Philadelphia, PA – “Gianni, Gianni, Gianni”, echoed in the Wells Fargo Center last night, following the basketball game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers. Some one thousand Greek-American fans waited for what seemed an eternity to see the NBA all star the “Greek Freak”. Their patience and chant eventually paid off when Gianni Antetokounmpo appeared from the locker room tunnel onto the Sixers home court where a pride filled audience cheered him on.
Greek Heritage Night was sponsored by the PGBL, GAHSP and Colonial Marble & Granite. For the third year in a row, Greek-Americans came out to cheer on their hometown team, watch one of their own sing the national anthem, celebrate Greek dancing at halftime and even shoot a few buckets at the end of the game on a professional court.
Two dance groups, one from Philadelphia, the other from Lancaster shared the dance duties. The pregame performance featured Zito Dance Troupe (Lancaster) who ran out on the court holding a Greek flag and streamers. “They are so excited; they couldn’t wait for this day. We brought 80 people with us to cheer them on”, said dance coach Despina Proithis. And then at halftime, local troupe, the Pan Macedonians of Philadelphia, came out and treated us to a syrtaki. Dressed in blue slacks, white shirts, and fishermens hats, the mix of men and women circled the floor tapping their shoes and yelling opa.
At the start of the game, Greeks stood taller than usual for the national anthem, when they heard Elena Iliadis of Cherry Hill, NJ. sing. Elena, a GOYA and church member of St. Thomas Greek Orthodox Church, nailed the anthem and the crowd let her know it. The cheers brought on a smile from Elena as she left the floor and the game began.
It was a quiet night that saw the Sixers struggling against the Milwaukee Bucks who held a comfortable lead all night. But for the Greeks who came out this evening, it really didn’t matter much. There were four sold out sections filled with Greek Americans who came to see one man. Even as you looked high into the rafters of the Wells Fargo Center, a Greek flag would be waving when he got the ball. In the stands behind his bench, small children wore his number 34. Along the sidelines, posters bearing his name were raised when he ran by. It may have been quiet much of the evening, but the crowd was bursting with enthusiasm in anticipation of seeing him. “This is the biggest Heritage night we host annually as part of the Sixers Heritage events,” said Evan Ostrosky of the Sixers. This year, ticket sales for this games were sold out. We Greeks knew why.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a man who has become an inspiration to Greece and Greek-American basketball fans around the world. Last night in Philadelphia they let him know it, as people of all ages waited for the humble star to show following the game. When he did, the crowd erupted, yelling his name. Antetokounmpo beamed as he looked over the crowd, then pulled up his own Iphone to take a picture of the overwhelming sea of fans. Minutes later, after addressing the crowd, Antetokounmpo signed autographs shook hands and spoke with reporters.
This was Antetokounmpo second visit now in three years to the city of brotherly love. Just moments before Antetokounmpo left the Wells Fargo Center, a banner was rolled out for a group shot, just like the last time he was here. During that visit, the banner read, “Greek Heritage Night.” But this time was different. Giannis Antetokounmpo was now part of a family, the Greek Americans of Philadelphia. And the banner said it all. “Philly Loves the Greek Freak.”