As you may or may not already be aware, the Milwaukee Bucks, my favorite basketball and team and chosen form of masochism, selected a Greek teenager named Giannis Antetokounmpo (or Γιάννης Αντετοκούνμπο in the Greek alphabet) in this year’s NBA draft. This is intriguing for several reasons:
1) Watching basketball jersey manufacturers struggle to get a thirteen-letter last name to fit on the back of a NBA jersey. Will they use smaller letters? Will the name be printed in a 270 degree arc? In either case, don’t plan on reading it from the cheap seats.
2) Antetokounmpo was born in Greece, but his parents are originally Nigerian. I suppose this could make him “Nigerian-Greek,” if second-generation national identities can be said to have any real meaning or purpose. If only we had Kurt Vonnegut here to define “granfaloon” again. For what it’s worth, Antetokounmpo played on the Greek national team, and waved a Greek flag when he was drafted.
3) That’s Ray Allen’s old number. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
3) “Antetokounmpo” has been translated at least twice – converted into the Greek alphabet and then into English. Let me explain. The seemingly unpronounceable “nmp” combination is the letter-for-letter translation of “νμπ,” which is pronounced like an English “b,” – a letter otherwise unrepresented in the Greek alphabet. (English speakers and mathematicians may insist that the second letter of the Greek alphabet, b, is pronounced “beta” with a hard “B” as in “brother,” but those stubborn Greeks just keep pronouncing it like “Velveeta” all the same.) If Giannis Antetokounmpo’s parents had emigrated to an English-speaking country, his name would have probably been transliterated into a slightly more manageable, “Antetokumbo” instead. I think most Americans would read that name and assume that he was Nigerian – well, at least from some country in the African continent, let’s be realistic. As it is, there’s a distinctly Greek consonant combination stuck in there. His name reads as both Greek and Nigerian. In the last fifty years, it’s been exciting to watch those national and ethnic identities break down, but you rarely get such an immediately visible example.
4) Since the 2009 housing crash, Greek politics has gone completely off the rails. In the 2012 elections, the right-wing “Golden Dawn” party – for all intents and purposes, the Greek neo-Nazis party – gained eighteen seats in the Greek legislature. Their popularity has continued to swell since then; Golden Dawn is currently the third most popular political party in Greece. It’s terrifying and disturbing. When Antetokounmpo was drafted, the leader of the Golden Dawn party compared him to a chimpanzee and was rightly condemned by Greece’s more mainstream politicians. Obviously, my own sympathies will lie with anyone who opposes neo-Nazis in any form, but a Greek teenager who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks? It’s like it’s been plucked from interior monologue already. Come to think of it, I think the last time a Greek teenager came into conflict with the Nazis was The Guns of Navarone. I love that movie! This just keeps getting better and better.
5) As the roster currently stands, the Bucks are poised to challenge for the eighth seed in the East Conference, a position that will get them a consecutive invitation to lose to Miami in the first round of the playoffs. If you watched any of that series this summer (and I don’t blame you for skipping it), you would not be eager to repeat the experience. If Antetokounmpo, his game, his backstory, his jersey, the spelling of his last name, or anything else Antetokounmpo-related can scrub those images of Monta Ellis taking contested three-point shots from my memory, I’ll be grateful.