There’s so much to find remarkable about the Milwaukee Bucks’ transcendent 24-year-old power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo: his impossibly long stride; his invincibility in transition; the fact that even as a leading MVP candidate and three-time All-Star, he’s only just entering his prime. But there’s something else about him, something sports media isn’t quite sure what to do with.
“Can you pronounce Giannis’ last name?” Kenny Smith dared his Inside the NBA co-host Shaquille O’Neal last week, during TNT’s coverage of the 2019 All-Star Game draft. Antetokounmpo had joined the broadcast with fellow captain LeBron James to pick teams for the Feb. 17 game. Shaq took the bait: “Giannis Ante-ka-noon-po. Is that right, my brother?”
No, Antetokounmpo told him with a weary smile, it wasn’t right. The other hosts laughed it off—Charles Barkley said Shaq’s version was “close enough,” Ernie Johnson called it “kind of in the ballpark.” There was some more chatter about the pronunciation, which Antetokounmpo brought to a close with a tactful “Just call me Superman.” Later, Bleacher Report tweeted the bit with the crying-laughing emoji.
The exchange was emblematic of a strange paradox. Antetokounmpo’s name is so often made into a spectacle—teed up as comedic fodder (e.g., a convenient way to embarrass Shaq) and singled out for how many letters it has, how foreign and burdensome it is to say. At the same time, his name has been met with a frustrating flippancy, as if those many letters are an excuse for people not to have learned it at all.
An ethnic name isn’t a punchline, and a name’s origins in an unfamiliar culture aren’t a free pass to mispronounce it. Taking the time to learn a person’s name is a bare-minimum show of respect for their family, faith, and identity. Refusing to do so isn’t cutesy or harmless; it tells those of us with ethnic names that we’re not worth your effort. Antetokounmpo has been in the NBA for six years. He’s arguably the league’s best player. At this point, there’s no excuse not to know his name.
Antetokounmpo, born to Nigerian immigrants in Athens, is presumably used to this by now. In 2013, the Milwaukee Bucks released a short Media Day video asking the then rookie’s teammates to hazard a guess at it, to disastrous results. (John Henson left out a syllable, which Ersan Ilyasova made up for about nine times over.)
In the middle of the star’s breakout season a few years later, Fox Sports Wisconsin did a similar experiment with Bucks fans, who did only marginally better.
Antetokounmpo admits there are a few acceptable ways to say his last name, the result of inexact transliteration from the Yoruba version (ah-det-oh-KOON-boh) to Greek (where it became an-tet-oh-KOON-poh).
He himself switches between them across media appearances. Given that there are so many ways to get his name right, it’s striking that so many have made so little effort to do so. Chicago Bulls color commentator Stacey King tried and failed spectacularly with the five syllables, ending up with something to the effect of “Anagarunbo.” Marv Albert’s no less than a dozen attempts at the 2017 All-Star Game ranged from “Anchootekembo” to “Antetokooko.” Kevin Hart, in charge of introductions at last year’s All-Star Game, didn’t even bother to try. He welcomed Antetokounmpo to the court with “His last name can make your breath stink and your mouth dry,” proffered a few exaggerated, jokey attempts, and then simply introduced him as Giannis.
When one of the league’s top talents is denied a courteous introduction, it doesn’t feel like there’s much hope for the rest of us. So we end up shortening and mispronouncing our own names to accommodate other people, losing pieces of our heritage in the process (see the Dear Abby advice columnist’s recent recommendation that future parents eschew ethnic names altogether). The sad reality is that even fame doesn’t guarantee respect. Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (en-DOM-uh-ken SOO) said in a radio interview last spring that he’d started going by Suh rather than Ndamukong because he was tired of hearing his first name get botched. “My first name means a ton to me,” he said. “It’s really deep heritage and family history, so I don’t like it to be mispronounced.” Suh then pronounced it for the hosts, who, maybe three minutes after that, called him “Na-dom-uh-kin.”
It’s OK to struggle with a new name initially. Sure, sometimes letters are silent, or certain consonant combinations are tricky. Those of us with long ethnic names get it. But at the very least, make a good faith effort. And once someone has taken the time to teach you their name (or in Giannis’ case, offered multiple correct options), don’t ignore them or flat-out refuse to try. Especially if you’re a sportscaster and a not insignificant portion of your job is saying athletes’ names out loud.
During last summer’s World Cup, Australian TV anchor Lucy Zelić was criticized for pronouncing players’ ethnic names correctly, a refusal to anglicize that some viewers saw as obnoxious overpronunciation. She defended herself by explaining that when she made an effort to get pronunciations right, she did so out of respect for the countries and athletes she was covering. It’s really that simple.
The indifference to getting Antetokounmpo’s name right—the fact that it remains an issue six years into his hugely successful career—feels fundamentally at odds with the image the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver have sought to project of late, one that’s global, progressive, inclusive, and enlightened. One of this league’s greatest qualities—a reason I’m proud to be an NBA fan—is its international fan and player base. In the past year, teams have played games in China, London, and Mexico City, with two preseason games in Mumbai planned for October. On opening night of the current season, the NBA had more than 100 active players who were born outside the U.S. Many others are the children of immigrants.
Basketball has long been a testament to the idea that there is strength and value in diverse teams. The 2014 San Antonio Spurs had a championship-winning roster that included Manu Ginóbili, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard, and Tim Duncan, who hail, respectively, from Argentina, Brazil, France, California, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s the league of Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon, John Collins and Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Love and Arvydas Sabonis, and it’s a far better league for that.
Hopefully Shaquille O’Neal will figure out how to say Antetokounmpo very soon if he hasn’t already. If not, he’d better keep practicing. Giannis is only getting started, and he has two talented younger brothers.