A hunger for a better life may lead to the NBA for Adetokunbo

Dreaming Big: Analysts predict that Adetokunbo’s name will be called in the first round of the draft on thursday

Written by New York Times | Athens | Published: June 27, 2013 3:51 am

His new passport says he is Greek,but Giannis Adetokunbo has lived a struggling immigrant’s life. He has peddled goods on city streets to feed himself and his brothers. While other families ferried off on island vacations,his often changed apartments in search of cheaper rent.

Yet Adetokunbo,18,stands out from the hundreds of thousands of immigrants trying to survive in Greece. He was born here. He speaks Greek fluently. He completed Greek schooling. He recently became a Greek citizen.

Adetokunbo (pronounced a-det-o-KOON-bo),a 6-foot-9 son of Nigerian parents,also plays basketball. Very well. That is what NBA scouts say. They flocked to Greece and buzzed about his ball-handling,his court vision and his decision-making.

Analysts at DraftExpress.com and HoopsWorld.com,among others,predict that Adetokunbo’s name will be called,perhaps mispronounced,in the first round of the NBA draft on Thursday. If Adetokunbo eventually develops into anything like his favourite player,Kevin Durant,some NBA team will be happy it took a chance on such a mysterious prospect.

Other Greek stars worked their way up through youth national teams and joined top professional clubs like Panathinaikos and Olympiacos. Adetokunbo,essentially stateless before he received his passport in May,has never played above Greece’s second division. He grew up at a tiny club called Filathlitikos,which took him in six years ago,back when he still shared a bedroom with his three brothers and preferred football.

He has signed to play in Spain next season,unless an NBA team has different plans for him after the draft. Passport in hand,he also has begun playing with the Greek national under-20 team.

But Adetokunbo sometimes put basketball aside to help his family. Like other immigrants to Greece,his parents struggled to find work. Adetokunbo and his older brother,Thanasis,would help out by hawking watches,bags and sunglasses. In doing so,they jeopardised their roster spots because they were missing practices. They also missed meals. “Sometimes,our fridge was empty,” said Adetokunbo. “Some days,we didn’t sell the stuff and we didn’t have money to feed ourselves.” The good days brought “just enough,” he said,to make the rent,pay a water or electric bill,or buy food.

The young maestro kept growing. Annual team photos in the Filathlitikos gym show that Adetokunbo was several inches shorter than his teammate and older brother,Thanasis,as recently as two years ago. Thanasis,20,is a 6-foot-7 forward with NBA aspirations of his own.

Scouts arrived for Giannis this season,as well as NBA executives,including the general managers Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder,Danny Ferry of the Atlanta Hawks and Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets. The Toronto Raptors’ new general manager,Masai Ujiri,a Nigerian,visited while he was working for the Denver Nuggets.

Danny Ainge,the Boston Celtics’ president for basketball operations,watched Adetokunbo collect 19 points,9 rebounds and 2 blocks in a victory over Volos on March 30. Ainge’s assistant at the time,Ryan McDonough,who is the new general manager of the Phoenix Suns,was also there.

Adetokunbo played on two Filathlitikos teams. With the men’s team,he was primarily a small forward and averaged 9.5 points and 5 rebounds. He shot 31 percent from 3-point range. He was the point guard for the club’s youth team,which was among the best in Greece.

“He’s on the right track,” Kornel David,then the Suns’ director of international scouting,said after watching Adetokunbo play in April. “Guys who are 6-9 with that kind of skill set,especially at that age,there’s not many around.”

Even if he is drafted,it is possible Adetokunbo will need another season in Europe. His contract with Zaragoza in Spain’s top league,beginning next season,is worth a total of $325,000 over three years,with a club option for a fourth season,at another $325,000. It includes NBA and Euroleague buyouts each season,beginning this summer.

Family support

Wherever he ends up,Adetokunbo’s parents and younger brothers are probably going with him. His younger brothers Kostas,15,and Alex,11,are avid basketball players. Kostas is a 6-foot-3 shooting guard,and Alex already shows excellent ball-handling skills as a point guard.

Adetokunbo said he was proud that he could support the family. His parents,Veronica and Charles,have struggled to find work in recession-battered Greece.

But the work was rarely steady. They had to change apartments several times,although they managed to stay in Sepolia so the children would not have to switch schools. They once were evicted for failing to pay their $455 rent,Veronica said.

When they began playing basketball,Giannis and Thanasis took turns using one pair of sneakers. Soon,their athletic prowess impressed everyone. Their mother had been a high-jumper and their father had briefly played professional football. The boys earned first-place medals at school and church competitions in everything from table tennis to volleyball.

“They loved competition,” said Alex Matsagas,18,who was a classmate of Giannis’s. “That’s how they made it through. They were fighters.” But first,Velliniatis,who was helping Filathlitikos find talent,had to persuade them to try basketball.

“He said,‘Play one month,just for fun,maybe you’ll like it,’ ” Thanasis said. “I loved it. My brother was like: ‘No,please,don’t play basketball. Come with me and play football.’ He wanted us to be together in every sport we played. Then he started coming and playing. And that was it.”

For all the latest News Archive News, download Indian Express App

    Live Cricket Scores & Results