Giannis Antetokounmpo leans against a table at the Bucks practice facility in downtown Milwaukee and watches a boy dribble. The boy's legs turn into scissors as he slices a basketball between them. A white band that says "God is here" dangles from the boy's wrist, seeming to further lengthen his 7'2" wingspan. He is 6'7" and crafty. Energetic. Probably because he knows Giannis is watching.
He yearns to impress Giannis, and Giannis in turn sees in him a younger version of himself. A slimmer version of himself.
The boy starts toward the hoop from the three-point line and softly lays the ball in. Too softly. Giannis' eyes narrow. His shoulders stiffen. There's a sense of urgency. Always is when he watches 17-year-old Alex Antetokounmpo, his youngest brother, the one he nurtures, protects and mentors, almost like a father would. "I get more nervous going to watch Alex play in a high school game than playing in the Eastern Conference Finals," Giannis says, his head tilting, tracking the flight of Alex's next jumper on this June afternoon.
When the two are together, the court turns into a cocoon. A place just for them. A place where they do not have to think about grief or pressure or money or failure. Giannis is trying to teach Alex discipline and focus—to not get distracted by anyone or anything outside of the cocoon.
"It's just me," Giannis says, pointing to his chest, "and you." He points to Alex's chest. "Nobody else. Just me and you."
He often tells Alex what it feels like to play in front of 20,000 people screaming insults, trying to get in his head: He knows his brother, a soon-to-be senior in high school and projected first-rounder in the 2021 NBA draft, might soon face the same.
"Lock that shit out!" Giannis says. "It's just me and you."
When Giannis speaks to Alex, most often in Greek, he is blunt but empathetic. Intense but warm.
Prophetic, almost. Sure of the plan he's created for his brothers since they grew up in the Sepolia neighborhood of Athens, where their parents, Charles and Veronica Adetokunbo, had immigrated from Nigeria. Giannis assures Alex that if he works hard, if he gives everything, he can get to the NBA, just as three of his brothers did: Thanasis, 27, recently signed a two-year deal with the Bucks after spending last season in EuroLeague; and Kostas, 21, plays for the Mavericks. And not just get there, but star there.
"I definitely think Alex can be better than me," says Giannis, 24, who was named the league's MVP this past season after leading Milwaukee to a league-best 60 wins and then to its first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals since 2001. "He stays motivated. He wants this. That's what makes him special. He's not satisfied."
Like Giannis, who is nicknamed the "Greek Freak," Alex is known for his remarkable athleticism and versatility. He handles the ball like a guard and loves shooting the three. He'll throw down a dunk in transition but has a European flair to him, able to float through all the positions and create in the half-court set. "He's so far ahead of everyone else as far as overall talent," says Jim Gosz, Alex's coach at Dominican High School. "He shows signs of greatness at times."
When he wants to. When he isn't questioning himself. Or the plan. It's complicated. Alex wants to be his own man. Alex wants to be a combination of his brothers. The dream is his. The dream is theirs. "My end goal is not to be better than Giannis," Alex says. "My end goal is to be the best version of my own self. I just happen to think that the best version of my own self could possibly surpass what my brother's doing right now, which—I don't even think that's the best version of him."
So Alex stays in the gym. Hardly takes breaks. "I have to tell him: 'Alex, come home. Come and eat,'" Veronica says. But he doesn't want to. He wants to play with Giannis. Nobody pushes Alex harder than Giannis. Nobody cheers louder for Alex than Giannis. "Just trust me," Giannis often tells him. "I've been in your shoes. You got this."
The time together is for Giannis' sake, too. After the two work out, the sharp parts of Giannis soften. He and Alex laugh and laugh. Share the same hearty, cheesy laugh, too—the kind that starts in the belly and ends in tears.
Sometimes Giannis looks at Alex and glows. Full of pride, full of love. And fear. He wants to protect Alex. He wants him to understand that he will fail but also that the certainty of failure does not mean he can get complacent. He wants to teach him to not care what people think. To choose friends wisely. To avoid social media. To take care of his body. To drink more water, less lemon-lime Gatorade. To be fundamentally sound. To cry when he needs to. To respect the game. To learn from his own mistakes. To respect himself. To uplift their mother, always. To know that luxury cars, diamonds and mansions do not make a man worthy.
He feels a responsibility that goes beyond being an older brother.
He has to.
Rain settles on the thin trees surrounding the family's brick home. Tall branches form a canopy over a narrow lane leading to the place where Giannis, Alex, Veronica and Mariah Riddlesprigger, Giannis' girlfriend, live. This affluent suburb in Milwaukee is quiet. Peaceful. An elderly couple holds hands while walking their shih tzu in the middle of the road.
Mariah opens the door and Mila, the family's Goldendoodle, jumps up and down, almost leaping outside onto the gold doormat stamped with a giant black "A" in the center. "Mila just wants to say hi," Mariah says, laughing. Inside, there is a sign that says "Family" in cursive, as well as a print that reads: "Turn your worries into prayer."
Alex is downstairs in the basement, sitting on a couch in front of four flat-screen TVs. There's a pool table, air hockey, foosball, table tennis. A popcorn machine and scattered basketballs and trophies. There are boxes still to unpack, as the family moved here just a few months back. They used to live downtown, near Fiserv Forum, where the Bucks play. They've moved five times since coming to the U.S. in 2013, when Giannis was drafted 15th overall by the Bucks.
A lot has changed. Giannis preserves each change through framed photos. There's a 2013 piece titled "American Dream" from a Greek magazine. "You see this in the seats every time you fly in and out of Greece," Alex says, beaming. There's also a portrait of the court in Greece where the brothers used to play. "It's a reminder: That's where we started from."
The basement is Alex's spot. Where he goes to think. To play video games. To stare at the handful of framed jerseys from his older brothers, wondering when he will earn a spot on the cream-colored walls. There's Thanasis' Greek All-Star Game jersey and Kostas' Mavericks jersey. There's Giannis' NBA All-Star Game jerseys, the jersey he wore when torching the 76ers for 52 in March and his first-ever Greek national team jersey, blue and white. Giannis had all his brothers sign it. Giannis might not own a more meaningful jersey, even though the adjacent wall showcases signed jerseys from some of his friends: Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade and Vince Carter.
Alex doesn't feel worthy of pinning his high school jersey on the wall, he says; he's waiting for his NBA jersey. He points to a block of blank space: "That's the spot for me."
He feels certain he will be on that wall.
He feels uncertain if he will be on that wall.
"I second-guess myself a lot," Alex says.
That is to say, he is a normal 17-year-old kid.
But he is not a normal 17-year-old kid.
He doesn't travel like one. Sometimes he doesn't get home until after midnight, after spending nights at Giannis' games. Then he shows up for an 8 a.m. workout, banana in hand, before going to school, then practice, then back to the Bucks facility. His schedule is exhausting, but he is not exhausted. At least, he says he's not. He doesn't open up to many, and he hides fatigue.
So he straddles two worlds: pro and high school—not yet ready for the former, too advanced for the latter, unsure of where to go in between. Overseas? G League? College? He doesn't have answers yet. Doesn't have his driver's license yet. He has a Notes memo on his iPhone with his summer AAU schedule and Giannis' schedule. Not a day is unplanned. Atlanta...Greece...China...Orlando...to name a few trips. "And think about all of the stuff that's gonna pop up last minute," Alex says, chewing a Twizzler. "It's like, somewhere in there, we gotta fit a family vacation, you know?"
Alex thinks a lot about time. How little he has of it. How determined he is to maximize it. How fearful he is that time could take away someone he loves.
He knows what that feels like. "The most important thing in this world is time," Alex says. And this is the most important year of his life, where he must separate himself on the court. "It's kind of like a rollercoaster," he says. "The expectations are getting much higher. It's time for me to produce. I either produce or I don't, which, my brother [Giannis] always says: 'You could be a kid but play like you're a man.' So, I'm at a point where I'm a kid, but my mindset is kind of shifted towards being a man."
It has to be, as every second crawls closer toward the 2021 draft. Will he make it? Will he not make it? He's eager to silence critics. Why is he even trying? He can just live off his brothers, Alex hears often. He's never going to be as good as them.
His phone rings, and he leans back on the basement couch. "Hello?" Alex says in Greek. He nods his head. A minute later: "All's good," he says, again in Greek, smiling. "OK, bye." He hangs up. "Sorry, that was my brother." Giannis wanted to know how Alex was doing and if he needed anything.
Giannis is upstairs.
Alex was chubby and slow when he first started playing at age nine, in Greece. But he had heart. A lot of heart. He'd dive on the floor. Pull shirts. Foul if he couldn't catch someone on a fast break. He'd cry when he'd lose. Friends called him emotional, but he was just passionate. He had handles but couldn't shoot. He'd pull from the corner, swear the ball was going in, lean back like it was going in. Clank. The ball would ricochet off the top of the backboard.
"He couldn't really hang," Kostas says, "but he was really competitive." And nervous. So nervous for his first game in Greece that he passed the ball off every time he caught it. Wouldn't even look at the basket. "Terrible," Alex says. "I tried to overdo it because I was so scared to mess up…because I knew I was going to be playing basketball for a long time."
Because of his brothers. Because he didn't want to disappoint them. Because he wanted to be them. Because even though the world didn't know about them yet, they were already famous in Alex's head. They were his heroes. His motivation, his measuring stick. He'd watch Thanasis hammer a thunderous dunk and wonder if he'd ever possess that kind of athleticism. He'd watch Giannis jab step with such force, such precision, and he'd question whether he'd ever attack with that kind of tenacity. He'd watch Kostas time a blocked shot so perfectly on a fast break and wonder if he'd ever be quick enough, smart enough, to defend like that.
But Alex was driven. Mesmerized by the way Kostas spun a ball on his index finger, eight-year-old Alex spun and spun, day after day, failing so many times his fingernail broke off one afternoon. He kept trying. Wouldn't stop until he could spin.
Then there was the gate to the court that the brothers played on growing up. It would be locked during summers, so the only way to play was to climb over. It was 11 feet high. Alex was terrified of heights, but somehow he'd find a way over, no matter how many times he'd cut his arm on the gate's wire, which sometimes left him with a scar. He had to show his brothers he could climb over.
Alex was curious: watching, questioning, absorbing everything his brothers did and said. Every day they'd all leave school, walk 20 minutes to the train station, hop on a train, then hop on another train, then walk 20 minutes, then take a bus, just to get to their team's gym for practice. They didn't have a choice but to be devoted, given the economic turmoil in Greece. Their parents struggled to find steady employment. Money was scarce.
They'd laugh at other kids who said they played the game for fun. The Antetokounmpos believed basketball could save them. Save their mom from having to sell CDs, DVDs, sunglasses, watches, "anything," Veronica says, at the Laikh market in Sepolia on Wednesdays to make ends meet. To save Giannis from having to give Alex that look. That disappointed look that explained what words couldn't when little Alex used to ask for frivolous things, like the new PlayStation 2. Giannis' face would tighten. His eyes, deep and piercing, would deliver: You know we can't get that.
So Alex learned to stop asking. To hide wanting. To grasp the difference between want and need. He realized he didn't need anything but his parents' embrace. His brothers' love. They had fun together. Two slept on the bunk bed, two slept on the couch. "My parents gave me everything while having nothing at the same time," Alex says.
Alex felt his brothers' disappointments acutely, as if they were his own. Like the time Thanasis signed with Maroussi BC to play in the top Greek league, only to have financial issues wipe out the team before he could play for it. Watching that sliver of hope dissolve was devastating. "That was the first little bit of success that we'd seen. It put us at the top, then knocked us down," Alex says. Then there was the time Giannis and Thanasis' team lost by four points in double overtime in a game that would have propelled them to become a top-tier team, which could have changed the family's finances. They cried afterward.
As a kid, Alex saw potential and pain in that orange leather ball. That ball could be the difference between a good and bad day, between having and not having. Some nights, everything they dreamed of doing with that ball seemed just out of reach.
Giannis wouldn't accept that, though. He pushed all of them in drills—even his older brothers, and especially Alex. That's when he started telling Alex that one day he could be better than him. Alex didn't dare question his brother. Giannis was practically a Greek god. His own Hercules. But Alex just looked at Giannis' body, then back at his own, and thought, How?
At the same time, Alex's head swelled as his skills improved by age 11. He started thinking he was really good just because he was bigger than the other kids. Giannis wouldn't tolerate that. Though just a teenager, Giannis had a determination to make the NBA—to lift his family from one continent to another—that could not be shaken. So he would not allow his youngest brother to become complacent.
One day, Giannis told Alex that there are a lot more players in the world, in other countries, in America, who are good at basketball. Who are great at basketball. Better than him. Better than any of them.
"There's so much more out there," Giannis said. "You have to keep working."
Giannis was 18 when he was drafted to the NBA. He didn't know he was supposed to wear a suit. He didn't know where Milwaukee was. But he was elated, determined. All those years of hustling were about to pay off. His younger brothers would have to adapt, too. Kostas began high school. Alex was 12. He didn't know a word of English. "You're either going to work extra hard to understand what people are saying or you're going to be left out," Alex says.
It was not the first time he felt like an outsider. Was made to feel different. The family was not often accepted by neighbors, by people in Athens, as Greek-Nigerians. "You could tell, when people would talk to everyone else but you," Alex says.
And upon moving to America, Alex had to adjust quickly to new surroundings. Everything was much bigger. McDonald's every couple miles (he remembers two in all of Athens). Wide roads with GMCs and Escalades (Greece's roads, and cars, were narrow and tiny). Life began to accelerate. Really fast. More fame, more fans. The family couldn't move as freely as it once did. Giannis had transformed from a lanky, hopeful prospect to flesh-and-blood savior. "It was like he went from, 'Oh you might be that dude,' to 'Oh, you're Giannis."
Alex was mindful, he says, that even though his brother had signed a deal worth millions, "Whatever is given to you can also be taken away from you." That was terrifying. He and his brothers used to joke: What if we all went to sleep and woke up and we were back where we started? Underneath the laughter was fear. Profound fear. So Alex thought deeply about every purchase, ensuring that he found the best quality for the cheapest price.
Attending St. Monica School, an affluent private school, when he first moved to Milwaukee, Alex was amazed how quickly his classmates would decide they wanted to buy clothes or shoes at the mall, and then buy the item. "It was crazy," he says. "The biggest jump in social class ever." One of his new friends had a full basketball court in his backyard. "How can one country have one or two courts in the whole area and then in the U.S., somebody can have a court at his house?"
He found solace in basketball but still had a way to go in growing into his body. He wasn't particularly assertive his freshman year. "He looked like a baby deer," Gosz says, as Alex finished with three points a game in 2016-17.
One day after that season, during a workout, his brothers pulled him to the side. They were not pleased. "We feel like you're too relaxed," he remembers them saying. "You really need to pick it up." That night, Alex cried. There was no worse feeling than letting them down. Especially because Alex knew they were right. He was just going through the motions in workouts. "I believed that I was better than I was," Alex says. "I realized I had to turn this around."
The rest of the summer, he worked on his ball-handling, his jump shot. He became quicker, stronger. Then came fall.
He almost left the game altogether.
Alex didn't understand why, one day in September 2017, Mariah told him: "Be strong for Giannis." He also didn't understand why she showed up in the middle of the day to pull him out of U.S. history and bring him home. Why, when he blasted Drake in the car, she did not bop to the beat with him.
She looked upset. So did about 20 family members and friends standing inside the apartment when she and Alex walked in. There were large men in black suits, too. Alex didn't recognize them, but one came up to him: "Sorry for your loss." The hell are you talking about? Alex thought. Then Alex finally found Giannis. Giannis was crying his eyes out. "You remember what I told you two days ago?" he asked Alex.
Two days before, the family had a get-together. Alex told Giannis he couldn't make it (he had plans with friends). "That's fine," Giannis said, "but I'm just letting you know, we gotta keep being a family because you never know when Mom and Dad's not gonna be here."
The grief compounded as Giannis reminded Alex of that eerie exchange before delivering the news: Their father had died of a heart attack. Charles was just 54. Kostas was at the University of Dayton, where he was playing. Thanasis was on his way from overseas. So for that afternoon, it was Giannis and Alex, holding each other in the apartment, trying to keep the other from falling.
Just me and you.
Alex was numb. Shocked. He couldn't understand it. Didn't want to. He remembered his dad driving him to school that morning, just four hours earlier. His dad seemed fine. Perfect. Fine. The two had talked about basketball practice. What time his dad would come afterward. "I'll come pick you up," his dad had said.
Leaning back on his couch in the basement, Alex's voice is shaky. Barely audible. "My dad was my best friend," he says. He begins talking about time again. How his dad was the one who told him to maximize every minute: Make sure what you give your time to is worth it. 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!
Alex still thinks of these words every morning. Before getting out of bed, he closes his eyes, hanging on to the image of his father a little longer. He sees himself asking his dad to take him to the court or store. He hears his dad cheering for him at games: "Go, Alex, go!" He sees himself arguing with his dad about who will win the 2015 NBA championship (Charles picked the Cavs, Alex picked the Warriors).
He thinks about how his dad saw games where he scored 20, games where he scored zero. His dad loved him just the same. He thinks about how his dad was always calm: Don't worry about it. How, in his dad's eyes, he was never just the youngest brother. He was his own man. And his dad was the man he wanted to be: determined, protective, kind, hardworking, selfless. He was the one who made Thanasis Thanasis. The one who made Giannis Giannis. The one who made Kostas Kostas.
And without his dad, Alex didn't know how to be Alex. Grief spilled onto everything he touched. His dad was everywhere and nowhere. "We all have shoes, right? Shoes we walk in? Imagine you have shoes your whole life," Alex says, "and then they're taken away from you. Now you have to live without them."
Alex took time off of school. He put down the basketball. He contemplated quitting for good. How could he continue playing? His parents were the reason he played, and now half of that reason was gone. He kept thinking of the first time his dad watched him play, back in Greece. Alex was firing from three, stealing the ball. "I'm really proud of you," his dad told him afterward. It was the first time his game was recognized, rather than his brothers'. It was the sweetest moment of Alex's young life.
It hurts thinking about that moment. His brothers hurt in their own ways, too. They think of their dad every time they step on the court. But they're the reason Alex didn't quit. They told him their dad would want him to succeed. "That's the reason I probably push for it now," Alex says. "Me and my brothers, we just want to live out my father's legacy."
Alex points to a large portrait toward the back of the basement. Mariah gave it to Giannis for his birthday last December. It's painted yellow-orange and blue, with the words "I AM MY FATHER'S LEGACY" sprawled across the canvas. There is Giannis in the center, pointing to the sky, surrounded by Thanasis, tossing a ball up in the air; Kostas, scooping up a layup; Alex, leaning in for a crossover; and Francis, the oldest brother, who lived in Nigeria for most of Alex's childhood, crossing his arms. Charles and Veronica's names are written in the top right corner.
Alex often looks at the portrait and remembers who he is. Where he comes from. Why he must keep dribbling that ball, harder and harder, every day.
The Antetokounmpos often sit in the same spot in the bleachers at Dominican for Alex's games. Top left, behind the team's bench. It's their way of dodging attention. "I don't want Alex to get nervous, also," Veronica says. She knows Alex is eager to put on a show for Giannis. "Alex plays five times better," Gosz says, when the Greek Freak is in the building. And when Alex makes a good play, he sometimes turns to the bleachers and points to his family.
Giannis comes to as many games as the Bucks' schedule allows. He even coached Dominican last fall (the team went undefeated). Two years ago, after Dominican lost in the sectional finals to Kettle Moraine Lutheran, Giannis paced to the locker room. The first one in. He was more upset than anyone on the team. And when all the players had filed in, he spoke: "Remember this feeling. I need you to know what this feels like. What is it gonna take to not feel this feeling again?" Alex just looked at his brother, absorbing his words with the same kind of wonder he's had since childhood.
Giannis is just always there. Thanasis and Kostas are always there too, but Alex and Giannis have a unique bond. Not just because the way they play is similar, but because the way they think is similar. Giannis is more outspoken, and Alex is more shy, but when they get on the court, they believe they are the most dominant.
Giannis is often talked about as if he's genetically invincible. A freak. But people miss his mind. The fuel he finds late in fourth quarters has nothing to do with his vertical jump. His wingspan. That's why he's trying to teach Alex that what separates him is the ability to recognize when the mind relaxes. "It's human nature," Giannis says. But the mind has to return to "killer mode" as soon as possible.
Alex can be in killer mode, can take over games, when he chooses. He even dunked over Kostas two weeks ago: two hands, cocking the ball to the side for a flush, during pickup at Dominican. Alex is a passionate player, a leader willing to sacrifice. Guys rally around him. But sometimes he gets in his own way. Maybe this isn't for me, Alex sometimes thinks. He's felt pressure, though he says he doesn't believe in pressure. Doesn't believe it's real.
"I couldn't imagine going through what he has to go through," says Jamari Magee, a teammate and close friend. "With all the outside noise, he can't really be himself. Like, he is himself, but he can't be himself without somebody trying to compare him to Giannis.
"He's just a kid."
But he is no longer a kid. The rollercoaster keeps gaining speed. He doesn't have time to fear not meeting expectations. Not reaching the heights his brothers have. So he keeps pushing. He keeps saying "When I get drafted" rather than "If I get drafted."
Sometimes, he is less sure. He struggled at a tournament in South Dakota early last season. He felt like he played the three worst games of his career. "First thing I had to do was call my brother," Alex says.
"Yeah, I'm not playing too good. I don't know if this is for me," Alex said.
"Are you playing hard?" Giannis said.
"Are you giving it all you have?"
"Yeah. I'm just not playing good."
"How so? If you're playing hard, and you're doing everything you possibly think you can, then you're playing great. Your shots aren't always going to fall, but you can play hard and be a leader. That’s all you can make sure you do every game. You can go 100 percent every game."
Giannis hung up. The call lasted a minute. Giannis is frugal with his words. He gives Alex just enough to chew on. Just enough to let him figure things out for himself.
Alex thinks of the kind of man he wants to be when he thinks about Giannis. About Thanasis, Kostas, Charles. He knows he has a lot more growing to do. "It's a lot more stuff I gotta go through to be considered a man," Alex says. "A lot more bumps I gotta go through."
He thinks being a man has nothing to do with stature or size. "A man is somebody that's stable," Alex says. "You don't have to be the most manly dude or have all this money, but if you know what you're about, and you respect others and others respect you, then that's a man."
Giannis often reminds Alex of the money part, having signed a $100 million, four-year contract extension in 2016: "Just because your bank account changes, doesn't mean you change." Veronica tells Alex that, too. Tells him that God is responsible for good fortune, though one must work hard, too. "You don't change, because you know that some people still do not have. You do not take a step higher," Veronica says. "We are still who we are."
She often asks Alex if he needs any money. Alex falls silent, hearing the word need. Maybe somewhere inside him is still the boy who just wanted the new PlayStation 2. Who saw how much Giannis wanted to give him one.
"No," Alex tells his mom. "I don't need anything."
"Let me help you."
"Don't worry about it."
"No, I do worry."
"Mom. Don't worry about it."
Giannis thanked Veronica, thanked Charles, in his moving MVP speech at the NBA Awards show in Los Angeles in late June. Kostas, dressed in a light pink suit, and Alex, dressed in a dark purple suit, covered their eyes at some points, hiding tears.
But Giannis didn't hide his own tears. He let them stream down his cheeks, as he told America, told Greece, told the world, what his brothers mean to him: "I love you guys, man. You guys are my ride-or-die. You guys are my role models, man. I look up to you guys."
Just you and me.
Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America and the Los Angeles Press Club. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.