In 2021, Giannis Antetokounmpo raised the NBA Finals trophy in one hand and the Finals MVP award in the other. He had reached the pinnacle of sports, leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their first NBA championship since 1971 at the age of 26. That same year, for the NBA’s 75th anniversary he was named as one of the greatest 75 players to ever play the game.
Rewind from that moment of triumph all the way back to the beginning and you get the movie Rise. Rise is Giannis Antekokounmpo’s origin story, telling his unlikely journey from Greece to the United States to play basketball at the highest level.
Much of what undergirds the film is a tension-filled story about immigration and the barriers the family faces as they try to establish themselves in Greece as Greek residents. His parents, Nigerian immigrants, entered illegally into Greece in search of a better life. After leaving their youngest child behind in the care of grandparents, Giannis’ parents crossed the border, escaped the capture of immigration police time and time again, and eventually found a place to live and jobs that paid off payroll, while his mother gave birth to four boys. In the end, they find some stability, but the fear of being deported is on the forefront of their minds and influences every decision they make.
Giannis Antekokounmpo was born in 1994, the second oldest of four brothers. His last name literally means “the king from across the seas.” He grew up playing soccer, but the moment he stepped onto the court and touched a basketball, it’s as if you could hear the strings play a destiny-inspired soundtrack. From that moment in 2007 at the age of 13, Giannis steadily improved and became so good that he eventually signed a four-year contract to play with the Spanish club CAI Zaragoza. Shortly after that, at age 18, he made himself eligible for the NBA draft.
The rise from playing basketball for the first time in 2007 to the NBA draft in 2013 is a mere six years—Antetokounmpo’s ascent from undocumented immigrant to NBA Finals MVP is truly like a rocket ship blasting to the stars. Except this rocket ship is a 6-foot-11 Nigerian-Greek-American full-blooded Buck, and the destination is having his story streaming into every household in America and beyond. (Disney +)
About the Author
Sam Gutierrez is the Associate Director at the Eugene Peterson Center for the Christian Imagination at Western Theological Seminary. More of his creative work can be found at printandpoem.com