The Unlikely Story of Spiros Velliniatis, the Coach Who Discovered Giannis Antetokounmpo

Spiros Velliniatis, the coach who discovered Giannis Antetokounmpo, wishes he had a closer relationship to the "Greek Freak."

|
Apr 27 2017, 1:43pm

Credit: Panos Kefalos

This article originally appeared on VICE Greece. Translation by Mary Keramida.

My meeting with Spiros Velliniatis was at 9:00PM in Argentinis Dimokratias Square, off Alexandras Avenue in northern Athens. I was meeting him in person for the first time. Spiros is a simple guy: he lives in an apartment in the Gyzi district—a blue collar neighborhood marked by Greece's recent economic troubles—and can barely afford to pay his bills. He seems just like one of us, except that he was involved in an incredible, Hollywood-like true story.

Spiros is the man who changed NBA rising star Giannis Antetokounmpo's life.

"Giannis fulfilled my dream of playing in the NBA", Spiros said, and then told me about his early life. He was born and raised in Greece in the 1970s by a strict, powerful mother with leftist beliefs and German noble descent. "My grandfather's great-grandmother was the Duchess of Reims, who fled to Frankfurt to avoid being beheaded during the French Revolution." His father, on the other hand, came from another universe entirely, as "he was a conservative Arvanite from Kiato, Corinth"—a mix Greek and Albanian descent, hailing from a seaside tourist town in northern Greece. The Germans considered Spiros to be Greek; the Greeks considered him a German. He was raised in a world defined by contradictions, so it's hardly a surprise that his first dream was equally controversial: "I wanted to play in the Greek national basketball club and in the German national basketball club. I was characterized by a bipolarity. "I was the one who wanted to play in the NBA, but Giannis did it."

Spiros Velliniatis with one of his players during training. Photo by Panos Kefalos

His dream of playing basketball solidified when Spiros was 13-years-old. Mikis Stavropoulos and Thodoris Kypriotis, two basketball-savvy people scouting for potential talent in the community, visited the junior high school in Athens where Spiros attended school. "They came to my school to look for talented basketball players. I was really impressed—people who didn't know me at all [suddenly] opened [a whole new door] for me, and I owe them a lot for that." Shortly thereafter, Spiros determined the real challenge was on the other side of the Atlantic. "I traveled to America when I was 16 [as part of] a student exchange program. I spent two years trying to convince my parents to [let me go]. I wanted to play in college, and then in the NBA like crazy. I joined the team at Cape Coral High School in Florida. My first challenge wasn't easy: the Americans told me I had to become a point guard instead of a center because of my height. It wasn't the easiest thing in the world [to swallow]." But, Spiros didn't make the cut for the NBA. A motorcycle injury from [a trip to] Rhode Island, combined with the harsh reality of American basketball—a world, he says, in which "there is no room for excuses"—left him no choice but to face the failure head-on. "Even if I was blinded by [my own] passion and fanaticism, the truth is that I didn't have any basketball background, or the skills [required] to play in the NBA."

The German army and the first steps in basketball

Spiros has dual-citizenship with Germany and Greece, and he elected to do his mandatory military service in the former in order "to get to know a reality different than the Greek one." He was stationed in Wuppertal, a city just east of Düsseldorf in the Northern Rhine, where he joined the local basketball team in 1998. Despite his success—he helped lead his team to fourth place in Northern Germany's regional championship—his military obligation complicated daily life. "I never attended a German school, so my German was awful. They all saw me as a Greek guy who exposed the German army with his [poor] language skills." Unfamiliar with the social implications of German speech, he accidentally addressed his senior officers with the informal, singular Du instead of the formal, plural Sie (a grave insult in the military, as it indicates a lack of respect). "I always tried to explain, 'I use 'du' with my mom, don't take it personally!'".

After Spiros was discharged from the army, he traveled to Puerto Rico to see his girlfriend, whom he met while studying in America. "She'd said that she would wait for me, but things ended up differently. That didn't go over well and I took it personally. And I [started to feel] really isolated, like I couldn't manage the two different worlds of my family. I felt like I couldn't fit anywhere."

Photo by Panos Kefalos

Studying for basketball

Basketball and university provided Spiros with a vehicle to lift himself out of depression. He spent eight years frequenting the lecture halls of Greek universities in Athens, attending courses like Sociology of the Ottoman Empire, theology, History of WWII, School of Physical Education, and Sport Science. "I spent countless hours in the library trying to find answers for all the questions in my life. That's how I discovered different cultures and other nationalities, which is something that really helped me later on in my basketball career."

"When I saw Giannis, I looked up at the sky and said: 'God, how is it possible no one has noticed the physical skill and the talent in this kid?'"

At the time, Spiros had just started coaching basketball. "Manolis Perris, a coach at Ethnikos Kato Patisia—"a small, local school,"—back then, asked me to be his assistant. I knew him from the neighborhood. I don't know if he made me the offer because he believed in my basketball skills, or simply because he enjoyed my company. In any case, it was a nice opportunity to recover, psychologically speaking." Spiros began scouting for talent in neighboring districts like Kato Patisia, Agios Nikolaos, Phitefti, and others. "There were a lot of immigrants there. The state didn't give these kids [any] chance to get their lives in order. We've seen so many kids end up in illegal activities and drugs because they couldn't stand on their feet. Since the government wasn't doing anything, we decided we should. I looked for kids in the community and took them to the team to play. We didn't want talent—we wanted to give them the opportunity to get to know themselves and find their place in society. If they didn't have [the ability to] trust other people, they were going to wind up in the hood."

Among the first kids Spiros discovered were Michalis Afolanio—the first Greek-African who spoke in the Hellenic Parliament—the Greek rapper MC Yinka, the vocalist ZeRaw of the rock band Vegas, Nikos Ontoumpitan—a member of the Generation 2.0 for Rights, Equality & Diversity—and Pavlos Jones, who is now an officer in the Greek army. His connection with these young people made Spiros realize that "there's a lot of talented people out there who are wasted, since the major Greek teams don't have a system [in place] for scouting and supporting new, [potential] talent coming from [lower income] families." His inner German leftist, combined with his Arvanite passion, led him to believe that "pretty soon, the next one will appear who shouldn't be lost. He should not."

Photo by Panos Kefalos

Finding Giannis Antetokounmpo

It happened in 2008. "When I was coach in Filathlitikos—" a professional basketball club based in Zografou, in eastern Athens, "—we decided we needed to start looking for new talent immediately. I was in charge of [that process], so I began [scouting] in the neighborhoods. Then I remembered that, two years earlier, I'd seen a child in Sepolia that had really impressed me, so I asked [around] about him in the neighborhood. I found out later that he was called Thanasis. I thought I should go there again in case I met him."

Spiros revisited Sepolia, but didn't find Thanasis Antetokounmpo. "I stumbled across three other kids who were playing tag on the Tritonas team's court. I was stunned by what I saw. It was Giannis, along with two of his brothers, Kostas and Alexis. At that moment, I realized I was in the presence of one of the biggest basketball talents in the world, right in front of me."

How can you tell the person you're looking at is capable of becoming the next star player of the NBA? "When I was a kid, I used to read biographies of great basketball players like a maniac. My mother was responsible for hiring [people at her job], and she taught me how to evaluate people at first sight. I was very observant—I knew I couldn't have been mistaken by Giannis and Thanasis. I read a study once that said the great Serbian basketball players—like Delibasic—were like brutal criminals. The only difference was that the first one was shooting a ball from 21 feet away, and the other one was actually shooting a gun. That's exactly what I saw in Giannis: a man ready to shoot."

Spiros says you only needed to take one look at Giannis to understand he had a natural talent. "When I saw Giannis, I looked up at the sky and said: 'God, how is it possible that no one has noticed the physical skills and the talent in this kid?' My contact with the African community over the previous years, and my experience in America, made me hopeful that I would succeed [making it in life]. It wasn't an easy task, since Giannis [declined my offer]—he preferred soccer to basketball. Then I asked him: 'if we can find jobs for your both of your parents, will you play basketball for me?' He said yes. I told him I wanted to talk to his mom. I knew that this 'yes' from Giannis was the most definitive 'yes' of his life and his career."

"Giannis didn't want to play basketball. He wanted to become a soccer player."

"In those moments, I thought: I wanted to become a businessman and I failed. I wanted to play in the NBA and I didn't make it. Now I'll have to use my experience to help this diamond in the rough succeed. The universe conspired to help me stumble across this supernatural talent, and I have to highlight it," he says. Everything was balanced on the edge of a knife: on one hand, Filathlitikos' management asked that Giannis try out before he joined the team, since both he and his brother Thanasis were quite old to be handed the opportunity to play so easily. On the other hand, both of the Antetokounmpo boys didn't favor basketball. "[They] didn't want to play basketball. Thanasis was interested in track and field, and Giannis wanted to become a soccer player. The Tritonas team—in particular, the coach Vasilis Xenarios—spent two years trying to convince them to play, and they didn't budge," Spiros says. "I told [their] parents that if the kids joined the team, we could find them a job. My efforts were successful, and thanks to Filathlitikos and [board member] Loukas Karagousis, we managed to give the family 500 euros each month. That's how we convinced them to let their children play on our team. It was quite exceptional. In the past, we'd never sponsored a 13-year-old kid to learn how to play basketball."

This season Giannis averaged 22.9 points and 8.7 rebounds for the Bucks. Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

From Filathlitikos to the NBA

Giannis and his brothers successfully passed the test and began double-training on the children's, teenager's, and men's teams. In addition to the aforementioned difficulties, there was another limiting factor that complicated Giannis' efforts: himself. "He didn't manage much during the first year. He wanted to become a soccer player, and he was mostly training because his family needed the money. He didn't want to play basketball. I was fighting tooth and nail to keep him on the team. I said, 'Give it a try and if nothing comes of it, I'll take you to a soccer team.' In the second year he stopped entirely—he gave up on it over ten times, and then I'd be after him in Sepolia, trying to get him to come back. In the third year, he started—along with this parents and many other players on the team—to understand that I wasn't crazy. Giannis scored 50 points in his first teenage basketball game. And the rest is history."

"Giannis' coach is his own life. He was never a child. He had to survive since the first day he was born."

Giannis Antetokounmpo's success story wasn't actualized solely because of his talent and physical skill, but also because of his character. "Giannis wasn't a child back then. He'd had to survive since the day he was born. He was a desperate child when I met him, but he still had [his wits about him]. His eyes were sparkling, but he was ruthless. It made him a very tough person, and that's obvious in his game. When he roughs someone up, that 'feeling of hunger' is awakened. He feels that, if he doesn't crush—in sports terms—his opponent on the court, he's not going to earn his daily bread. [He] went through a lot of difficulties, and that steeled him. He wasn't unnerved by the daily hunger and hard routine of a Nigerian family living in Sepolia. That's the biggest legacy career: Giannis' true coach is his own life."

Giannis Antetokounmpo is currently in his fourth and most active season with the Milwaukee Bucks. He and Spiros aren't very close anymore; the former coach follows him mostly through social media. "We were pretty close when he was in Filathlitikos, but we haven't communicated much since he went to the NBA. I'd definitely like to speak with him more often, and I've made every attempt [within my power] to make that happen."

Now that Giannis is an established star in the NBA, Spiros is looking for the next Antetokounmpo. He's now the technical manager and the children's coach at Antaios B.C. and the Amarousion academies—basketball clubs in central and northern Athens, respectively. "Once again, we've gathered 70 children, coming from mostly African countries. Both girls and boys—they're the best you can imagine." But the question lingers: is there another Antetokounmpo out there, or even another kid that could overtake him? "Talent involves many things. I don't think there are many people on the planet with a better figure. But in terms of character, yes—there are candidates who are capable of more. And they may be [discovered] soon."

Spiros Velliniatis's new crop of players. Photo by Panos Kefalos

The same struggle exists. "We're still the quaint ones who are chasing the impossible," Spiros says, adding: "We don't have support from the government—no infrastructure or anything. It's hard to keep going without sponsorships, since the major Greek clubs are trying to recruit children that the state ignores. Some people think Giannis was a matter of pure coincidence, but he wasn't—and we'll prove that with the determination and passion of our [new players]. Since we don't receive any help, let's be clear [about one thing]: Giannis isn't a product of the Greek basketball system, but a byproduct of [that system]. It's just like Maria Kallas, who didn't become a diva because of some very organized efforts but because of her [opera] teacher Elvira de Hidalgo." When I asked if the same logic could apply to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Spiros replies: "You said it, not me."

"When we first met, I had a verbal agreement with his parents to receive 7% [of the earnings] from Giannis' first contract with NBA."

What has Spiros gained from Giannis' fairytale-like success? So far, just moral satisfaction. "I'd expect the government to have a talk with all the people that helped Giannis [find his way], so as to create a [better] system and recruit more talent in the future. In Giannis' case, we overcame everything: hunger, law, prejudices, poverty. For them, that's not enough." As for the Antetokounmpo family, Spiros says, "I never had any contract with them. I didn't want to make things more complicated back then; I just wanted Giannis to play basketball. When we first met, I had a verbal agreement with his parents to receive 7% [of the earnings] from Giannis' first contract with the NBA. And I asked them to invite me to dinner so we could eat pepper soup, the traditional Nigerian food. I'm still waiting for both."

VICE tried to communicate with the Antetokounmpo family, but they could not be reached for comment.