Charles and Veronica Adetokunbo – a Nigerian Odyssey
By Femi Olugbile
The story of young Nigerians deciding to take their fortunes in their own hands and seek new horizons, whether they sink or swim, did not start with the inclement political, security and economic realities of recent times, though it has certainly gathered momentum in that time.
In 1991, Charles Adetokunbo, a young Lagos boy who loved to play football, took a harsh look at his life, and decided to leave Nigeria. His wife Veronica was nursing their first baby, who was barely one year old. At 28, Charles’ early childhood dreams of becoming a professional footballer had long since gone into abeyance, and what he saw in front was not the future he wanted for himself or his family. Veronica felt the same. Both Charles, a Yoruba, and Veronica – an Ibo girl from the South-East of the country, had shown their independence of spirit by defying advice of family members and deciding to make a life together.
Once the young couple’s minds were made up, they were faced with the delicate challenge of persuading Charles’ mother to agree to look after little Francis, at least until they were able to settle in their new location.
Charles’ destination was Athens, Greece. It was off the beaten track as a destination for economic migrants, compared to London and Frankfurt. There is a certain logic and process to becoming a migrant in a European country. The desperate immigrant may tear up his original passport, destroying the most visible evidence of his origins and throwing himself entirely on the mercies of his new country.
The Adetokunbos were able to get into Greece. They settled in the Athens suburb known as Sepolia. Though they were allowed to stay in the country, they were not permitted to do regular jobs that could have earned them a decent living. They would only be eligible for that if, and when, their applications for Greek citizenship were approved. To cap their desperate situation, they could not now leave Greece and return to Nigeria, even if they changed their minds. They hunkered down, determined to make a go of their new life.
One year after they landed in Athens, Veronica gave birth to a second boy. They named him Thanasis. Two years later, another boy followed. He was named Giannis. He was also named Sina, in belated recognition of his father’s Yoruba origin, and Ugo – in deference to Veronica’s Ibo antecedents. The name Sina, with its meaning of ‘the opener of new doors, new possibilities’, would prove prophetic.
Kostas, the family’s fourth boy, was born in November 1997. And Alex, the fifth, was born four years later, in August 2001. Francis, the first born, meanwhile remained with his grandparents in Lagos.
There is a population of black people in Athens who make a hazardous, irregular living selling goods to tourists and Greeks on the streets. They are regularly harassed by Greek police. The Adetokunbos had blended into this population, and the children joined their parents in hawking handbags, watches and sunglasses on the streets.
Giannis was growing into a tall strapping youth. He began to play basketball with neighbourhood youths. He showed such flair that, by 2011, he was able to join a local third division team known as Filathlitikos. From there began a meteoric rise to fame and fortune, not only for him, but his entire family. First, a Spanish Club – CAI Zaragoza, came calling for the services of the exquisitely talented, gangling youth. Then, in 2013, he hit the jackpot, becoming a first -round pick for the National Basketball Association (NBA) in USA. He made his debut in the big time, playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, at the age of 18. That same year, he, and his older brother Thanasis finally received Greek citizenship.
Now a famous family, the Adetokunbos went on to retrieve their Nigerian passports in 2015, becoming dual citizens.
But a major change had taken place in their identity. In their Greek passports, their family name was changed to Greek text, then transliterated back, creating a neologism that had no meaning in Yoruba or Greek – Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo is now a name that is known all over the world. Even the originally cold Greeks are celebrating it, and proudly claiming it for their own. Gianis in 2017 became the youngest player to start in an All-Star Game, and the first Greek to become an NBA All-Star player. In 2019, he was named the Most Valuable Player in the entire League, a feat he repeated in 2020, when he joined Hakeem Olajuwon (remember him?) and Michael Jordan as the only players to win MVP and NBA Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. In 2020, he signed a $228 million contract with his team, the largest contract in NBA history. In 2021 he became the first non-American to win the accolade of All-Star MVP. In the same year, he led his team to win their first league championship in fifty years, also winning the MVP in the finals. His brothers Thanasis, Kostas, and Alex have achieved basketball distinction in their own rights, making the family perhaps the most famous and distinguished basketball family in the whole world.
Charles, sadly, died of a heart attack in 2017, at the age of 54. Veronica is alive and is the matriarch of a growing family. She alone is able to reflect in her private moments on a titanic decision she and her husband made in 1991 to give up their Nigerian lives, and embark on an adventurous quest into an unknown land and an uncertain future.
The story of the Nigerian family that became Greek is set to be told widely to the world in a Disney Plus biopic titled Lift, directed by Akin Omotosho – a Nigerian film maker and the son of Kole Omotosho, writer, and former president of the Association of Nigerian Authors. What goes around, it seems, truly comes around, sometimes.