It’s been a week of firsts for Giannis Antetokounmpo. The NBA All-Star is four days removed from picking up his first league MVP trophy and is about to officially become the first European-born basketball player to get a signature Nike sneaker. He’s in his hometown of Athens, Greece, to fete his shoes to an audience of international media.
“Can I touch it?” Antetokounmpo asks, with the humility of a child asking their parents for permission, as he reaches for the sneaker on display. You’d think after the MVP-caliber season he just had, he’d be comfortable enough to brazenly pick up the sneaker that bears his own name. But instead, he’s still coming to grips with the fact that he’s reached a level that only a few elite players have.
“It’s weird, but I’m getting used to it,” Antetokounmpo says. “At first, when I saw people in my jersey, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s my name.’”
Being ordained with a signature Nike sneaker, or signature sneaker in general, is not something many NBA players achieve. Assuming you don’t go the BBB route and start your own brand, it’s an accomplishment that signifies a company is willing to invest in your career for the long term—not only because of your athletic ability, but also for your ability to inspire people (to buy stuff).
“Obviously I realize that I’m a role model now and I have to set the right example,” Antetokounmpo says. “I think guys like Magic, Larry Bird, Kobe, LeBron have set a great example for the next generation, so now I want to do the same thing.”
Antetokounmpo’s been a Nike athlete since he was 17 years old. He had an opportunity to leave the brand in 2017, but chose to stay despite some big-time offers from other companies. During his sneaker free agency, Adidas pulled up with a truck full of Yeezys in an attempt to lure him away from Nike. Chinese brand Li-Ning reportedly had an eight-figure deal on the table. Nike’s offer to Giannis would not just include his own collection, but also the opportunity to invest back into his home.
“That means more to me than a signature sneaker,” Antetokounmpo says at one of the three outdoor basketball courts in Athens that Nike refurbished in his honor. Another of those courts is the one he and his four brothers would frequent during their childhood in the neighborhood of Sepolia (he’s broken the backboard a few times with dunks). The brand also is working in tandem with Antetokounmpo’s foundation on basketball clinics and educational initiatives in Athens.
Then there’s the product itself. Getting your name on a pair of sneakers is one thing, but the actual process of making it for the first time is another. Antetokounmpo recalls walking into the first meeting with his design team and being overwhelmed by the amount of people in the room.
“Once I went to the meeting, they told me basically, ‘This is your show.’” he says. “Obviously I cannot design the shoe, but they asked me how I want the shoe to look and what story I wanted the shoe to say.”
The narrative that Antetokounmpo wanted to convey with the sneaker is a tribute to his family. There are design nods on the Zoom Freak to his brothers and parents. Some are overt, like the names of his brothers and mother inscribed on every midsole. Others are more subtle, like rose pattern on the outsole, an homage to Antetokounmpo’s late father, who passed away shortly after the Nike meeting that locked Giannis in with the brand, which he attended.
The MVP wanted the sneakers to act as reminders of where he came from every time he stepped on the floor. Antetokounmpo’s parents were immigrants from Nigeria to Greece, where they made it by hawking sunglasses on the street.
"We’ll have other signature shoes coming out next year and the year after, so I wanted to learn.”
“I was living underground in a room with my brothers, but definitely I never lost my identity,” he says. “I had it bad, but probably my mom had it, like, 10 times, 20 times worse than me.”
Growing up in poverty in Athens helped the brothers forge a special bond. Giannis’ older brother Thanasis recalls sharing one pair of sneakers with his younger brother during basketball games.
“People think it was hard, but it actually was fun,” Thanasis says. It was Thanasis who got Giannis into playing basketball 12 years ago. “Say Giannis is playing and then he has to sub out and I gotta switch shoes, come in, and play. And then you beat the other team, and the other team is looking at you crazy.”
Following a stint in the Greek league, Thanasis will be Giannis’ teammate once again after signing a two-year deal with the Milwaukee Bucks. He says it feels like this signature sneaker isn’t just for the NBA MVP, but for the entire family. Their younger brother Kostas was also drafted into the NBA in 2018 and is currently playing for the Dallas Mavericks Summer League team. Each Antetokounmpo brother has his own exclusive colorway of the Zoom Freak 1.
“I feel like this is an accomplishment for all of us,” Thanasis says. “He works really hard, and this is a motivation for us and my brothers because it shows anything is possible. We just keep working hard and success comes.”
Antetokounmpo approached making his first signature sneaker and having an annual collection with Nike the same way he does the game of basketball. Nike senior design director Ross Klein recalls the player bringing a notebook to design meetings and taking notes at each session.
“No matter if it’s him being an MVP or mastering basketball within 12 years, he’s always wanting to get more knowledge,” he says. “It's a pretty beautiful thing to see an athlete just always stay who they are.”
Since he’d never been involved in the sneaker-making process before, Antetokounmpo says the notebook was his way of keeping a ledger, of sorts, that will be useful for the future of his sneaker line.
“It was my first time. We’ll have other signature shoes coming out next year and the year after, so I wanted to learn,” Antetokounmpo says. “I still got my notes, so I could go a year back and see what I was thinking at the moment.”
But even with all the accolades he’s received in such a short span of time, he’s still getting used to the fact that it’s his show now. Perhaps he’s been able to earn all of those accolades because he consciously tries to keep himself from letting things get to his head.
If you want a glimpse into what Antetokounmpo values most, look no further than his impassioned NBA MVP acceptance speech, in which he shared his late father’s advice: “Always want more, but don’t be greedy.” It was an address the player was extremely grateful to make but hasn’t gone back to rewatch since. He has tried, though.
“I was trying to embrace the moment and be in the moment. I can’t go back and watch the speech because if I do, I get emotional,” he says. “I tried to watch and I can’t. Once I got on the stage and looked out at all the people, I was thinking in my head, ‘How did I get here on this stage to get this award?’”
Now that he has a taste of being crowned the best in the NBA, he also hopes that it won’t be the last time he’s onstage to accept an MVP trophy. He already has his eyes set on next season, with annual training camp with his older brother Thanasis starting this month.
“Going back to back MVP is definitely a goal,” he says. “I’m trying to be in the MVP conversation until the end of my career.”
Some critics will point out that Antetokounmpo will have to add a three-point shot to his repertoire in order to get there again and for the Milwaukee Bucks to win a championship. While he acknowledges it is something he wants to work on to help mitigate the wear and tear on his body from aggressive drives in the paint, he doesn’t believe it will make him any more of an elite player.
“I’m trying to be in the MVP conversation until the end of my career.”
“I just won the MVP with no three, right? I feel like I can still win a championship not shooting the three,” he says, citing Magic Johnson’s lack of three-point shooting ability as a reference. Antentokounmpo also acknowledges that adding range from behind the arc will make it easier on his teammates. His older brother declined to say what skills they’ll be trying to hone this summer. “I want to shoot the three. I shot the three a little bit better this year, and as the season went on, I was getting better.”
It’s scary to think that Antetokounmpo is still getting better. Entering his seventh NBA season, only time will tell how many more trophies, signature sneakers, and accolades he’ll pick up over the rest of his career. Still, he realizes that there’s nothing like No. 1.
“Being this is the first MVP and the first shoe, I’m definitely going to remember this moment for the rest of my life,” he says. “You know there’s going to be another shoe coming out, or there might be another MVP, but there's never going to be anything like the first ones.”