Giannis Antetokounmpo: The NBA’s global superstar at the heart of its global push

The loudest, almost deafening cheer at the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, as the NBA played its first-ever game in the Gulf, was not for a slam dunk or a brilliant point play, but for the introduction of Milwaukee Bucks forward, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis was clearly rusty, playing his first game of the season for a Bucks team tipped as championship contenders, and could only play 21 minutes. He did, however, show glimpses of what have made him one of the NBA’s best.

With 19 points, the 27-year-old was the top scorer for the Bucks, as they took on the Atlanta Hawks in a repeat of the 2021 Eastern Conference finals. He made seven rebounds and two assists as his team lost 113-123.

The NBA has come abroad for the first time after a three-year pandemic-induced layoff, and their push to grow the game in Asia is evident, with the Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards also going to Japan earlier this month.

 Giannis Antetokounmpo FILE – In this Feb. 22, 2020, file photo, Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers in Milwaukee. The Bucks believe they can build on the momentum they established while producing the NBA’s best record before the pandemic-imposed hiatus. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

The league’s biggest trick to push the game in Abu Dhabi was in picking the teams: the Bucks and the Hawks have played some high-stakes games over the past few years and the Hawks are also debuting the partnership between exciting point guard Trae Young and new signing Dejounte Murray. But fans flocked to the Etihad Arena for one man, and many for one man only, Giannis.

There are astonishingly few ways in which a basketball player can affect an audience without touching the ball at all, yet in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, the crowd’s eyes were magnetically drawn to the Bucks forward, every movement off-court diligently tracked, every action on court loudly cheered.

Putting a finger over a singular reason for Giannis’ global popularity is a tough task. For starters, it is his inspirational backstory. Unlike most NBA players who are early draft picks, Giannis does not come from an AAU or NCAA background. He grew up in Greece, where his parents had immigrated without documentation from Nigeria.

Giannis was forced to work as a street vendor in his home country when he was a teenager to help his parents make ends meet. Following the great Greek recession of 2008-09, a far-right ultranationalistic government was formed by political party Golden Dawn which fostered plenty of anti-immigrant sentiment. Giannis and his family lived in fear of violence and deportation until a Greek coach scouted him and his brothers, and offered his parents full-time jobs in exchange for training the boys.

Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo celebrates with Khris Middleton (22) after making a basket and being fouled during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, in Milwaukee. The Bucks won 119-116. (AP Photo)

Giannis took time to grow into his body and potential. What his amateur coach saw in him was raw athleticism and talent for the game, a burst of pace and power with a 6’11 frame and incredible wingspan. While it may have taken time, Giannis’ playing style hinges on much of those attributes today, that have led to comparisons with the likes of Shaquille O’Neal.

His signature drive that allows him to go past players from behind the three-point line all the way to the rim to set up a layup or dunk is his biggest strength and is what consistently makes him the Bucks’ biggest attacking asset. In defence, Giannis has emerged as one of the best rebounders in the league, passing is one of his most underrated attributes, and his shooting, especially from the free-throw line, has improved significantly over the past few years. At 27, he is yet to find his ceiling level.

Giannis’ fluid game and versatility have made him a two-time NBA MVP, the second of which came in 2021 when he led the Bucks to a first championship title in over 50 years. He is on one of the biggest contracts in NBA history, earning upwards of $220 million over five years.

His audience appeal, especially to those outside of the United States, is unquestionable. The reasons why he is so lovable lie in his ability to strike the delicate balance between power and personability, between his generational talent and his humility and charm, between his ruthless dominance and his joy for the game.

Giannis’ rags to riches story not only inspires, but also defines the scary and uncertain experience that an entire generation of undocumented immigrants experience. His being born outside of the US, and the privileged elite, gives international fans a feeling that he is one of their own. And his brilliance on court makes him one of the sport’s best.

In bringing Giannis to this part of the world, the NBA showed they are well aware of the Greek’s broad international appeal, he is one of three international players – Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic is from Serbia, and Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic is from Slovenia – to be among the league’s best but his star has outshone the others, and almost everybody else in the NBA, substantially. Over two games this week, fans in Abu Dhabi have a chance to witness its sparkle.

The writer is in Abu Dhabi on the invitation of NBA India.

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