ATHENS, Greece — The gym sits on the east side of central Athens in the densely populated suburb of Zografou. Nestled between collections of abundant trees is a set of stairs leading to a ground-level entrance, where a small lobby gives way to the double doors of a basketball court. Behind them is where one of basketball’s best-kept secrets once hooped.
It’s where it all began for a 12-year-old kid by the name of Γιάννης Αντεκουντούμπου.
Long before the world knew him as Giannis Antetokounmpo — the Eurostepping Greek Freak with the 6-foot-11, 242-pound body and mythical athleticism — the reigning NBA MVP played at the home of Filathlitikos Basketball Club.
“He was like a cricket,” says Takis Zivas, head coach of Filathlitikos B.C., Antetokounmpo’s first team. “His legs were immense, but his torso was small in comparison to the rest of the body.” Zivas, a slender man wearing years of coaching under his eyes, still remembers the first time Antetokounmpo came into his gym. “I just hadn’t seen a kid like that before,” he says. “His eyes, they were shining.”
Antetokounmpo learned the game of basketball on the aged hardwood of Filathlitikos’ court, its measurements, particularly in width, more fitting of a small soccer field. The two original hoops that once hung from the gym’s ceiling have been retired and permanently raised to the rafters. A pair of stanchions took their place and now hold baskets with rims slowly beginning to rust. Atop one sideline, a wall of cloudy windows allows the powerful sun to creep inside. In the heart of summer, not even the five towering air-conditioning units mounted throughout the space can overcome the scorching heat after a few trips up and down the floor.
For two years, Antetokounmpo trained here multiple times a day before being selected to join Filathlitikos’ youth team. Zivas drilled the kid at all levels of the club, including with the women’s team, while teaching him to navigate the court as a point guard with speed and discipline. At 14, he began playing with the men’s team. After his two eventual agents came to see the phenom for themselves, they started to spread the gospel of his crazy potential. By the time Antetokounmpo was 17, chairs were lined up against the wall on the near sideline for throngs of NBA scouts, general managers and owners to watch the promising prospect work out.
“The way Giannis would see things from a young age, the way he was so serious about things, the way he perceived … he had a different mentality than everybody else,” says Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Giannis’ older brother and former Filathlitikos teammate. “Like, ‘Listen, I know I’m playing in this gym, but I’m working to be in the NBA … because I know, at some point, I’m gonna be in the NBA. And when I play in the NBA, I’m gonna be ready.’ ”
More than a decade after he walked through the building’s doors for the first time, Antetokounmpo, now an All-NBA forward for the Milwaukee Bucks, returned as the NBA’s newly minted MVP. At the end of June, five days after he was presented with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy and delivered a tearful MVP acceptance speech, Antetokounmpo arrived at his childhood gym in Zografou, walked onto the court and took a seat in a chair too small for him way back then and even smaller for him now.
Leaning between his long legs, he began tying the laces of a new pair of sneakers: orange and navy Nikes, with an interlocking “GA” logo on the tongue and another logo on the heel intertwining No. 34 with the flag of Greece.
They’re called the Nike Zoom Freak 1s — Antetokoumpo’s debut signature sneaker. At 24 years old, he’s the first international basketball player to receive his own Nike shoe. A distinction that isn’t lost upon him.
“I wanted my shoe to basically introduce me and my family to the world,” says Antetokounmpo. The outer midsoles of each sneaker feature the names of his parents: his mother, Veronica, and late father, Charles, who emigrated together from Nigeria to Greece in the early 1990s to provide a better life for their boys. Inscribed on the soles of each shoe’s heel are the names of Antetokounmpo’s four brothers: Francis, Thanasis, Kostas and Alex.
“I wanted a good-looking shoe that could tell a story that a kid could relate to,” he continues. “A shoe that could make a kid work hard. A shoe that could make a kid believe in his dream.”
It’s a shoe he never could’ve imagined, in his wildest dreams, calling his own. Not when his story began back in Greece, inside this gym, where the sneakers he laced up didn’t even belong to him.
Initially, it took some persuading to get young Giannis on a basketball court. He dreamed of becoming a soccer player like his father once was back in Nigeria. But Giannis absolutely adored his older brother, Thanasis, and wanted to spend as much time with him as he could. Long story short: “I didn’t choose basketball,” Giannis says. “Thanasis chose basketball.”
The game isn’t the only thing Thanasis introduced to his little brother.
When Thanasis was 17, he signed a pro contract to play with Maroussi in the top division of the Greek Basketball League, and the club blessed him with a few pairs of free sneakers.
Giannis will never forget the day Thanasis returned home with boxes containing prized possessions that had been hard to come by during their childhood. To provide for their family, Charles worked as a handyman and Veronica sold goods on the streets of Athens, often joined by their sons. “Our parents gave us whatever they had, and it got the job done,” Thanasis says. “But we didn’t have a lot of money.”
So basketball shoes, especially new ones, were a luxury.
“I remember … he had a pair of these Kobes,” Giannis says. “Those are the shoes I wanted.” But Thanasis big bro’d Giannis, calling dibs on a coveted red and white pair of Kobe Bryant’s signature Nike Kobe 4s. “Thanasis was like, ‘You can have the ugly pair,’ ” Giannis recalls, “the heavy ones.” Of course, the younger Antetokounmpo brother accepted the sneakers and played in them. But he also plotted a way to get his feet in those Kobes.
When Thanasis fell asleep, or left the shoes at home, Giannis would take them to go practice. He’d make the trek from his family’s home in the Sepolia neighborhood of northwest Athens to the Filathlitikos gym in Zografou. The journey was approximately 4 miles on foot each way, but lacing up the Kobe 4s was worth every step and bit of wrath he’d face from Thanasis when he found out his little brother was wearing his shoes.
“Thanasis used to get mad at me,” Giannis says. “He was like, ‘No, man. Those are my shoes. I love those shoes. Don’t make them dirty. Don’t use them.’ ”
Their father, Charles, overheard the boys’ exchange and interjected. “My dad came out and was like, ‘That’s your younger brother. You’ve gotta share shoes with him. If he wants to wear them, he can wear them. It’s not like we have a bunch of shoes,’ ” Giannis remembers. “That’s when me and Thanasis started sharing shoes.”
The Antetokounmpo family eventually moved closer to Zografou, where both Giannis and Thanasis played for Filathlitikos. Soon afterward, sharing sneakers, which started out of necessity, became a practice that the two brothers — separated in age by two years, four months and 18 days — perfected. Giannis would play in the shoes first for the club’s under-16 team. After his game ended, he’d give them to Thanasis, who’d wear the already sweaty kicks against fellow 17- and 18-year-olds. When they were playing at different levels, the routine was easy. But Giannis kept growing, and his game kept improving, allowing him the opportunity to start playing up in Thanasis’ age group. Sharing the same sneakers in the same game presented a different challenge. It meant Giannis and Thanasis couldn’t be on the court together.
“I know a lot of people would say, ‘Man, that’s hard.’ But it was actually really fun, to be honest with you,” Thanasis says. “We’d get to play quarter by quarter. If we want a stop, if we need defense … a basket, I sub out, he puts on the shoes, he subs in. … We still beat them, and the other kids are frustrated like, ‘We’re losing to some guys who don’t even have shoes.’ ”
One day back in 2011, Thanasis pulled up to Ministry of Concrete, a sneaker and streetwear boutique in Athens, in search of new kicks for off the court. He’d saved up a little bit of money, and the store’s owner, Alex Segiet, gave him a deal on a pair of high-top Nike Dunks. “I had that one pair of sneakers for three years,” says Thanasis, who speaks gratefully, as if the shoes lasted him an eternity. “I remember he was so fascinated by the shoes,” recalls Segiet, who cherishes that transaction from several years ago for another reason. It was the first time he had ever heard about Giannis.
“Thanasis said he would bring his younger brother, once they got the money, and buy another pair,” Segiet says.
Giannis never made it into the store. He had other ways to search for sneakers.
“There was a period where he was running around to find Jordans,” remembers Zivas. But Giannis would wear anything he could find. And he made most of his inquiries inside Filathlitikos’ gym.
“I was just hunting down shoes from teammates,” he says. “After practice, I’d go up to them and ask, ‘Are you done with those? Do you still want those?’ They were like, ‘C’mon, Giannis … but OK,’ and take them off their feet. ‘You can have them.’ I had great teammates growing up. They took care of me like I was their younger brother. There was a lot of other families and kids out there that had it way worse than me.”
Size didn’t matter to Giannis — especially if someone was gracious enough to give him a pair of shoes. “To this day … I’m so embarrassed by my toes. They’re curled up because … there was a time that I wore shoes two sizes smaller,” he says. “And there were times that I wore way bigger shoes. It was better than wearing a size smaller.”
When Antetokounmpo was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, he owned 10 or 12 pairs of sneakers. But that was about to change. Before his rookie season, he took the one offer he received for a shoe deal. It just so happened to come from the company that made his favorite pair of kicks to hoop in as a kid.
“Nike was the only company that took a chance on me,” he says. “There were other companies that did not care to sign me. … I wasn’t on the list … but people from Nike came in and said, ‘We’re gonna get that guy. We’re gonna take care of him and his family.’ That meant a lot.”
Antetokounmpo’s dozen-pair collection quickly expanded exponentially. “He was so happy,” Thanasis says, “like, ‘Man, I can keep this shoe, I can wear this one, I can switch it up every game …’ I felt like he really loved it.” One or two storage units at his apartment in Milwaukee turned to six or seven, all stacked with boxes of sneakers. “I got, like, 3,000, 4,000 pairs of shoes,” says Antetokounmpo, who in the past year moved into his first house, where he now has a sneaker closet. “And you know what’s the craziest thing? I don’t even wear them. I wear like 10 or 15 of them.”
Something else that hasn’t changed, which he admits with a tiny sense of pride: “I’ve never purchased basketball sneakers, to this day — ever.”
In late September 2017, Antetokounmpo and his family met Nike at a downtown Milwaukee hotel. Antetokounmpo was coming off a 2016-17 season in which he averaged 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists and dropped 30 points in his first All-Star Game while wearing a pair of Kobe 10s. Nike pitched Antetokounmpo on a contract extension with a presentation focused on him becoming just the 22nd basketball player in company history to receive a signature sneaker — and, even more monumental, Nike Basketball’s first signature athlete born and raised outside of the United States.
Antetokounmpo couldn’t believe it.
“That’s when it hit me. I was like, ‘OK, this is crazy … I might be like Kobe, KD, LeBron, all these guys that have their own signature shoe, and play with it in the game.’ I was really, really happy.” He also couldn’t help but think back to his humble beginnings in Greece. “As a kid, growing up, I never thought, I’m gonna have my own signature shoe. I never wanted to have my own signature shoe. … That wasn’t a goal or dream of mine.”
But he doesn’t question how he arrived at the opportunity.
“I know why,” he says. “I worked my a– off.”
In November 2017, Antetokounmpo re-signed with Nike.
— Giannis Antetokounmpo (@Giannis_An34) November 7, 2017
“I had to act like it was a tough decision. There were a lot of other companies that were willing to give me a lot of money, offer me a lot of stuff,” Antetokounmpo says. He turned down pitches from Li-Ning and Adidas (whose courting included sending him an entire truck full of free sneakers). “At the end of the day, I gotta stay loyal to the people who helped me. I wanted to build a brand from what I started. … That’s who I am as a person. Deep down in my heart, I know I made the right decision.”
Weeks after the announcement of a long-term partnership, the 18-month design process of the Zoom Freak 1 began. Antetokounmpo went to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, for a brainstorming session with a 15-person product team consisting of designers, engineers, wear testers and specialists in materials, coloring and marketing. He also met Kevin Dodson, Nike’s global vice president of basketball footwear, for the first time.
“The thing that stands out to me was just engagement,” Dodson says. “He was in from the moment we sat down. He was focused. He brought out a notebook to start taking notes in detail, which I’ve never seen before. Just from that moment, we felt comfortable. Like, ‘OK, we have a partner here that wants to give everything he’s got, so we’re gonna give everything we’ve got.’ ”
Antetokounmpo expressed what he hoped for out of his first shoe: reliable traction comparable to what’s found throughout Kyrie Irving’s signature line, the same forefoot feel of the Kobe 10, and the same upper shape and fit as the beloved Kobe 4s he wore as a kid in Greece with Thanasis. He wanted his first shoe to represent home and, most importantly, family.
“We always try to work in really specific details to the athletes,” Dodson says. “We’ll at times as a team go to them and say, ‘Hey, is there anything specific you want us to have on a shoe?’ ”
Antetokounmpo had a phrase in mind, “I Am My Father’s Legacy,” which is incorporated into the traction pattern on the soles of the sneakers in honor of the family patriarch, who died of a heart attack in 2017 at the age of 54, six weeks before Giannis re-signed with Nike.
“I wanted my dad to be remembered. I wanted people to know that he left a legacy behind,” Antetokounmpo says. “The only thing he cared about was his kids. We are his legacy. His legacy lives within us, me and my brothers. We take pride in that. Every shoe I make, that phrase is always gonna be there. It’s not going nowhere. … I know he’s looking from above and really happy with … the way the shoe came out.”
Thanasis, who recently signed a two-year deal with the Bucks to play alongside Giannis, was the last brother to see the final product. He’d spent most of the past two years playing in Greece while Nike worked on the Zoom Freak 1 and went to Milwaukee a few days before Giannis was named MVP.
“I walked in my room and I was like, ‘What kind of shoes are these?’ ” Thanasis says. “It was a different box. I’d never seen it. So I opened it, and I see the shoe. I was so excited because it looked so elegant and comfortable and powerful.”
It was only right that Giannis returned home to Greece to debut his first signature sneaker — in Athens’ ancient building of Zappeion, a circular, open-aired atrium is surrounded by three dozen columns and busts of goddesses. In 1896, the venue hosted the fencing competition of the first modern Olympic Games. More than 120 years later, Nike built out the space to unveil the Zoom Freak 1 and its first three models: a basic black-and-white version; the “Roses” edition, designed in red, white and gold, his father’s three favorite colors; and the orange and navy “All Bros” colorway, which became the first to hit retail on June 28, as a tribute to the strong bond of the “Antetokounbros.”
And, at the specific request of Giannis, the Zoom Freak 1 is reasonably priced at $120 a pair.
“People are waiting for the shoe like gnats,” Segiet says. “That has never, ever, ever happened before in the market. I’m quite sure that wherever it’s being released, at any store in the country, it’s getting sold out immediately. Who wouldn’t like to have a pair in their closet? It’s the shoe of our local hero.”
Inside Filathlitikos’ gym, behind one basket hangs a massive banner depicting Antetokounmpo gliding for a dunk in his Zoom Freak 1s, overlaid by Nike’s iconic white script: “Fate can start you at the bottom. Dreams can take you to the top.” The image celebrates what might be the greatest week of Antetokounmpo’s life, which began with an MVP trophy and ended with a signature shoe.
“We all dreamed of him having a great career and playing on a high level,” Zivas said. “Today, he’s the motivation for young kids to be involved in basketball, to be happy, and hopefully they’ll be able to achieve things wearing Giannis’ shoes.”
Nike’s banner is positioned next to a few others put up by the club to honor the three Antetokounmpo brothers who’ve reached the NBA: Giannis, Thanasis and Kostas. One day soon, a picture of their youngest brother, Alex, now 17, will join theirs on the wall of Filathlitikos’ court. Four of the “AntetokounBros” — which will take over as the new name of the gym, Zografou mayor Vassilis Thodas announced the day the “All Bros” Nike Zoom Freak 1 dropped.
In the lobby, on a wall right outside the court, hangs a collection of old team portraits. Positioned in the center of a large wooden frame is a grainy photo from the club’s 2010-11 season. A closer look reveals a young yet familiar face, sitting second from the left on the first row of players. A skinny kid wearing a baggy black T-shirt under his red basketball jersey with knees standing taller than those of the teammates on either side of him.
On the feet of the then-16-year-old Giannis are the shoes he used to steal from his older brother Thanasis — the red and white Kobe 4s that helped start his journey from this small gym to basketball’s biggest stage.
In February, Giannis Sharpie’d, “Thanasis Thanks For Sharing,” on a pair of those Kobes that Nike had specially remade for him in his size 16 to wear for the NBA All-Star Game.
— NBA KICKS (@NBAKicks) February 18, 2019
“I actually got really emotional. He made me remember,” Thanasis says. “Everybody was asking me, ‘ … Thansasis, you saw what your brother wrote?’ That was our first legit, really nice shoe. I told everybody that.”
Early in his NBA career, Giannis also had a chance to share a pair of shoes.
After Giannis was drafted by the Bucks in 2013, his family came to live with him. Giannis would always take then-12-year-old Alex to basketball practice, like Thanasis used to do with him, and he also did with Kostas. Once, after Alex’s practice, Giannis took notice of another kid leaving the gym.
“Alex at the time was 6-foot. This kid was like 6-6,” Giannis remembers. “He was huge and big. He came out, and I saw his pair of shoes. They were old. I’m not saying they had holes on them, but they weren’t new. They were almost ripped apart.”
If anyone could relate to that kid, it was Giannis. He thought about how many times he had to muster the courage to ask someone for sneakers. There was no shame in the hustle, but what was it like to be on the other side of the exchange?
“I told the kid, ‘Next time I come, I’ll make sure I’ll get you some sneakers.’ ”
Sure enough, he fulfilled his promise.
“I had two pairs of shoes. I gave them to him, and he was so, so happy …,” Giannis says. “What people used to do for me, I did it for him. … That was the first time I was in the spot where I could do that.
“A lot of people, you give them stuff and they might … take it for granted. But a lot of kids don’t take it for granted. I didn’t take it for granted.”
Giannis will forever be grateful for the opportunity to wear those Kobes, for what they meant to his journey. He understands how a pair of shoes can help a kid chase a dream.
And now, with his own signature sneaker, he has the chance to pay it forward.