In April 1999, Nigeria had elected Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as its first civilian President after some 13 years of uninterrupted military rule (1983-1999). Pastor Tunde Bakare however casted an ominous cloud on the whole event, that had seen a Yoruba elected as President of Nigeria. Bakare said, in a prophecy, that God’s judgement was going to fall on Obasanjo and that he would not be installed President that year. Despite having rejected Obasanjo at the polls, the Yoruba nation had quickly owned Obasanjo and was a little uncomfortable with Tunde Bakare’s prophecy. One night, riot broke out in the Ogba area of Lagos, where Bakare’s church used to be located, as people began to hunt for the pastor’s head. Tunde Bakare told us some years later, while I visited his church that he escaped from that scene by the whiskers – hidden in a get-away-vehicle. I remember that night very well because it was the night I was returning to Zaria, after my botched interview at the United States’ Embassy in Victoria Island, Lagos. I was travelling back to Northern Nigeria in one of those large buses that travel late in the night. The person seated next to me on that trip was a young man in his mid-twenties. We talked a little. He told me he was going to North Africa to play football. His hope was that he would also be able to cross-over to Europe with time. When I disembarked in Zaria, he proceeded unto Kano and then to his preferred destination. I never forgot the experience with that guy because our bus was delayed for hours at the Ojota area of Lagos because the Tunde Bakare generated riot had caused traffic all over Lagos mainland.
Stephen Keshi is said to be the person who opened up oversea trips for Nigerian footballers in Europe. Keshi had plied his trade in various clubs in Europe including RSC Anderlecht in Belgium, where he won the Belgian League Championship in 1991. Keshi’s career spanned a period of 12 years in Europe (1986 – 1998) and he used his position in the national team to secure clubs for promising Nigerian footballers in Europe. By the early 1990s, the quest to go to Europe and “play professional” football became the dream of any gifted footballer in Nigeria.
In 1991, a young couple arrived the nation of Greece in Europe. Their names were: Charles and Veronic Adetokunbo. Charles was hoping to secure trials with a football club in Greece. It is not likely that that opportunity fell through and it was obvious to the couple that returning to Nigeria was not a practical thing either. They decided to slug it out in the nation of Greece. The couple had had a son called Francis while they were in Nigeria but they left that child with their parent in Lagos and headed to Europe. Francis would eventually join his parent in Greece. Charles is from south west Nigeria, while Veronica is Igbo. The couple would go on to have five children between them – all of them boys. In 1994, their third son was born and they named him Giannis Sina Ugo Adetokunbo. Giannis is obviously his Greek name.
The Adetokunbo family did not find it easy in Greece. Unlike the United States, where children of other nationals born in the country are immediately given American citizenship, the Adetokunbo children were not given this privilege. In fact they did not acquire Greek citizenship until 2013. The father of the house, Charles, was a heavily built athlete of a man, but he could only get jobs as a handyman on the streets of Anthens. Veronica worked as a baby sitter for Greek families that needed their help. They did not have work permits and thus worked only menial jobs to provide for their five children. But the Adetokunbo boys were exceptional. From an early age, and when they had free time from school, they would go to the streets and hawk watches, handbags, sunglasses and other wares. They lived in a poor neighborhood in Sepolia in the ancient city of Athens.
Like their father, the Adetokunbo boys loved to play football. So, when they had opportunity, they would play the round leather game around their neighborhood. When Giannis was seven years old, someone suggested to him and his brothers that rather than play football, they could take advantage of their gangling frame and height to play basketball. Giannis and his brothers soon began to play basketball in their neighborhood and their gifts were quickly recognized by their coaches. In fact, so that the boys could have more time to train and play the game for their respective teams, the team management ensured that Charles and Veronica were given work permit and thus could get better jobs and then earn more to provide for their families. The boys were taken off the streets of Athens and committed their times to their education and basketball. The most promising of the brothers was, of course, Giannis Adetokunbo.
In 2011, at age 17, Giannis began to play for a 3rd division team in the Greek basketball league. His gifts were quickly noticed and thus he was approached by a first division Spanish basketball club and signed a 4 year deal with them. That contract had a potential NBA buy-out clause in it. He had barely concluded two seasons with this club when the NBA approached him. In the 2013/14 season of the NBA, at age 19, Giannis was selected as a relatively unknown 15th draft for the Milwaukee Bucks. Interestingly it was this year that his family was granted full citizenship by the government of Greece. Greece obviously recognized the potential of the young man and quickly latched onto him. Another thing that happened in 2013, as Giannis was moving to the NBA, was that his name on his Greek passport was changed from “Adetokunbo” – which reflects clearly his Nigerian roots – to “Antetokounmpo”. This is the name he brought to the United States and unfortunately it is the name that his family bears today. In protest, however, I would not be using this imposed nomenclature on this true son of Nigeria; I would however be calling him his true name: Giannis Sina Ugo Adetokunbo, in this essay.
Giannis’ entry into the NBA was not a particularly smooth one. He would not come into recognition until 2017 when he won the NBA most improved player, although he had played in the second team of the rookie games of 2014. From 2017 on Giannis career sky-rocketed. He started to play in the all-stars games of the NBA from 2017 and has been voted into the Eastern Conference side every year ever since. In 2019, Giannis was voted into the All-NBA first team. In the same year, he was crowned the most valuable player (MVP) in the NBA. This title is about the most coveted title in the NBA and Giannis would be the third youngest player to win it at the age of 24. Other players who have been MVP are Stephen Curry (2014,15); Lebron James (2011,12), Michael Jordan (1998,1995,1992,1991,1988) and our own Hakeem Olajuwon (1994). Giannis Adetokunbo will lead the Milwaukee Bucks to the Eastern Conference finals in 2019 but lost to eventual winners - Toronto Raptors. In spite of this let down, Giannis’ contribution to his team was clearly recognized and he was awarded the MVP for that year. Giannis has been nicknamed “The Greek Freak” by commentators in the NBA because of his exceptional manner of playing and defensive work.
My three brothers and I played a lot of basketball ourselves when we were growing in ABU Zaria quarters and we were very familiar with the games of Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquil O’Neal. In recent times, however, I had lost touch with the NBA. I however posted an article to Nairaland a month ago and someone left a comment there saying that I should check out the story of Giannis Adetokunbo. I followed the link and I found this exceptional Nigerian, who in my thinking has been stolen by the nation of Greece. Because I have played basketball before, I appreciated Giannis moves as I watched numerous video clips of him on YouTube. Here are my thoughts on Giannis Adetokunbo’s manner of playing basketball: at six foot, eleven inches, Giannis is the most skillful basketballer that I know that stands at that height. In basketball, the shorter you, the better you are at dribbling the ball. So, most individuals who will wish to play basketball but are not very tall, usually take up the “guard” position. The guard is that person who runs the ball from his team side to the opponent’s side. If he is very good, he call dribble pass all the opponent and score; or pass the ball to a team mate to score, while he might have derailed the opponent. Most commentators say that Giannis has no position, as he has been known to play all the five position on the basket court exceptional well. He can be guard, small and big forward, point guard, and center. At 6’11”, Giannis will take the ball from his own side, run the court through with his long strides, dribble, and then dunk the ball. In fact it appears to me that 80% of his points come through dunks. Rather than lay up the ball, Giannis will attack the rim with a dunk – both with left or right hands. I have never seen a basketballer play with such menacing ferocity. While Shaq O’ Neal was equally menacing with dunks, Shaq did not shoot the ball as well as Giannis does – nor did Shaq dribble at all. Also, besides scoring, Giannis is also known as a defensive player. His blocks are phenomenal and are dreaded by his opponents. I began to closely follow Giannis Adetokunbo’s game when he and his team mates met with the Miami Heat this year, September 2020, in the Easter Conference semi-finals. They were beaten 4-1. Giannis had injured his ankle in game 4 and he did not play at all in game 5. It is possible that if he was okay, he would have led his team to another Eastern Conference final this year and might have won the championship.
Giannis Adetokunbo is very proud of his Nigerian roots, although he has not visited Nigeria yet. In fact, in 2015 he obtained his Nigerian passport with the hope of visiting the country soon. When he was asked about how he feels when people call him “the Greek Freak”, Giannis made the point that his roots are Nigerian, although he does not mind being identified with Greece. He said: “… It does not matter what people may think of me because of my nickname ‘Greek Freak’. There were a lot of times when I was in Greece when people said ‘you are not Greek. You are Nigerian because you are black’. But then there has been a lot more times when it has been the opposite, where people say ‘You are not African. You are Greek. You are the Greek Freak’. But I don’t care about that. Deep down, I know who I am and where I am from. That is all that matters to me.”
Giannis Adetokubo wears the number 34. I suspect that he wears this number in honor of the greatest Nigerian basketballer in the history of the NBA: Hakeem Olajuwon. Olajuwon wore the number 34 throughout his playing career with the Houston Rockets. Hakeem himself made it clear that Giannis’ surname was not “Antetokounmpo” but rather “Adetokunbo”. He said that the name is a typical South Western Nigerian name that means “… the crown has returned from overseas…” It is clear that whenever Giannis will visit Nigeria, he would be returning as a king that has made his mark in society via a dint of hard work and skill. Giannis says he does not speak any Nigerian language but since his mother spoke Igbo to his brothers and him, they all can speak a little Igbo. At the least, he can count the numbers in Igbo but does not speak the language fluently. Charles, Giannis father, died of a heart attack in 2017. He was only 54. While delivering his acceptance speech at the NBA awards last year, after being crowned MVP, Giannis spoke glowingly about his father and credits his success his parents. He was weeping profusely while speaking. Giannis is said to be a devout Christian, having been raised in the Greek Orthodox Church. Giannis four brother’s all play professional basket-ball. In fact Francis, their oldest brother, has played for the Nigerian national team in 2015.
A few days ago, after his team the Milwaukee Bucks crashed out of the NBA championship, Giannis unfollowed all his team mates on Instagram; he also unfollowed the team. Rumors are making the rounds that he has plans to leave the Milwaukee Bucks and join another team with greater prospect of winning the NBA –which is the dream of every basketballer in the world. Giannis signed a $100 million contract with the bucks in 2017 and still has one year in contract with them but there are all likelihood he would leave. Giannis has been the sole powerhouse in the bucks team and the over reliance on him might be at the root of his recent injuries. He would be hoping to join a team that can compete for the title in the future. Whatever his decisions are, the whole Nigerian nation are behind him and are hoping that he succeeds in his endeavors.
There are hundreds of Nigerians outside the shores of this country doing great things. Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce one of them to you: Giannis Sina Ugo ADETOKUNBO.
I dedicate this story to my brothers: Adetoro, Adebowale, and Adeoye. I pray God to bless our hustle in this country and grant the desires of our late mother to make it in this life – within or without Nigeria. By the way, my brothers were the greatest basketball players in their time. God bless you guys.