Giannis Antetokounmpo and family discuss new film ‘Rise’
Before he was an MVP and an NBA champion, Giannis Antetokounmpo was a raw, skinny, largely unknown prospect, dismissed by half the league until the Bucks made him the 15th pick of the 2013 draft. That’s the moment most NBA fans got their introduction to the springy kid with the challenging last name.
We all know how the story unfolds from there—a gradual, spectacular transformation from draft-day project to global superstar, from anonymous Greek import to the Greek Freak, one of the most dominant players of his era.
And yet the most compelling story about Giannis’s rise is the one that precedes all that: about how his parents left Nigeria for Greece in search of a better life, about the financial struggles and racism the Antetokounmpos endured there, and about the familial bonds that pulled them through.
That’s the story depicted in “Rise,” now streaming on the Disney service. Giannis (played convincingly by Uche Agada) serves as an executive producer on the film. His brother Thanasis and mother Veronica served as consultants. The three of them, as well as brothers Alex and Kostas, joined SI’s Crossover podcast this week to discuss the film.
(Both the questions and answers have been edited for clarity.)
SI: This is an inspiring story, not just of Giannis’s journey, but the entire family’s. It’s obviously a very difficult one, too. How did you feel about telling this story and seeing it brought to life in this way?
Veronica: We feel so proud of telling our story. I feel so proud of our journey coming all the way from Nigeria to Greece, struggling without losing hope, without giving up, with humbleness, with love, continue moving, and we are happy where we are now today.
Thanasis: It was definitely emotional. But I just remember how much I love my family, and how much my mom and dad did for us to be able to be here. And I feel inspired and motivated do all these things.
SI: Giannis, how well do you think they captured your family dynamic?
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Giannis: They did an unbelievable job. We just had the opportunity to meet them, and we found out that the people that played me and Thanasis (Uche and Ral Agada) were actually brothers. The chemistry in real life, it is like me and Thanasis, which is kind of like scary.
We wanted this movie to be authentic, as authentic as possible. When we were in Greece, we never gave up, we never lost faith, we were always together, we always come together as a family and try to figure out a way to find a solution. In our case, our tool was basketball.
SI: It is a heartwarming story, the way your family pulled together, stayed together, rooting for each other along the way. What’s the message that you want people to take away?
Alex: Definitely togetherness and our brotherhood. Us always being together through thick and thin, and through all types of struggle and all types of hardship. And just picking each other up when each other is down. Being humble, being disciplined and just being able to show up every day and give it your all. And I feel as if from that movie, you can take those things and it could translate into your life.
Kostas: It was serious in the beginning of the movie with my mom and my dad, which was before we even born. So it’s kind of hard to see like your parents go through that hardship. When you watch the end of it, you watch the whole story it just warms you inside.
SI: How well did they capture the basketball scenes?
Thanasis: They’re quite accurate. I think the actors that play us, they actually got some move to ’em, too. And they said he (Uche Agada) was actually practicing Giannis’s move, the Eurostep.
SI: Giannis and Thanasis, did you give the actors any pointers along the way? Were you on set at all when they were filming?
Thanasis: No, because they actually filmed like six months in Greece while we were playing. Like the gym you see where we’re working out (in the film) is actually the gym we played in. And even the scene that you see after with my dad, where we’re working out, like this is exactly where we lived. And the house they are filming, it’s next door to the house we lived in.
Giannis: I want you to realize how much we want to stay true to our roots, and how authentic we wanted to make this movie feel. I wanted to add to the scenes that made me emotional. We can talk about the scene that we’re young and we’re being chased by … can we give spoilers? I should not give spoilers. That was kind of hard to watch. Because you know your journey, you know what you’ve been through. But once they put it on the screen for you to see, you’re like, Oh man, I’m going back there. Which is good, but at the same time it’s kind of tough.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.