Greek coach who discovered Giannis: I had a feeling something big was going to happen

Spiros Velliniatis said it would have been "a sin" not to encourage Giannis Antetokounmpo to play basketball when he was in Greece.

Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo   -  Getty Images

He is one step away from leading his team to the NBA Finals, but MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo once needed a book about Diego Maradona to convince him basketball was his true calling.

Antetokounmpo has been the driving force behind the Milwaukee Bucks' run to the Eastern Conference Finals having averaged 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds per game in the regular season for a team that had a league-high 60 wins.

The 24-year-old 'Greek Freak', who is of Nigerian descent, has elevated himself to superstar status in his sixth year in the NBA, a journey that seemed unfathomable in 2008 when Spiros Velliniatis first spotted a scrawny 13-year-old child living in poverty in the Sepolia neighbourhood of Athens.

Velliniatis had been scouting immigrant communities in the Greek capital to find potential players for club side Filathlitikos when, by "pure chance", he discovered Antetokounmpo playing a game of tag with some friends.

"It's a moment where you have flashbacks," Velliniatis told Omnisport. "I had a feeling that something big was going to happen."

 

Earlier in his life, Velliniatis had left Greece for America himself to play high-school basketball and pursue a career in the NBA. He was not good enough to reach the elite level but something told him Antetokounmpo could be, even if the teenager had barely played basketball at that point.  

Yet soccer-mad Antetokounmpo did not see what his mentor could back then.

"My dream was to play in the NBA - I saw a person in front of me who was capable of doing it," Velliniatis explained.

"I thought it was a sin if I did not give an opportunity to a kid who has the blessing of [becoming] if not the best, one of the best, whoever played that game. I thought I was committing a crime if I did not support it."

According to Velliniatis, a Filathlitikos board member provided the Antetokounmpo family with financial support while their children played for the team, but getting a raw Giannis to put in the hours required on the court was, at first, difficult.

"For three years I was supporting something that looked like a lost cause," Velliniatis admitted.

"The first year was the honeymoon and then problems started to come. In this period Giannis quit at least 20 times, if not more. One time he quit for at least three weeks."

So Velliniatis tried to find something relatable to convince his prodigy of his greatness - a book about World Cup winner Maradona.

"I went to his house and I bought him a book about Diego Maradona," he said.

"He was still into soccer, he was not yet fully into basketball in his mind. I told him, 'This guy is you. You must stay in this path no matter how hard it becomes'. The coach told me, 'This kid must not be lost'. We wanted to do anything possible."

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Had to find a new approach to an old dream

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Soon the penny dropped. Antetokounmpo scored 50 points in one of his final games with Filathlitikos' junior team and it was not long before those in the NBA were paying attention too, with the Milwaukee Bucks making a franchise-altering decision and drafting him with the 15th pick in 2013.

He has been the most successful of the four Antetokounmpo brothers so far - Thanasis spending just a single season in the NBA, rookie Kostas featuring in only two games for the Dallas Mavericks in 2018-19 and Alexis still in high school - a fact Velliniatis attributes to Giannis' personality.

"Giannis developed an attitude to survive... and a ruthlessness," he claimed. "Giannis had a different character, a harder character. The other kids did not embrace it psychologically the same way."

Role model

His incredible story has given Greece a new hero, but Velliniatis hopes Antetokounmpo's tale can provide inspiration for youngsters all around the globe too.

"Right now, wherever you go around the world and you tell them, 'Greece', they will think of Giannis," he said.

"I think the message for Giannis is universal. It's for people from Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, the United States, Europe.

"A role model does not stay within the limits of one race, it is something which is harmonic."