Giannis Antetokounmpo was named NBA MVP for the second straight year on Friday, putting him in rare company with some of the most storied superstars of all time. He marks the 11th player in league history to win the award in back-to-back years, which raises a question beyond basketball: Is Giannis the greatest Greek athlete of all time?
It’s tempting to throw these kind of labels around whenever a player ascends, but at 25-years old we know Giannis is going to be dominating in the NBA for at least another decade. It might seem premature to put him in this kind of lofty company, but let’s break it down.
NBA MVP (2019, 2020), 4x NBA All Star, 2x NBA All First Team, 2x NBA All-Defensive team, NBA Defensive Player of the Year (2020), 2x NBA All Second Team.
It would be remiss to explain Giannis’ story and his connections to Greece without appreciating the crushingly-difficult history he had in the country. The child of immigrants from Nigeria, Giannis had to wait 18 years before he could even become a citizen. Since he was born in Greece, but didn’t receive paper, he was neither officially Greek or Nigerian for much of his life. Giannis worked from a young age to help his parents, who struggled to find work because of their heritage, and it really wasn’t until his basketball skills emerged that he was truly accepted by his birth country.
When his talent blossomed, it exploded. Athletic, long, skilled at both ends of the floor. Antetokounmpo has done his best to put the Bucks on his back since being drafted by Milwaukee in 2013. Despite a disappointing finish in 2020, there’s no question that he is one of the biggest superstars in the league, and with more support around him would be contending for a title routinely.
Leonidas of Rhodes
12 time Olympic gold medalist (164 BCE - 152 BCE).
Unquestionably one of the greatest runner of all time, Leonidas of Rhodes changed how runners trained. Primarily known as a sprinter, Leonidas also excelled at middle distance running, and the hoplitodromos, which was a 400 meter sprint while wearing bronze armor and carrying a shield.
For over a decade Leonidas was unbeatable, and he never finished second in an Olympics race before his retirement. That “retirement” only happened because he died at the age of 36, by the way. Nobody knows how many more races he could have won.
FIBA Eurobasket MVP (1987), 8x Greek League Champion, 7x Green Cup Winner, 8x FIBA Euroleague Scoring Champion.
A hero of Greek-Americans, the New Jersey born Gallis moved from boxing to basketball as a child and showed tremendous skill. He attended Seton Hall, before being drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1979.
Injury cut short his NBA career, with the Celtics deciding not to offer Gallis a contract following an ankle injury. Instead he decided to return to his ancestral homeland, playing in the Greek league and leading Aris to the greatest success in team history. In 1980-81 he destroyed the league, averaging 44.0 points in the 26 game season, and becoming a legend in the process.
A testament to his skill and longevity, Gallis played an astonishing 16 seasons, averaging over 20.0 points each year, up until his last one. Depending on how Giannis’ career pans out it’s Gallis’ career to which he’ll be measured.
Theagenes of Thasos
1300 career wins, Olympic Gold Medalist
Nobody in the ancient world was a bigger badass than Theagenes of Thasos. The progenitor of sports tall tales, Theagenes was such a dominant boxer that a whole cottage industry evolved around him. Some said he carried a bronze statue of a god home at the age of eight. Others said he was the child of the gods themselves. Either way, in the ring he was unbeatable.
Also his statue was convicted of murder. Seriously. A man had a grudge against Theagenes and cursed it. Shortly after the statue fell on the man and killed him, causing the statue to be put on trial for murder and thrown in the sea as punishment. It was later brought back to land and people worshiped under it, believing it would bring them strength and good luck.
Konstantinos “Kostas” Kenteris
Olympic Gold Medalist (2000), World Champion (2001), European Champion (2002).
Kostas Kenteris is arguably the best Greek runner of the modern era. Despite a narrow field at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he still shocked the world by beating Britain’s Ato Bolden in the 200m final. Primarily a sprinter, Kenteris won numerous Greek and European championships throughout his career.
Euroleague Champion (2014), Greek Cup Winner (2010, 2013). Big. Delightful.
Compared to Shaq, the 6’10”, 400 pound center HAS to be included in any list where we discuss the best Greek athletes. I’m not going to try to sell you on his resume. Instead just watch this.