Politics, Moderate



Giannis Antetokounmpo Biopic 'Rise' Is a Summer Inspirational Hit

Jessica Johnson on

"Rise," one of the best summer movies this year, did not get as much attention as some of the most anticipated films such as "Jurassic World Dominion," "Top Gun: Maverick" and "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness." "Rise" is a biopic based on the lives of NBA superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and his older brother, Thanasis, who both currently play for the Milwaukee Bucks. The film chronicles the financial hardship of Giannis and Thanasis' Nigerian parents, Charles and Veronika, after they left their firstborn son, Francis, in Lagos with relatives in 1990. Charles and Veronika planned to emigrate to Greece for a better future and later send for Francis, but they barely eked out a living as street vendors, and their family grew with Giannis and Thanasis in addition to their younger brothers, Kostas and Alex. Charles and Veronika were constantly under the threat of deportation from Greece and were victims of a xenophobic system that blocked them from receiving legal work permits and citizenship. Basketball, which Giannis and Thanasis began playing as teens, opened the door for the family to get out of poverty.

"Rise" did not debut in theaters but was released on Disney+ in June. Giannis is the executive producer, and the film received excellent reviews as critics raved over the acting of real-life brothers Uche and Ral Agada, who play Giannis and Thanasis, respectively. What I enjoyed most about "Rise" is that it displayed the resilience of a family who clung to their faith in God, had a strongminded work ethic and never lost hope for a prosperous life against formidable odds. I know that this sounds somewhat cliche for a sports movie, but "Rise" doesn't make the misstep of pouring on thick, feel-good vibes. It doesn't have to because the story is enthralling enough on its own. One of the scenes that resonated the most with me was when Veronika explained why she chose Giannis' name. "In Greek it means John like the Apostle," Veronika said to Nigerian friends, and she chose his surname Ugo, meaning "a crown that God has given that nobody can take away." At that moment, she spoke a powerful purpose of destiny over her son.

With Giannis being one of the premier faces of the NBA, his family's story has inspired many people, not just enthusiastic basketball fans. I also think that Giannis' journey to play professionally will shed more light on how difficult it is to make an NBA roster and encourage kids to prioritize getting an education, as Giannis' parents emphasized to him and his brothers. According to a 2020 NCAA study, of the 540,769 male high school basketball players that year, only 18,816 continued playing in college. Of those 18,816 players, which included all college divisions, only 1.2% made it to the NBA. Giannis had an even harder path due to being an undocumented immigrant playing on Greece's Filathlitikos senior team, and when he declared for the 2013 NBA draft, he was in the shadow of college stars like Kentucky's Nerlens Noel and Michigan's Trey Burke. Getting selected as the 15th pick by Milwaukee was the miracle his parents had been praying for.

As I learned more about Giannis' life from watching "Rise," one of his attributes that I admire most is his humility. In this era that many older adults deride as the "me generation," humbleness exhibited by an elite athlete may seem rare, but Giannis will never forget the difficulty of his childhood. In answering a question about his life during an interview as he and Thanasis were leading Milwaukee to the 2021 NBA championship, Giannis spoke about keeping his ego in check and not falling to the temptation of pride. Although he was specifically referring to his performance in the Finals, I'm sure in the back of his mind he was also thinking about how he and Thanasis once had to share the same pair of Nike sneakers when they were playing in the Greek youth leagues and how he and his family were constantly on the brink of eviction from their cramped, one-bedroom apartment. He referred to humility as a skill he strives to master. That's a compelling message for today's young athletes, and I'd add another quote from Giannis' mother Veronika in "Rise": "Give it your all and let God do His work."



Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at smojc.jj@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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