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12th October 2022 EDT FEATURES

A Life on Shoes: The Giannis Antetokounmpo Story

Telling the legend of the Greek Freak through the motifs on his Nike Zoom Freak line.

A Life on Shoes: The Giannis Antetokounmpo Story
A Life on Shoes: The Giannis Antetokounmpo Story

By Charles Basa

Father time will eventually come, the final grain in the hourglass will run. When the final basket’s scored, the final whistle of the final game blown, grateful Milwaukeeans will go home that evening with hoarse voices, knowing the next time they see “34” on a Bucks jersey in the NBA, it’ll be high above on the rafters of the Fiserv Forum. The epilogue of the Greek Freak’s epic will begin then. But Act 2 as we speak, is still being written.

Our protagonist, Giannis Antetokounmpo is only at the periphery of his prime. Even if he decided to retire now at 27, he’d already have a Hall of Fame career: NBA champion, back-to-back MVPs, Finals MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player, several All-Star selections and the youngest member of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team—yet he’s most fecund years are scarily, still ahead of him.

The voyage to get to where he is however, is both unorthodox and unprecedented. A story we’ll attempt to unravel through his Nike Zoom Freak line, beginning with the common thread that ties them all: the logo.

Blood is thicker than water, especially for the Antetokounmpos. His initials is apparent at first glance but the symbolism takes more discernment: the “A” was designed to be larger than the “G” embodying his raison d’être—his family. Like his father, Charles, Giannis has always put them before himself. The letters are interlocked representing their strong bond and if one of them is removed, the entire logo collapses.

The triangle, the strongest shape, recurring throughout classical Greek architecture, signifies his strength and heritage, while the clipped corner at the bottom left creates asymmetry, a nod to him being different, the sui generis that he is. The negative space inside resembling a maze alludes to the meandering path in the hero’s journey… our hero’s journey.

1. Nike Zoom Freak 1 “All Bros”/ “Antetokounbros”

The likelihood of someone from Athens to play in the NBA is small; to have three brothers from the same household reach the league, even slimmer; to have all three brothers win an NBA championship, subatomic—but that’s exactly what the Antetokounmpo brothers did in 2020 and 2021.

Giannis may be the de facto patriarch of the family, and the Nike Zoom Freak 1 may have been designed with him in mind, but it’s the entire Antetekounmpo Family’s signature shoe. Names of all his family members are debossed on the pair: “Charles+Veronica”, his parents, on the medial midsole; on the heel are his five brothers, older Francis and Thanasis, and younger Kostas, and Alex.

Growing up, the brothers shared everything, including their victories. The only thing Giannis didn’t share with his younger siblings, is the condition of their realities. Many times he would downplay his hunger, act like he’d eaten just so he could give his food to them. This, after hours of practice, on the youth team, then on the men’s team, until he could not keep sprinting, keep distracting himself. He’d go back home, stiffen his lip, and act like the leader they needed. Act like his stomach wasn’t growling.

Even as a rookie, he was given a new pair for every single game—82 shoes for 82 games. But through that season, he’d only wear two and keep the rest of them at his home. When assistant coach Josh Oppenheimer questioned him about it, he said, “I want them all at my house.” “Why?” “I want my house to look like MTV Cribs.”

Truth is, he was saving them for his brothers. On the off chance they get to obtain visas and fly over to see him in Milwaukee, he’d give all of it to them so they could have that exhilarating feeling of breaking in a brand-new shoe.

2. Nike Zoom Freak 1 “Roses”

Charles Antetokounmpo passed away at age 54 from a heart attack in 2017. He may not have lived long enough to see his son win the MVP and the brothers win NBA championships, but he set them on the path there through his teachings.

He was his sons’ role model. Despite enormous pressures at home, he was always smiling, acknowledging strangers. Nobody’d know he was suffering, on the verge of not making it. As Giannis did for his brothers, his father had done for him first. Charles would sometimes make a big bowl of spaghetti to last the whole day and would barely eat anything, instead waiting for his boys to enjoy theirs before him.

Giannis got his focus and intensity from his father, approaching pickup games like they were real matches. Charles inculcated the principle of maximizing time, maximizing every minute. “Make sure what you give your time to is worth it,” He would tell them. “You shouldn’t wait one more day than what’s necessary. If you could accomplish something today, why wait until tomorrow? Go get it today!”

Charles taught his children how to win, how to be the best they can be, and how to be humble even in the highest altitudes of the sport. Even when Giannis had made more money than his family could fathom, he said to them, “Just because your bank account changes doesn’t mean you change.”

The Zoom Freak 1 “Roses” is a tribute to Charles. Red, white, and gold were three of his favourite colors. Debossed on the outsole are the words, “I AM MY FATHER’S LEGACY”. Giannis speaking on the release of the shoe, “I wanted my dad to be remembered. I wanted people to know that he left a legacy behind. The only thing he cared about was his kids. … We take pride in that. … Every shoe I make, that phrase is always gonna be there.”

To cope with the grief, Thanasis got a tattoo depicting his father and the words in Greek lettering: “The father holds the hand of his children for a while, but he holds their heart forever.”

3. Nike Zoom Freak 1 “Greece”

Charles and Veronica left Nigeria 1991 in search of a better life in Europe, having to leave their first-born Francis behind with his grandparents. Every attempt, their citizenship application would get rejected. At the time, Greece rigorously followed the principle of jus sanguinis (Latin for ‘right of blood’), meaning citizenship was granted by ethnicity, not place of birth. The boys, though born and raised Greek, would grow up stateless, the threat of deportation looming over them throughout their young lives.

It was only through Giannis’ NBA prospect did he get his, solely because the country didn’t want him playing internationally for another, for Nigeria per se. While many congratulated him, the racism, an all-too-familiar foe he’d faced many times in his past, would keep throwing the gauntlet down to his feet.

The time eventually came when Giannis would be synonymous with basketball in Greece. Even then, the childhood court rebuilt with his image would be vandalized in 2017; and even then, when a Knicks fan asked him to sign on the Greek flag, Giannis refused for he didn’t want to desecrate it by writing on it. On draft day, when his name was called as the 15th pick, Thanasis would hoist the Greek flag before Giannis walked to the stage.

4. Nike Zoom Freak 2 “Taxi”

There was a time Giannis was ready to give up his NBA career if his family couldn’t join him in the United States. While he had gotten his visa, the government was dragging their feet for his family’s. So for his first few years, Giannis would be alone in Milwaukee, in terra incognita for him, a place far from any familiarity, bearing the weight of his family’s future, and his new country on his shoulders.

During his rookie season, Giannis sent so much of his money back home that by the time he realized his card was maxed out, he didn’t have enough cash to take a taxi to the game. He ran to the arena completely underdressed for the Milwaukee cold before a fan recognized him, took pity, and picked him up.

5. Nike Zoom Freak 1 “Alphabet Soup”

The pair that features an all-over print pattern of the letters of his name is a reference to the difficulties people have pronouncing it. “Alphabet Soup” was the nickname he had growing up and “Alphabet Man” was one given by fans from China. People mocked his surname early on in his career, knowing little of its grand meaning in his ancestral Yoruba tribe: “the crown has returned from overseas”.

In fact, Antetokounmpo was originally spelled as “Adetokunbo”. It was after they got the Greek citizenship was the name adapted to fit the Greek alphabet where the letters “NT” make a “D” sound while “MP” make a “B” sound, so the Greek spelling of the name phonetically sounds like its Nigerian origin. Some mispronunciations include “Auntietopoopoo”, “Antekopumpo”, and “Antetekupno”.

6. Nike Zoom Freak 1 “Pumping Iron”

From the start, his basketball pedigree and prospect was doubted, and one source of ire and confusion was his frame. At 6’9″, weighing a 190 pounds playing as a small forward—usually the most versatile player on the court—everybody questioned his survivability against players in his position who were bigger, more skilled like Carmelo Anthony and Andre Iguodala.

This’s where his metamorphosis into the Greek Freak would begin. Throughout his rookie year, he would watch the benchpress bar tremble in his grip, not forgetting how far behind he was, not forgetting how malnourished he was actually coming into the NBA after years of living so close to poverty.

The “Pumping Iron” colorway of the Zoom Freak 1 is an ode to this transformation, an ode to his time in the gym, an ode to the 50 pounds of muscle he would put on, turning from someone who couldn’t do a single chin-up into someone who could bulldoze through three defenders at will.

Special Mention:

UNDEFEATED x Nike Kobe 4 Protro “Bucks

Like many from his generation, Giannis would grow up idolizing Kobe Bryant, to whom the axiom, “never meet your heroes” doesn’t apply. Kobe was very generous with his time and advice talking to the young Buck for over an hour. As ecstatic and in disbelief as he was, Giannis remembers the first playoff game he ever watched back home in the internet cafés with his brothers, was his idol’s playing against the Celtics.

Back in 2017, Kobe Bryant would tweet to players a challenge as part of the #MambaMentality campaign. When Giannis hadn’t received his, he tweeted to his idol, “Still waiting for my challenge… @kobebryant.” Kobe would reply with one word: “MVP.” A foreshadowing.

Aside from the one red and white pair he would share with Thanasis growing up, Giannis would end up wearing plenty of Kobes in his career. He once said he would someday have all the Kobes he could ever want—he got that and then some: even having one pair that’s inspired by him. One of the four UNDEFEATED x Nike Kobe 4 Protro was made for Giannis as part of a collaborative pack in honor of 2019’s Mamba Day.

Giannis has come a long way from having to share one pair of his shoes with Thanasis, to having his own signature line now into its fourth iteration with the incoming Nike Zoom Freak 4.

They couldn’t even play together sometimes because the family could only afford to get one pair of Air Force 1s. Giannis would wear two pairs of socks to fit in into Thanasis’ size 15, then hand them off right after for his older brother’s game. The shoe would wear, the soles would peel, but it didn’t matter. If the shoes could lace up, they could make it work, as they did everything.

As the slogan of our protagonist’s Nike campaign reads, “Fate may have started them from the bottom. Their dreams would take them to the top.”

For Giannis Antetokounmpo, the shoes maketh man—vice versa.