Greek superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo emerging as one of NBA's most popular figures

NEW YORK -- Mike Seremetis and his young son, Theo, are waiting for just the right moment to take a picture. It's 10 minutes before Sunday's matinee between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Brooklyn Nets, and the father and son, dressed in matching blue Greek Freak T-shirts, are standing a few rows off the Barclays Center floor trying to snag the attention of the man so many have come to see. Mike dutifully snaps a few pictures of Theo standing proudly as his basketball hero warms up behind him. The Seremetis family is part of a group of several hundred proud Greeks who have descended upon Brooklyn early this morning to cheer for a player who has transcended the game on and off the floor. As big of an impact as Giannis Antetokounmpo has on the court, his impact off of it, and his ability to connect with those around him, has been even larger for the Greek community all over the world.

"It brings us back home to our heritage," Mike said of seeing Antetokounmpo succeed on the NBA level. "And we embrace him as one of our own."

As Antetokounmpo continues on the path toward NBA superstardom, all the hallmarks of growth are there for the 23-year-old, who is in his fifth season with the Bucks. He recently accumulated the most player votes (226) and was tied for most votes (99) in media All-Star voting. Had Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James not edged him out, Antetokounmpo would have been the leading vote-getter in the fan category as well. Antetokounmpo's jersey is now the fourth-most popular in the league by sales, with the Bucks sixth on the list of most popular teams in merchandise sales, thanks in large part to Antetokounmpo's popularity all over the globe.

The difference between Antetokounmpo and players such as James and the Golden State Warriors dynamic duo of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant is that Antetokounmpo is representing an entire country every time he steps on the floor. The pride the Greeks have in the smiling big man is unlike anything many NBA players have ever seen. In NBA city after NBA city, large groups of Greek people are coming to games to support Antetokounmpo.

"The Greek community, especially in the bigger cities like New York, Chicago, he gets cheers like he plays for the home team," Bucks teammate John Henson said. "So it helps us out, and I'm sure it kind of gets him going, too."

Sunday was no different. Antetokounmpo heard plenty of cheers throughout the day, and Bucks No. 34 jerseys and Greek flags dotted the arena.

"You see that throughout the NBA," Mike Seremetis said. "Greeks are coming out of the woodwork to support him. And he sees that, and he's still humble about where he is, and that's what's really impressive about this kid. He's worked hard, he's come from nothing, and he's one of the biggest stars in the NBA right now."

James Pristouris has been bringing groups of Greeks to see NBA basketball for almost 15 years. He is the one who organized the large group that the Seremetis family was part of. He has seen the passion surrounding the trips grow larger as Antetokounmpo has risen in prominence.

"We started in Jersey, and every year it's kind of gotten bigger," Pristouris said, noting that he brought another group to Barclays earlier in the season, when Kosta Koufos, Georgios Papagiannis and the Sacramento Kings came to town.

The Nets are often amenable to having gatherings after games, which is why the group has regularly found itself heading to New Jersey and then to Brooklyn over the years. Now that Antetokounmpo has entered the picture, the outings have gotten even larger. There is a loyalty the Greeks have toward all their players, but the pride they take in Antetokounmpo's ascension, especially in the New York City area, is different.

"Our community embraced Giannis here in Brooklyn, New York, from the very beginning just starting in the league," Mike said. "He came out to a camp where Theo attended and embraced the kids like one of their own. Him and Thanasis, his [older] brother, were very, very down to earth people with our children. They worked with them for about a week, and they had a relationship with them, a very special one."

Theo said he brags about Giannis to his grade-school classmates and enjoys watching the Bucks star because of his quickness and ability to play most of the positions on the floor. The Seremetis family's respect for the way the Antetokounmpos have handled themselves in the community runs deep enough that Mike took his family to Westchester to support Thanasis when the elder Antetokounmpo was playing for the Knicks' G-League affiliate.

"Look, it's huge," Pristouris said of the impact Giannis has had on the Greek community around New York City. "I think this says enough. It's Super Bowl Sunday. It's one of the biggest days in our country, and people are here waiting for Giannis. If it was another hour, they still would have been here. So what he's done for all Greeks is amazing."

Kostas Beskos couldn't contain his pride Sunday afternoon. When halftime of Sunday's game rolled around, the middle-aged fan stood proudly as a man asked to take a picture of him. Beskos, wearing a green Bucks Antetokounmpo jersey and draped in a Greek flag, flew all the way from Athens for the Bucks' two games against the Nets and Knicks in New York this week. He wanted to support Antetokounmpo and see him in person.

While Beskos is proud of Antetokounmpo's NBA accomplishments, he is hopeful that the 23-year-old will decide to play for the Greek National Team in the 2019 World Cup of Basketball and then, if the team qualifies, in the 2020 Summer Olympics. Antetokounmpo was a late scratch from the 2017 EuroBasket because of a knee injury, an injury that caused a lot of controversy in Greece, as the Greek Basketball Federation accused the Bucks and the NBA of hatching a plan, according to the AP, to keep Antetokounmpo out of action. The NBA denied the claim, but the feelings linger.

Beskos is convinced that if Antetokounmpo had played, his beloved national team could have won last summer.

"It's very important for all of Greek fans," Beskos said of Antetokounmpo's success. "And we want Giannis to play on the National team, EuroBasket, FIBA World Cup, and I think that Greece has a very good future with Giannis."

For his part, Antetokounmpo is trying to focus on the task at hand. He understands what a big deal it is to play for his home country, but he also knows that his job in the short term is to try to guide the Bucks into the playoffs and beyond.

"I'm just thinking about the Knicks [on Tuesday] right now, my ankle, that's what I'm thinking about, getting back healthy," Antetokounmpo told ESPN when asked about his future with the national team. "Olympics and the World Cup, it's far, far away. But when it comes, when those times come a little bit closer, I'll be able to think about it. Try to stay focused right here."

As soon as Yainnis Paragiannis saw the Nets' schedule, he knew his family had to be in attendance for this game.

"At the beginning of the year, my father was like, 'When is Gianni coming to play the Nets?'" Paragiannis said. "We got the tickets about two months ago, and here we are."

The 24-year-old's parents and the rest of his family are from Greece, but he is a first-generation Greek-American who lives in Brooklyn. To the game, he wears a blue and white Antetokounmpo Greece jersey, and he acknowledges that he also owns a Bucks jersey and T-shirt.

"I used to be a Laker fan, Kobe Bryant," Paragiannis said. "I love the Knicks, but we're struggling, and the Nets [were] in Jersey, so [I] was never a Nets fan. When they came to Brooklyn, it was nice because we could come to the games and stuff, but you got to root for the hometown hero."

As Paragiannis walks around town these days, he says more and more people are starting to recognize the Antetokounmpo name.

"It's big for us," Paragiannis said. "We've never had a Greek player of his caliber. As you can tell over here, I think most of the people came for him today."

The support Antetokounmpo continues to receive from the New York City area is one of the biggest reasons he looks forward to playing there each season. It's why the young MVP candidate can't help but smile, even after rolling his ankle late in Sunday's win over the Nets, when asked about the support he receives during road games in New York.

"That's one of the reasons I always love playing in New York," he said. "Because everybody, the Greek people, the community, kids, adults, always they come out and support the Bucks, and it's always fun. I know that a lot of Greek people are waiting for me outside, and they're not just supporting me. They're supporting the team too, so it's fun."

As the rest of Barclays Center empties, a large number of Greek fans head toward the center sections of the arena, awaiting a few more moments with the man of the hour. About 45 minutes after the Bucks finish their win, Antetokounmpo strides back on the court for what has become a ritual throughout the league. Chants of "Hellas!" "Hellas!" fill the air along with some "MVP!" chants as he reappears, much to the delight of his fans. A young girl, dressed in the same blue Greek Freak T-shirt that Mike and Theo Seremetis wear, reads some words in Greek off her phone into a microphone as Antetokounmpo listens respectfully.

"We want to say that we love you," the girl says. "And every time we have you with us, you bring us great joy and happiness. Not only are you an All-Star basketball player, you're also an All-Star man. May God bless you in everything you do."

After she finishes, Antetokounmpo taps his hand to his heart in appreciation and takes the microphone to offer some Greek words of his own.

"Thank you all very much," he says to the crowd. "All Greeks are in my heart. The Greeks have been very kind to me. Always."

With that, he is off to sign autographs and interact with his young fans as many of their parents watch from a few rows behind. The interactions are quick but meaningful to the kids. What Mike Seremetis described as Antetokounmpo's ability to connect with young people is on display. Then he sees a young boy dressed in a white Big Baller Brand hoodie.

"Get this guy a shirt, man!" Antetokounmpo exclaims before taking off his jacket and giving the kid the white Greek Freak hoodie he has been wearing since he walked out of the locker room. "We got to switch this!"

"I'll wear it every day," the young kid says, almost in disbelief, after Antetokounmpo puts it on him. The moment is caught on video by Bucks digital communications manager Nick Monroe and quickly becomes a viral sensation.

After a few more minutes of signing autographs and taking pictures, Antetokounmpo heads out of the arena, but not before Pristouris has one more surprise for him. Pristouris knew Antetokounmpo would likely be hungry after the game, so he had a local Greek restaurant deliver some food to the arena. Pristouris hands Antetokounmpo a silver tin and a bag with some accouterments in it. It is the traditional Greek dish of Souvlaki, which brings a smile to the young star's face.

"They were pretty fresh, too," Pristouris said. "So they weren't like cold souvlaki. And he was excited, as you could see."

As he takes in the whole scene from a distance, Henson can't help but smile and shake his head at what he has seen. The big man from North Carolina is in his sixth season, and he still can't believe how Antetokounmpo's popularity has grown the past few years.

"This is small," Henson says as he looks at the crowd that fills up a few sections at Barclays Center. "I think in Philly, a couple cities, it's packed from that end to that end. Me and my boys were up there talking about how a 23-year-old kid is like the hopes and dreams of a nation, you know what I'm saying? It's kind of dope, though. I'm happy for him. He deserves it all."