The first time I read Mirin Fader’s outstanding biography of Giannis Antetokounmpo, I loped through it with increasing speed. Fascinated and eager to learn more about the NBA MVP and his family, I whipped through that book so quickly I finished it, breathless and amazed, in a couple of days.
The second time through, I’m reading it slowly, outloud, enunciating every word (with game attempts at pronunciation) to a 12-year old boy who hangs on every word.
The book and the story it tells are that good. I’m sure I’ll read it a third time, and maybe a fourth before I absorb it all.
First, there’s the Adetokunbo family, who gave up their last name but not their dignity to a Greek government that stubbornly refused to acknowledge them. The book traces their harrowing and improbable path from Nigeria, through Germany and Greece, to Milwaukee, and the cheerful optimism and transcendent love they maintained through some awful experiences.
Then, there’s the fact that Giannis didn’t even play basketball at all until he was 13-years old and, despite really not being good, still caught the eye of NBA scouts a mere four years later. Based on those chapters alone, and the absolute determination to succeed they detail, this book should be required reading for any athlete.
When you read about an older brother who didn’t eat for days so his younger brothers could, a group of young boys who walked for hours through dangerous neighborhoods to get to a court where they could play basketball, a skinny athlete so desperate to improve that he slept behind the bleachers at the gym some nights, you start to understand a little of the poignancy and motivation behind some of Giannis’ goofiness.
The morning after he led the Bucks to an NBA title and earned the MVP award, he took both trophies with him to a fast food drive-thu.
“What if I wake up and I realize it was all a dream,” he said to his Instagram followers as he livestreamed his 50-nugget chicken order. “These trophies are my security. Like, I touch them and I know this is real.”
He also asked if he could have free chicken for life, which seems like an odd request from a guy who just signed a contract extension worth $228 million. But, you only have to read the book to understand the extreme food insecurity fueling the request and to realize he probably wasn’t kidding.
In addition to required reading for athletes, I think the book should be required for journalists. Mirin Fader doesn’t just know how to tell a story, she knows how to do the research to back it up. She interviewed everyone from obscure childhood friends in Greece to NBA owners, players, scouts, equipment managers, coaches, rivals and family members. Her description of the days leading up to Giannis’ draft are fascinating and could only be written by a reporter who did the legwork to ferret it out.
She also paints an unvarnished picture of the Greek basketball system and the sanctioned racism that holds some players back.
A few nights ago, I sat in my car waiting for a young man I know to finish a pickup basketball game. I’d dropped him off three hours earlier and I wondered how much longer he’d have played if I had waited even longer to take him home.
I thought about the book I had just read and it made me smile.
So many people find such solace on courts and fields around the world and, thanks to stories like Giannis’, they can also dream big.