Once Giannis Antetokounmpo began traveling for his career, the basketball player started to rely heavily on WhatsApp to stay connected with his friends and family. Like most who have to communicate through channels due to distance, WhatsApp stands as a premier and reliable service that works seemingly anywhere there is Wifi. “As a Nigerian born and raised in Greece and currently living in the US, I have always felt both a strong connection and a longing distance to each part of who I am and where I have come from,” he tells ESSENCE.
Earlier this year, it was announced that the Milwaukee Bucks, Power forward, and WhatsApp were in partnership at the NBA All-Star game as Antetokounmpo wore a custom hoodie during his tunnel walk.
The first initiative in the duo’s partnership introduces a four-chapter short film titled Naija Odyssey, directed by international duo Nono Ayuso and Rodrigo Inada, and narrated by Antetokounmpo and his mom is an experience that basketball surely will never forget. The film is a loose adaptation of the Greek epic poem The Odyssey, which parallels Antetokounmpo’s life and many others like him. Sure to tug on heartstrings, Naija Odyssey shows there’s always a way to connect to those you love, even though they might be on the other side of the globe, something that international basketball star Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t new to.
Antetokounmpo shares his experience working with WhatsApp to ESSENCE below.
ESSENCE: How did you do feel when you established the partnership with WhatsApp and what was the process like?
Giannis Antetokounmpo: I was happy. I was extremely happy. Just being a brand ambassador for this very well-established platform, was amazing. I asked myself, “Why me?” Then they explained to me, my family’s story and the way it connected to them, feels authentic. And I was pretty excited, but when they told me the first time, I was like, “Man, have they ever worked with anybody else like this?” and they said, “No, you’re the first one.”
What was that process like?
Antetokounmpo: To be honest, I tried not to get myself involved at all with the back and forth. He’s the one that does it [points to the manager]. I just try to focus on basketball. But I know whatever they tell me to do, I’ll do, as long as it can be authentic. When they brought the whole plan, I was like, “Okay, it feels good. When my mom watches, she is going to be extremely proud. She’s going to be happy about it. So, and then we decide to work together.
So this isn’t something totally out of your realm, as you’ve done a bit of acting in the past. Was the process similar in any way to your acting experience?
Antetokounmpo: From when I got to the NBA, I’ve done a lot of short films. I’ve improved, but I’m still not like Robert Downey Jr, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, or Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m not one of those guys. Maybe I will one day.
So with narrating this story, what were the moments that it clicked for you, that the story was about connecting with other people?
Antetokounmpo: When I was filming, when I was looking outside the window and thinking about my family and what they were going through and what I had to go through that day, it felt like it hit home. Because when I went there in the States, the first time they put me in this hotel and they had me there for three months. I was like, “When is my family going to come? When is my family going to come?” I was trying to figure out ways to connect with them and I did it through WhatsApp.
I’m not the only person in the world that feels this way. There are some people that live 10,000, to 20,000 miles away, and the only way they get connected and feel like they’re there is through the app. But I think we’re pretty, extremely blessed to have this technology because when my parents left Nigeria, in 1990, they weren’t able to do that, they weren’t able to see their parents, talk to them, or connect to them. So it definitely hit home and hope people relate to the moment.
While narrating the story, what were the moments that made you relate to the story arc of Naija Odyssey, as you grew up in Greece?
Antetokounmpo: There are a lot of moments because a lot of people don’t understand that I’m not just Greek, I’m Nigerian, and there are a lot of times that you might be in a place where you feel like you don’t belong to anybody. That’s how I felt my whole life growing up, and it wasn’t because of my parents. My parents were trying to provide us with a better life. But sometimes people around you make you feel that way. And then you really think that you don’t belong anywhere.
Now that I’m older, I know my roots. I know where I’m from, and I’m a Nigerian that was born in Greece. I know Nigerian culture. I know the Greek culture. I know Nigerian music. I know Greek music. I’ve ate Nigerian food. I ate Greek food. I’ve done it both, and whoever doesn’t want to accept it can, what did you guys say here in America, “kick rocks”?
How was it hearing your mom’s voice in the narration?
Antetokounmpo: Just hearing the voice you hear your whole life from your childhood until now my being an adult, it’s amazing. And it’s always going to be there. Nobody can take that moment away from her, or from me. It was special.
What does the, “There’s no one like us” narrative mean to you?
Antetokounmpo: There’s no one like us. I’ve never seen a lot of people whose immigrant parents are illegal, born in Greece, thrive in the states, and understand both. It’s hard. It’s like going to the lab and throwing all the mix together. There’s no one like us out there.
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