmpo, was close to appearing in different national team colors.

2021 NBA champion and the finals MVP once considered requesting a Nigerian passport.

When his status and future were in limbo, some people were even looking for an opportunity to get him Spanish citizenship.

How was one of the best international players in the NBA almost on his way to becoming eligible for Nigerian or Spanish national teams but ended up representing Greece?

Mirin Fader explained these scenarios in her book “Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP.”

Antetokounmpo was born in Athens in 1994. His parents were of Nigerian descent and illegally moved from Lagos to Greece in 1991.

Although Giannis and his three siblings were born in Greece, none of them qualified for a Greek passport.

Giannis officially remained stateless until turning 19.

That prohibited him from playing abroad and representing Greek clubs as a local player. It also closed all doors for him to show his skills to NBA people in the camps outside Greece.

It even jeopardized his NBA future when only a few thought he might become an NBA player.

When the word about the Greek mystery started to spread before the 2013 NBA draft, Giannis couldn’t even apply for a US visa to participate in the draft.

He also had an agreement in place with Zaragoza club from Spain but wasn’t capable of traveling outside the country without a passport.

Basically, Giannis couldn’t turn pro without citizenship papers. And the process was not moving forward in Greece.

Back then, nobody in Greece even dreamt about his potential success in the NBA.

His agents and coaches did. Or at least they were looking to put him on track to get all the opportunities on the basketball floor that were presented to him.

Together with the Greek Basketball Federation, they had been lobbying the local authorities aggressively to speed up the citizenship process.

Former famous Greek basketball player and coach Giannis Ioannidis was the deputy culture minister responsible for sports at the time.

Antonis Samaras, then the Greek prime minister, remembers Ioannidis telling him that Giannis could have an international career with the Zaragoza contract hovering in the background. But getting papers was taking forever.

Samaras barely knew who Giannis was. It seemed like a Herculean task despite hearing rumors about an extraordinary young kid of Nigerian descent playing basketball somewhere in the second Greek division and rising fast.

Also, the timing was not the best for such requests. That was an election year, and the country already had issues dealing with illegal immigrants. On top of that, Greeks were heavily suffering from a financial crisis. Nobody was willing to take risks making special exceptions.

At first, the Greek basketball people pushed a lot to get the passport for Giannis’ brother Thanasis first to make him eligible for the Greek U21 team, but they failed.

When things weren’t moving forward with Giannis too, Willy Villar, Zaragoza’s sporting director who signed Giannis to a long-term deal in Spain, was working with Giannis’ agents to see if there was a way to get him Spanish citizenship.

Per Mirin Fader, Villar was ready to do whatever it took to get him to Spain.

How NBA Super star Giannis Antetokounmpo almost ended up representing Nigeria

Giannis even applied for a Nigerian passport in September 2012.

“What was largely underreported was that the Greek government began to speed up the process only once they realized that not only did Giannis have NBA potential but that Giannis and his team had reportedly turned to the embassy of Nigeria, hoping to gain citizenship here,” Fader wrote in her book, emphasizing that Giannis still always prioritized obtaining the Greek citizenship.

“The possibility of him playing for Nigeria’s national team – and not Greece’s national team – and playing for Zaragoza as a Nigerian player may have added more pressure,” Fader continued.

“Still, it was the potential NBA career that largely motivated the government to finally fast-track Giannis’s citizenship, given that Giannis performing well in the NBA could benefit Greece.”

Giannis and his brother Thanasis were granted a special exemption and received citizenship papers on May 9, 2013. Thirty-nine days before the draft.

In the process, Greek officials changed their last name from Adetokunbo to Antetokounmpo, a more traditional Greek-sounding name.

All four Antetokounmpo brothers are now set to defend the Greek colors in the 2022 EuroBasket.

Afrotimes Newspaper


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