To Nigerian sports fans, there’s nothing more important than bragging rights. Beyond supporting their national teams, they are particularly quick to claim any sports star with even the slightest hint of Nigerian Heritage.
It’s why Kamaru Usman (Nigerian-Nigerian) was trending in Nigerian social media circles last month after clinching the historic Fighting Championship win.
Other Nigerian stars that have well celebrated include world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua and other mainstream athletes. However, this level of “Naija” affinity has not been seen for NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the favorites for the coveted Most Valuable Player award.
Born to Nigerian immigrants in Greece, Giannis has been a key player for the Milwaukee Bucks, currently holding the best record in the league. After joining the Bucks in 2013, Giannis has set several records as part of a steady streak, boosting the chances of the team’s first NBA championship since 1971.
While Giannis has become a household name in American sports, that’s not the case in Nigeria. The obvious reason is that most people can’t relate his name, Antetokounmpo because of the way it’s spelled. In fact, most people are familiar with numerous luck numbers draw on Betway than his Nigerian name. Select your draw at https://www.betway.com.ng/luckynumbers for a chance to win daily.
After Giannis go his citizenship in 2013, his surname “Adetokunbo” became Romanized and changed to Antetokounmpo. That stripped him of the obvious heritage link that most people relate. Nonetheless, the Greek Freak, as he’s dubbed, has embraced his Nigerian Heritage and he even obtained a Nigerian passport in 2015.
The NBA star visited Africa in 2015 for the first NBA Africa game in South Africa, and he’s expected to visit Nigeria soon. However, Giannis was already on his way to becoming a full Greek international player even before he became an NBA star. As such, he can’t play for the Nigerian national team, but that’s not to say that Nigerians only root for those who fly their flag.
Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the greatest basketball icons in Nigeria, won the gold medal with the US third dream team in Atlanta at the 1996 Olympics. The Houston Rockets legend became a two-time NBA champion and was a strong draw for local media and sports fans. Hakeem moved to the United States to play college basketball and eventually ended up among the top NBA draft pick. His success spurred a lot of mainstream interest in NBA in a football-crazed country.
Since Hakeem, the growth and success of other Nigerian-American players in the NBA have seen the sport gain a lot of popularity locally. These players include Golden State Warriors’ Andre Iguodala, New Orleans Pelicans’ Emeka Okafor and Victor Oladipo (Indiana Pacers).
With Antetokuonmpo’s global stock skyrocketing, the coveted MVP prize and fairytale championship run could see him more popular than the most famed in the country. His rise will also make him the center for the NBA’s plans to expand its fan base in Africa.