On July 3, the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Atlanta Hawks to advance to the NBA Finals, an accomplishment not seen in the city in almost 50 years. Leading the charge for Milwaukee is the six-foot, eleven-inch Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek-born star is one of the best basketball players in the world today and a global ambassador for the NBA.
The best foreign-born player competing on the league’s biggest stage is the latest apex in the decades-long internationalization of the NBA. The stellar results of that process carry broader conclusions for immigration policy. But first, it’s worth understanding the particular lessons drawn from Antetokounmpo’s compelling journey, which took him from statelessness to global stardom.
Stateless and vulnerable
In December 1994, Giannis Antetokounmpo was born in Athens, Greece, to Nigerian immigrants. His parents arrived in the country without legal status in search of better employment opportunities. While in Greece, Giannis’ family faced the dual threats of potential deportation back to Nigeria and anti-immigrant attitudes within Greek society.
As a teenager, Giannis avoided going out at night for fear of being attacked by members of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party responsible for numerous assaults on immigrants.
Giannis’ parents also struggled to maintain long-term employment due to their legal status, meaning he and his brothers informally sold consumer goods such as watches and hats to keep their family afloat. However, at the age of 13, Giannis would begin to see his family’s fortunes shift dramatically, as Spiros Velliniatis, a coach in the Greek amateur basketball leagues, began scouting him and his brothers (three Antetokounmpo brothers now play in the NBA).
The coach offered to find Giannis’ parents better-paying jobs in exchange for the right to train the brothers full-time — a lifeline provided even though Giannis struggled to dribble a basketball when he began training.
Despite a late start, Giannis’ work ethic and natural gifts would quickly make him one of the most sought-after basketball talents in all of Greece. NBA scouts and executives flocked to the country to see the future star in action. Eventually, Antetokounmpo was drafted 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks at the age of 18.
This accomplishment was nearly undone by the realities of his immigration status, however. Greece does not offer birthright citizenship as it exists in the United States. Instead, Greece requires at least one parent to hold Greek citizenship for the child to receive it. Thus, without papers from Greece or Nigeria, Antetokounmpo was considered stateless — despite having lived in Greece his entire life.
His stateless status threatened to prevent Giannis from traveling to New York for the NBA draft, leaving him with limited options to proceed other than attempting to secure a Nigerian passport. Luckily, the Greek government stepped in to provide citizenship to their budding star before the draft, ensuring that Antetokounmpo would be identified as Greek on the world stage — not Nigerian.
The struggle of Antetokounmpo’s parents to provide for their family reveals the challenges of being undocumented, and even after many barriers had been overcome, this statelessness could have prevented him from ever realizing his immense potential. It is easy, then, to see how a lack of legal status impacts individuals and families without the benefit of a star athlete in their ranks — conditions that apply to millions in the United States.
But the story also highlights an upside of American immigration law. Many of the issues Antetokounmpo faced during his youth derived from Greece’s lack of birthright citizenship — a policy central to the U.S. immigration system since the passage of the 14th Amendment. His tribulations display the value of this policy in the American context, enabling children to live their lives unburdened by immigration decisions their parents made before they were even born.
Slam dunks and soft power
When Antetokounmpo arrived in Milwaukee, the Bucks franchise was worth $300 million. Today, the team is worth $1.6 billion. The whole league is more valuable, thanks in large part to a surge of new stars from diverse backgrounds lifting up teams from mid-size markets like Milwaukee and Denver to major metropolitan areas like Philadelphia and Dallas.
Antetokounmpo might be the most prominent foreign-born NBA player, but the league is now replete with remarkable international talent. For the 2020-2021 season, the NBA had an international player on every roster — in all, 107 from 41 countries as of opening night, including a record 17 Canadians and record-tying 14 Africans. The league announced it was the seventh consecutive season of 100+ players.
One-fourth of the league is now foreign-born. Compare this to the 1991-1992 season when the NBA had just 23 international players from 18 countries.
Antetokounmpo’s status as one of America’s most notable athletes has given him a cult-like following in Greece. The Greek government has even begun to capitalize on his stardom, making him an official national tourism ambassador in 2018. Despite the difficulties they experienced, the Antetokounmpo family still considers Greece to be their home, seeking to use their notoriety to raise awareness of Greek culture abroad while also working to rectify social inequities in the country.
At the same time, Antetokounmpo also recognizes his familial connection to Nigeria — the birthplace of both his parents. Discussing his upbringing, Antetokounmpo stated in 2019 that “when I go home, there is no Greek culture. It’s straight-up Nigerian culture.” In this way, Antetokounmpo identifies as Nigerian-Greek — a cultural mélange commonplace among immigrant communities worldwide.
But it’s not just Greece or Nigeria that benefit from Antetokounmpo’s rise, or even fans of the team he captains. Sports has a unique way of communicating values to broad audiences, and the U.S. also benefits when the pride of Athens or Lagos has roots in Milwaukee. Likewise, through Antetokounmpo, young Nigerian or Greek basketball fans now have an organic connection to the U.S. and a deeper understanding of American culture.
This is meaningful, as organic connections to other countries or cultures can build trust and friendship. It’s easier to connect to the U.S. broadly when foreign fans buy the jersey of their favorite international player with a U.S. city sprawled across the front: Milwaukee or Dallas in the case of Luka Dončić or Denver in the case of Nikola Jokić — two international stars who have won league honors in the last two seasons. Young fans see themselves in their cultural icons and recognize the prestige of these stars playing — and succeeding — on the world’s grandest basketball stage: the U.S.
This is an advantage known as soft power, a term developed and popularized by Joseph Nye. He explains soft power is getting other countries to do what you want because they want to follow your lead: admiring your values or emulating your examples. Nye writes, “Those who deny the importance of soft power are like people who do not understand the power of seduction.”
The Soft Power 30, a comprehensive index that ranks soft-power metrics, explains, “American pop culture is more globally pervasive than any other country’s comparable outputs” and ranks the U.S. first worldwide in the culture category. Musicians, celebrities, and athletes like Antetokounmpo play a major role in the sustained U.S. dominance of this category.
The internationalization of the NBA shows the connection between immigration and soft power, which has helped broaden American attitudes around the world in an era of globalization. This was made possible on this scale because U.S. immigration law allowed foreign players to compete here — and the NBA embraced the diversification of talent. Team owners, fans, and players benefited, but all Americans indirectly gain from global stars propelling the NBA forward.
Seeing the U.S. as an evil foe is difficult for young people when they grow up with a poster of Antetokounmpo on their bedroom wall. Fans abroad wanting to fly to America to see Antetokounmpo play basketball has obvious tangible benefits for the U.S., but less obvious is the real value of fans around the world cheering on a U.S.-based basketball team led by a Nigerian-Greek superstar.
Sports can reduce tensions and facilitate cooperation. It’s soft power coming from the hardwood.
Antetokounmpo’s personal experiences mirror the all-encompassing uncertainty that often defines the experience of undocumented immigrants — no matter where they reside. For every undocumented individual that overcomes the odds to accomplish their goals in life, countless others fall short due to the myriad of obstacles society places in their path.
As Giannis Antetokounmpo takes to the court tonight in Game 6 of the NBA finals — bearing the hopes and dreams of the city of Milwaukee — take note of the outcome when immigrants can fully pursue their potential.
Update: On July 20, the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Phoenix Suns to win the 2021 NBA Championship. Giannis Antetokounmpo became the sixth player in NBA Finals history to score 50 points and unanimously won the 2021 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) award.