Giannis wanted to be just like Thanasis. They were extremely close, being the two oldest brothers, aside from Francis, who had remained in Nigeria. Wherever Thanasis was, Giannis was. Whatever Thanasis said, Giannis repeated.
“Nobody is untouchable,” Thanasis would tell Giannis. “The tallest towers in the world can still get torn down.”
Thirteen-year-old Giannis internalized those phrases, would repeat them over and over. Then he’d put them into practice, guarding Thanasis, who was much stronger, much more physical. Thanasis dominated him then, but the lesson was clear: never back down from anyone.
Thanasis would foul Giannis, put an elbow in his back in the post. Rough him up. Thanasis learned toughness from their father. Once, Charles argued with Thanasis when he saw him playing casually in the neighborhood, taking it way too easy on his opponents. “What you are doing is not right,” Charles said. “Do not let the other guy breathe! If you want to be great, it all starts with the way you think.”
Both brothers were mentally tough, but they had different demeanors: Thanasis was gregarious, Giannis quiet. Thanasis acted on instinct; Giannis was more thoughtful about his choices. But each always seemed to know what the other was thinking. How the other was feeling. “I think of both of them like a fist—one fist together,” says Michalis Kamperidis, Giannis’s former Filathlitikos and U-20 national-team teammate and close friend to this day. “They inspired each other.”
Most knew Thanasis as the talented basketball player in the family; Giannis was still known as Thanasis’s brother. The tagalong kid brother in Thanasis’s shadow. Which was perfectly OK with Giannis because he idolized his big brother.
Thanasis saw potential in Giannis, though he knew Giannis had a ways to go. “It wasn’t like I watched him and I was like, ‘Oh, I knew that Giannis was going to be good.’ No,” Thanasis says. “But we believed in each other.”
Thanasis would never let his younger brother believe that he could beat him, though. Besides, Giannis was still too slight to shove back, to compete; he was still learning to get used to contact, muscling his way to the basket. He shied away every time, almost afraid of anyone touching him.
Oftentimes, though, the two couldn’t play at the same time because they had to share sneakers. The family only had enough money for one pair. Giannis would have to wear two pairs of socks to fit snugly into Thanasis’s size 15 shoes for his own game, then hand them off for Thanasis’s game right after, as he was playing in the older division. Their games were often on Tuesday nights, back-to-back.
After a while, the shoes would be worn down, the soles peeling, but it didn’t matter to either of them. If the shoes laced up, it could work. They made anything work.
The brothers shared everything, from T-shirts to shorts to pants to socks. “Whatever didn’t fit me, [younger brother] Alex would take,” [younger brother] Kostas says. “Whatever didn’t fit Giannis, I would take.”
They also slept in the same room: two on a bunk bed, two on an adjacent couch. Thanasis would force Alex and Kostas to sleep on the creaky bunk bed because they were younger. Alex and Kostas didn’t want to sleep there, but whatever their older brothers told them to do, they did.
“Our household never had something that was individual to somebody,” Alex says. “Everything that we had was for everybody. That’s why there wasn’t that many arguments between us, because when you don’t have stuff that’s individual to you, and you share everything, it’s like, what is there to fight about?”
They’d split food, often one souvlaki between them, each taking a bite before handing it to the next, cracking jokes about whatever happened that day. They managed to always find something to smile about, Kostas recalls, because they learned the difference between want and need. Stopped thinking about what they wanted. Stopped thinking about what they didn’t have—they focused on gratitude for what they did have. “You might think you have it bad; then somebody right next to you has it worse,” Kostas says.
They managed to always find something to smile about, Kostas recalls, because they learned the difference between want and need.
Their parents taught them to value what they had. Never made them feel less than. “My parents gave me everything while having nothing at the same time,” Alex says. “If you would have asked me what I wanted, I would have said this and this and that. But if you would have asked me what I need? I don’t need anything but my family.”
They all knew if they had each other, they would somehow be OK. Someone was always there to listen, to offer advice. To laugh with. Alongside so much pain, so much uncertainty, was joy.
Sometimes, after playing together for hours, the boys would head to Filathlitikos’s court in Zografou for practice. They often didn’t have money for bus tickets, so they walked the ten miles, round trip. It would take at least two hours. That was even more difficult to do after having played—oftentimes on an empty stomach. But they’d walk and joke, making a game out of each step. Thankful for the legs that allowed them to walk, to jump, they kept moving.
“Whenever we were together, we always had fun,” Kostas says.
Especially when Veronica cooked. She put her soul into every dish, any kind of rice, but especially fufu, a traditional African dish that she’d serve with a stew or soup. The boys loved it. Loved eating together. Just being together.
And Veronica wasn’t the only one who could cook in the house. “My dad used to cook better than my mom. He’d be killing it,” Kostas says, laughing. “He used to make meat pies.”
In those rare moments when Veronica wasn’t working, or cooking, or strategizing the family’s next move, she played basketball with her boys outside. They’d challenge her to shoot three-pointers. The only thing she couldn’t do was dunk.
Watching her smile, even just for an hour, was a joy no one could take away from the boys.
Giannis, around 13, and Thanasis, around 15, began street-vending on their own, sans parents. The first time they went alone, they had fun walking in the sun for five hours straight, joking around, fighting, getting mad at each other, making up, joking again. They made nearly $150, an astounding amount, on one of those days. Charles and Veronica were so happy. So proud.
Then they’d go do it again the next day. It was a grind. Sometimes they’d make just ten dollars, selling a toy, a watch, but it was enough to not starve that day. And that was considered a good day.
After a long day’s work, sometimes Thanasis would look at Giannis and say, “Let’s do something with our lives so we never have to do this again.”
Thanasis was starting to find his own friends, often leaving Giannis with Kostas and Alex. So even though Giannis was still quite young, he became the leader of his brothers. Giannis seemed older than he was. Wherever Giannis said they were going, Kostas and Alex went. No lip, no question.
They were in awe of Giannis.
Giannis didn’t tell Kostas and Alex how badly they were struggling as a family. He wouldn’t tell them, We don’t have food. We can’t pay the rent tomorrow. You can’t hang out with your friend because we gotta work. Those things would cross his mind, but he didn’t want his brothers to feel afraid. To feel pain.
Giannis would convey what was happening with his eyes. He would give Alex and Kostas this look. This disappointed look that explained what words couldn’t when Alex used to ask for frivolous things, like a PlayStation 2. Giannis’s face would tighten. His eyes, deep and brown and piercing, would deliver: You know we can’t get that.
So Alex and Kostas learned to stop asking. To hide wanting. Giannis did too. He wanted a TV more than anything but hid his desires. His father often told him, “Always want more, but never be greedy.”
“We were so close as a family it doesn’t sound real: ‘Your family don’t argue? You don’t go through issues?’ We really didn’t go through no major issues,” Alex says. “Our main problems were financial. Just being able to stand on our feet and keep up with our surroundings.”
They didn’t have the option of not making it. They had to make it. Somehow. And Giannis would make sure of it. Do whatever he had to do to make sure of it. To make sure he did not have to see Alex’s crestfallen look one more time.
You know we can’t get that.
The boys were coming to Filathlitikos practice a bit more, but the real fun happened on the outside court, Tritonas court in Sepolia. Nestled among some stores, just a few minutes away from the family’s home, the court became their refuge. Sometimes their friends would come too, and they’d play late into the evening in the summers, if they weren’t preoccupied with a long selling trip for the next day.
There, they didn’t have to think about money. They could just play. Make fun of each other for shooting air balls. “They loved it,” Veronica says. “They loved playing basketball.” She always knew her sons would accomplish something. She didn’t know if they’d stick with basketball or pursue soccer, but she could see a bright future when she looked at them. She never pressured them to do anything, but she wanted to help them in whatever they chose.
The boys thought Charles was the most successful man in the world, even though some days he didn’t have a euro in his pocket.
And they loved when their dad would join them. Charles was about 43, able to dunk the ball—and he had never played basketball in his life. He didn’t really know how to play—he’d travel all over the place, commit all sorts of dribbling violations—but somehow, he’d rise up to the rim and hammer the ball home, leaving his boys in awe.
When Charles wasn’t playing with them, he was encouraging them. When they’d have a bad game, he’d soothe them by telling them, “Tomorrow is another day. Let go of the past. Just keep working.”
The boys thought Charles was the most successful man in the world, even though some days he didn’t have a euro in his pocket.
Giannis was far from a leader on his Filathlitikos team. He didn’t really fit in. He towered over everyone. His arms were so lanky he could gather two, three, teammates under his wingspan. He was still learning the basics. Even his classmates at school wouldn’t pick him for half-court games; that motivated him to one day be so good that he could choose not to play with them.
Giannis did show potential, though: he was naturally athletic and innovative in the open floor, which was not as common at the time. Greek basketball tended to be more possession oriented in the half-court set—pass, pass, pass for the best shot.
Then there were more obvious differences between him and his peers. “People didn’t even know what his name was. It was something like ‘You have to see that tall Black guy from Filathlitikos,’” says Alexandros Trigas, former assistant coach for Panathinaikos’s U-18 team, which played against Giannis and Filathlitikos. He’s now a journalist for Sport24.gr. “We didn’t have anything like him.”
Giannis had a chance to flourish under Zivas’s system because Zivas’s team didn’t play traditional Greek basketball. Zivas wanted his teams to run a fast break, play fast in transition. Generate as many possessions as possible. “He gives his players a lot of freedom,” says Dedas, the Greek coach now at the helm of Hapoel Holon. “It’s up-tempo, and Greek basketball is not a high-tempo game. In Greece, what we like to play is the big man coming to set the pick and roll.”
Instead of molding players into his system, Zivas molded his system around the kind of players he had. At the same time, Zivas was strict and instilled discipline. He taught fundamentals—how to finish around the rim, how to correctly pivot. But during games, he let his players be more creative. “He’s different from other coaches because he trusts the players,” says Konstantinos, Giannis’s former Filathlitikos teammate. “He lets the players do what they want to do.”
Giannis’s length and speed were perfect for Zivas’s improvisational system. He started to grab rebounds and take off downcourt. He didn’t have to pass the ball to the point guard; he was the point guard. And then sometimes he was the small forward. Or the power forward. Zivas never made him choose.
Zivas didn’t just let Giannis have free rein, though. The kid needed guidance. Zivas was happy to play that role. Almost like a father figure would. He’d try to help him come out of his shell. Be more talkative. “He treats me like his own child,” Giannis later told Sport24.gr. “He made me love basketball.”
He didn’t love basketball just yet, though. And Zivas couldn’t control Giannis’s whereabouts. He was patient when Giannis would leave, then return. Leave, then return. He understood what Giannis and his family were going through. But then Giannis started leaving for longer periods of time. At one point, Velliniatis, who was still an assistant coach with the team, couldn’t find Giannis for four weeks. “Giannis stopped coming,” Velliniatis says.
Velliniatis was sure Giannis was a lost cause. The boy quit for good, he thought. Zivas urged Velliniatis to not give up. To do something. Velliniatis agreed. He went to Giannis’s family’s apartment for one last plea. He bought Giannis a book: a biography of soccer legend Diego Maradona. He knew Giannis still wished he could become a pro soccer player, and when he saw the book at a local bazaar, he had to snag it for him.
Giannis opened the door, and Velliniatis walked in, sat down. He handed Giannis the book. “This is you,” Velliniatis said, pointing to Maradona on the cover. “You are the Maradona of basketball.”
Giannis was quiet. Didn’t say anything at first. Maradona seemed worlds apart, but Velliniatis kept talking. Kept trying to convince him to come back to basketball. “It will give you a better quality of life,” Velliniatis told him. “You should not be afraid of any consequences for abandoning the team again. Just come back.”
Giannis did come back. Velliniatis wasn’t sure if Giannis had read the book, but that didn’t matter; he was back. Zivas saw Giannis’s determination come back too. “He was all the time focused,” Zivas says. “He was passionate.”
So passionate that he kept trying to dunk. It wasn’t enough that he had “dunked” at that national training camp. This time, he wanted to dunk dunk. Stuff it down with authority. He spent hours after every practice clutching the ball at the free throw line, trying to get his footwork down to accelerate to the rim. Again, he kept coming up short. Messing up his steps. Or softly tapping the ball in. But he kept trying, and eventually, he threw down a real dunk.
He was proud of himself. But he still struggled physically in terms of holding his ground. More often than not, opponents clobbered him. “He was really weak,” says Gkikas, his Filathlitikos teammate and close friend. “That was his main problem. He was there to fight. But it was like 100 kilos versus 60 kilos. So from the beginning, it was a very difficult fight for him. But he never gave up.”
Once, Filathlitikos was playing against Panathinaikos’s U-18 team, a rivalry game for the two clubs, especially since Panathinaikos had a player named Vasilis Charalampopoulos, who was considered one of the most talented at his age and who now plays for Olympiacos. Giannis would often guard him, as well as another standout, Georgios Diamantakos, who stood almost seven feet tall.
One of those games, Diamantakos kept posting Giannis up, again and again. “Giannis was not so strong,” says Diamantakos, who now plays for Apollon Patras. But offensively, Giannis was grabbing the rebound, even doing Eurosteps, which would come to be his signature move years later. “We couldn’t reach him. It was like he was dancing,” Diamantakos says.
Still, Diamantakos had his way with him. That made Giannis more determined, and he started fighting back. Started blocking shots. “That was his talent,” Diamantakos says. “That’s what we were afraid of: his long arms. When he jumped? That was it.”
Giannis had a passion for defense. Genuinely enjoyed it, while other players groaned at having to bend low, having to sprint back. But defense was something Giannis could always control; he could always control how hard he played. How much he cared.
And he started to care a whole lot more than he had when he first started playing. Back when he didn’t want to be caught anywhere near a basketball court. After the team would finish a 9 am practice, everyone would go home, rest, eat, and return at 5 pm for a second training session. They’d come back to the court and see the same thing every time: “Giannis haven’t left the court,” says Saloustros, the Filathlitikos teammate and close friend.
That rubbed off on other players. “He was working so hard—and made me work hard,” says Kamperidis, Giannis’s other Filathlitikos teammate and close friend, who now plays for the Greek club Larisa.
Giannis started to get closer to his teammates. They realized he was loyal, smart. Kind, hardworking. Really funny. Goofy. “Sometimes he would make really bad jokes,” Saloustros says, laughing. “We love him because his soul is a little kid.” Meaning he was genuine. Didn’t care about looking cool. “He makes you laugh because he’s adorable,” Saloustros says. “You cannot say anything to him back, like ‘Come on, Giannis—stop it,’ but he will make you laugh again some other way.”
They were surprised by how polite Giannis was. When addressing his teammates or speaking of them in conversation, Giannis would preface their names with “Mister”—Mr. Christos, Mr. Nikos. They’d tell him to stop since they were all the same age. There was no need for such formalities. But Giannis insisted. It was a sign of respect. Which is why he also spoke in the plural to them, another Greek sign of respect usually reserved for elders.
Giannis often did things he wasn’t asked to, like mopping the court after practice. He saw that the court was dirty, dusty, and he’d find the mop and push it across the surface of the entire floor, up and back, up and back. He didn’t do it in front of his teammates. Didn’t do it in front of his coaches. They accidentally found him mopping one day and were stunned.
Giannis didn’t want credit. He just wanted to show his team that he cared for them. Because they were looking out for not just him but his entire family.
It took him time to open up to his teammates. To trust them. Giannis didn’t ordinarily trust people outside his family. He was a Black migrant in a majority-white country. Police often patrolled, stopping immigrants. So he learned from a young age to keep things to himself. Keep quiet. Just in case. “He trusts maybe five to ten people, even now,” Gkikas says. “Some things build your character that you cannot get rid of as time goes by.” But “Giannis is not shy,” Veronica says, smiling. It takes her son time to figure out who is worthy of confiding in.
Giannis didn’t want credit. He just wanted to show his team that he cared for them.
Gkikas sensed that Giannis began to really trust him about a year into their friendship, when he’d give Kostas and Alex money, maybe five euros, to go to the Sepolia market to buy a yogurt, souvlaki, or a piece of fruit. Whatever they wanted. Gkikas would ask the younger two brothers to get him a Gatorade even though he didn’t need one. He just wanted to use the Gatorade as an excuse to get them to the market so that they could buy food for themselves.
But Kostas and Alex took the trip to the market very seriously. They insisted on bringing back the change to Gkikas each time. They also made sure to bring him back the receipt, though Gkikas never asked for one. Kostas and Alex didn’t want Gkikas to think that they were taking advantage of him. “I just gave them money and said, ‘It’s yours,’” Gkikas says. “They were proud guys. They’d never accept this.”
Gkikas didn’t care about their pride. He kept giving them whatever he had. He just didn’t want to see them go home from practice hungry. Especially little Alex. It tugged at Gkikas, seeing the look in Alex’s eyes when Alex would watch him eat.
And Gkikas himself was not loaded with money. None of the teammates were. “We weren’t any rich guys,” Gkikas says. But he, along with Saloustros, Kamperidis, and other teammates and their families, would try to help as much as possible. They’d give the brothers their old Nike shoes or shirts or jerseys. “We understood their situation. We saw the brothers had the potential to become something great, but they were lacking the money to do it, so we were providing them with whatever we could so they could have a more decent lifestyle,” Gkikas says.
Saloustros’s mother would sneak Giannis an extra banana or Gatorade before practice. “We were sharing everything that we have,” Saloustros says. “There was so much people looking out for him, not because everybody expected that he will become this that he is now, but because of his character and of him just being Giannis.”
Kamperidis’s mother would make Giannis rice, which he loved, and pasta, with small cookies for dessert. Another favorite was soutzoukakia, a Greek baked-meatball dish. He and Kamperidis grew closer because they had similar personalities: both quiet, both grinders. Giannis began to confide in him about his family, about his fears. “We love each other,” Kamperidis says.
The team didn’t help Giannis because they wanted something in return. “We are family,” Gkikas says. “He’s a human being; he needs something, and we’re going to give it to him. We did it from the bottom of our hearts. Nothing but love.
“I speak for my teammates and I,” Gkikas continues. “Even if Giannis hadn’t made it to the NBA, we’d do it again.”
When the team won games, they’d all go out to eat at a souvlaki tavern in Zografou and have souvlaki and gyros. Giannis loved the pita gyros koble with tzatziki, tomato, onions, and pork. He usually had two of them with Coke.
But as much as his teammates and their families tried to help, it was never enough. Giannis would almost always give the food or money to his parents, his brothers. They were all still barely scraping by.
Excerpted from GIANNIS: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP by Mirin Fader. Copyright © 2021. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.