Telling the story of Giannis

Award-winning film director Kristen Lappas ’09 takes on the project of a lifetime

Last October, basketball fans around the world waited anxiously to see whether NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo would stay with the Milwaukee Bucks, where he’d played for a decade, or sign with a bigger market team like so many before him. For Kristen Lappas ’09, the decision had major consequences—she’d just wrapped production on a documentary film chronicling Antetokounmpo’s miraculous rise to stardom. If he switched teams, her crew would have more work to do.

“It was funny, my bosses were saying ‘Oh my gosh, if he goes, we’re going to have to totally change the end of the film,’” she recalled. “But I had a really good feeling. He’s a very loyal person, and I didn’t think he was going to go.” Still, when Antetokounmpo agreed to a three-year contract extension worth $186 million, Lappas breathed a sigh of relief.

In February, , directed and produced by Lappas, debuted around the world on Prime Video. It features extensive interviews with Antetokounmpo and his family—the first they’ve ever granted—and tells the fascinating story of how an undocumented Black boy selling trinkets on the streets of Athens became a two-time MVP, world champion, and global icon.

Lappas, who majored in communication at Boston College, has been surrounded by sports her entire life (her father coached collegiate basketball at Villanova University), and has worked as a director and producer in sports media for 15 years. Twelve of those years were spent at ESPN Films where she won Emmy Awards for two short documentaries: Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible and A Mountain to Climb. In 2022, she directed Dream On, an award-winning multi-part documentary chronicling the 1996 women’s Olympic basketball team, part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series.

Lappas first met Antetokounmpo in 2019 while overseeing a documentary on sneaker subculture (Antetokounmpo was the first international player to launch a signature sneaker with Nike) and knew him as a charismatic jokester who was also notoriously private about his personal life. When her boss at Words + Pictures, the production studio where she now works, told her Antetokounmpo was ready to share his story, she knew it would take time to build trust.

“He’s a very unique personality,” said Lappas. “He doesn’t have a huge circle of friends, and the only thing he cares about in his life is his family. It was hard at first, trying to break through and get to the real him, but once you get there, he is one of the smartest, most introspective people I’ve ever met.”

A group of filmmakers standing on a basketball court

Antetokounmpo and Lappas at the film's premier. Photo courtesy of Kristen Lappas.

Antetokounmpo and his three brothers were born in Greece to Nigerian parents who fled Africa in search of a better future, leaving their first-born son in the care of relatives. The family was undocumented and they scraped together money for food and rent by selling watches, CDs, and sunglasses on the beach. Often there wasn’t enough, and one night, the family arrived home to find an eviction notice taped to their door. Fearful of deportation, they packed their things in a hurry, wheeling their refrigerator down the street on a skateboard.

In the early 2000s, immigrants were increasingly blamed for Greece’s financial collapse, and members of a far-right criminal organization called the Golden Dawn began attacking them in the streets. Antetokounmpo’s younger brother Alex remembers Giannis challenging him to daily races on the way home from school, fearful of what would happen if they were spotted near the Golden Dawn headquarters. During filming, Lappas wasn’t sure that Antetokounmpo would be willing to speak about the experience, but he did so without hesitation, tearing up on camera.

“I told him, in order for your story to be the most authentic, and for viewers to relate and connect to you, you’ve got to talk about the hard stuff,” said Lappas. “And I didn’t have to push. I think he feels a sense of responsibility now to share those stories.”

Despite his complicated relationship with Greece, Antetokounmpo still considers it home, and he and his brothers play for the national team. During the two years spent filming, Lappas flew to Greece four times, interviewing people who knew the family years ago, including a cafe owner who used to give the boys free food. Antetokounmpo and his fiancée Mariah live in Athens during the offseason, and the film includes touching footage of them at home with their two sons, joking about changing diapers.

Back in Milwaukee, everyone Lappas contacted was willing to speak on camera about “the Greek Freak,” who has transformed the Bucks organization during his time there. Coaches, players, and sports commentators—including big names like Jason Kidd, Vin Baker, Khris Middleton, and Kenny Smith—lent stories and commentary to the film. Even President Barack Obama was “an excited yes” to participate, said Lappas, but the scheduling didn’t work out.

Bucks assistant coach Josh Oppenheimer shared memories of Antetokounmpo’s early years in the NBA, when he was still acclimating to life in the U.S. At the time, Bucks staff took 18-year-old Antetokounmpo under their wing, taking him to try his first smoothie, teaching him to drive, and explaining that he didn’t have to take home his dirty laundry. Antetokounmpo sent money home to his family frequently, and one time, 30 minutes before a game, he reached his ATM limit and didn’t have cash for a taxi. He started running to the stadium in the bitter cold, and was picked up by a family driving to the game. When Oppenheimer asked who dropped him off, Antetokounmpo responded that he didn’t know, but that they were “very nice people.”

“That’s the goodness in him,” said Oppenheimer. “He saw the best and he sees the best in everybody.”

As she grew closer to Antetokounmpo, Lappas was continually surprised by his ability to analyze his own experiences, including difficult events like the sudden death of his father in 2017. When she asked how he was able to elevate his game after such a tragic event (he won his first of two MVP rings the following season) Antetokounmpo delivered a perfect sound bite about what it means to feel no fear.

“I was shocked,” recalled Lappas. “He would always surprise me with his answers. It was never what I expected him to say based off my research, it was always this really forthcoming, reflective approach to the question.”

A group of filmmakers standing on a basketball court

Lappas and the crew of 'Giannis: The Marvelous Journey. '

Late last year, the Antetokounmpo family gathered at home to watch Giannis: The Marvelous Journey before its release. Lappas was nervous (“It’s literally the most nerve-wracking part of the entire process,” she said) but the family’s reaction was everything she’d hoped for: emotional, grateful, and proud. Giannis, who jokingly arrived at the screening with a notebook in hand, told Lappas he had no notes.

“As a storyteller and a filmmaker, you do it for the audiences, but for me, I do it for the subject,” Lappas said. “The fact that the family feels like it’s done their story justice, and that it’s authentic, and not fabricated or exaggerated, was really important to me. To look over at his family sitting on the couch with tears streaming down their faces, that to me is the most rewarding part of all.”

For her next project, Lappas is staying in the basketball world, directing a series for ESPN on women college athletes including Iowa star Caitlin Clark, expected to be the number one pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft. While she’s excited for a slower schedule (Lappas was editing Giannis up until the day she gave birth to her daughter in June) there’s always an adjustment period between assignments, she said.

“You’re living and breathing somebody’s story for so long, and then all of a sudden it just stops,” she explained. “It’s bittersweet for sure.”