Get a Ticket for the Greek Show

The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo is poised for NBA superstardom. Will Wisconsin sports fans notice?

Luc Anthony

FREAK OUT. Giannis Antetokounmpo, center, in action against the Washington Wizards last season.
FREAK OUT. Giannis Antetokounmpo, center, in action against the Washington Wizards last season.
Image: Keith Allison | CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s pronounced “AHN-TEH-to-KOONM-poh.”

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, you now know how to explain the topic of this column to your friend/significant other/child. The topic at hand: how Giannis (pronounced: “YAH-niss”) Antetokounmpo is the next national superstar from a team in Wisconsin.

Giannis – now enough of a star to be referred on a first-name basis by fans – slowly became the focal point long-awaited by the Bucks.

Some eight years ago, I was excited to see a Milwaukee Buck finally transcend the mediocrity that defined most of the team’s 2000s. Brandon Jennings made a flash as a point guard, garnering league-wide – and, perhaps more critically, statewide – attention and bringing more wins than expected to the Bucks record. Alas, the Jennings era declined fairly quickly with injuries and rocky chemistry; the hope was that second-overall 2014 draft pick Jabari Parker would raise the team’s success on a more consistent basis.

In fact, the player who would help the Bucks find glimpses of the basketball promised land had arrived a year earlier. Antetokounmpo was drafted unexpectedly by the franchise; he was Greek, the son of Nigerian immigrants. He was tall and skinny. Given Milwaukee’s draft tendencies around that time, one could be forgiven for being perplexed as to why they would take a flyer on a kid from southeast Europe. I was one of those rolling my eyes at the selection.

To be fair, had we known how Antetokounmpo would develop, he would have been drafted near – or at – the No. 1 slot, but such is the nature of any professional sports draft: All picks are based on projection and what can possibly be known of individuals just becoming adults. The development happened gradually, but steadily.

Eventually his nickname (“The Greek Freak”) took hold as his points total and physical bulk grew with the passing seasons. The feats and honors accumulated: Eastern Conference Player of the Week in his second season, an 11-game stretch with four triple-doubles. (A triple-double happens when a player tallies double digits in three statistical areas – such as points, rebounds, and assists – in a single game.) Giannis – now enough of a star to be referred on a first-name basis by fans – slowly became the focal point long-awaited by the Bucks.

So, a new season has recently started. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the face of his franchise; he finished eighth in NBA Most Valuable Player voting last season, and many observers of the league believe his rankings will continue to rise. One could even see him as this season’s MVP. His performance in games thus far this fall back up that potential. The top player in, arguably, the hottest sports league in the U.S.A. might play for a Badger State team ... and yet we may be missing the fun.

On the sports talk radio show that I co-host, a question is occasionally presented: Where does Giannis rank among the most-popular athletes in Wisconsin? Aaron Rodgers is clearly on top; second-through-fourth place are some combination of Jordy Nelson, Clay Matthews, and Ryan Braun. The Greek Freak? He’s probably fifth, maybe with a case to be fourth. He is a rising star, unlike the established names mentioned before, but while pondering the question, we wondered if he could ever get higher. The Packers dominate this state, and will almost always have dibs on player popularity, while an improving Brewers team may bring names of its own.

Is the reason the difficulty of saying Giannis’ last name? We had one all-timer with a hard-to-pronounce last name in our recent past: It took a couple of years for everyone to avoid saying “Fah-vray” about a certain Packer quarterback. I intentionally led this column with a guide to saying “Antetokounmpo” to help ease the process for us Wisconsinites with our latest superstar sports figure.

The other issue may be those other sports: Despite the followings of Badger basketball and our local prep and college squads, football and baseball are most popular in Wisconsin. Bucks games will sell out, but how much will western Wisconsin fans really care about the NBA? The team has not given much reason for us to care about it for the bulk of the past three decades; can the culture shift?

We have another icon in our midst. Watch and learn: Watch the games, and learn the phonetics. It’s going to be fun to follow the Freak.

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