‘Ugo: A Homecoming Story’ is a heart-warming portrayal of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s first time in Nigeria

“I know I am Nigerian but you gotta go back”

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 6’11” NBA superstar, is in a hurdle surrounded by a pack of kids who barely reach up to his waist. “1! 2! 3!” he intones, “NBA!!!” the kids scream back at him. Giannis has rang out many hurdle breaks, probably hundreds, but this is one of those he most likely won’t forget—ever.

According to lore, Rowe Park in Yaba, is where the iconic basketball player and 2-time NBA MVP Hakeem Olajuwon was discovered. Over four decades later, there was Giannis, visiting the court, himself already an iconic basketball player and 2-time NBA MVP. It was a pilgrimage, it was also a homecoming. To even the most casual basketball fan and NBA follower, it is well-known that Giannis is also referred to as the Greek Freak. That nickname stuck really quickly because it fit so perfectly for an uber-athletic player whose primary features when he got into the NBA were his gangly, flailing limbs.

These days, the build is much different. A network of muscles from shoulders to toes that culminate in one of the most imposing physical figures in basketball history. He might as well be fashioned after a Greek god, or be referred to as one—even the brawny jawline suggests as much—but trademarks are premium, and Greek Freak is synonymous to the Giannis brand. Also essential is his Nigerian heritage, something Giannis has emphasised on a narrative level, shown in the biopic film ‘Rise’ and the WhatsApp-partnered short film, ‘Naija Odyssey’, and even in a design for his signature shoe line. These portrayals and discussions often centred on identity, the need for people to understand that “I like being the Greek Freak but I’m also a Nigerian Freak.”

As far as the visual representations of Giannis’ relationship with being Nigerian, the recent mini-documentary, ‘Ugo: A Homecoming Story’, is the most visceral one yet. “When I close my eyes, I can see Nigeria, even though I’ve never been there,” Giannis narrated on ‘Naija Odyssey’ while an Afro-funk arrangement played underneath. For several days in the summer of 2023, he didn’t need to close eyes and imagine, or rely on memories from his childhood and anecdotes from his parents. Along with his mum, Veronica, Ugo visited his parents’ birthplace and the country of their youth, for the first time ever.

The most obvious qualifying term for ‘Ugo’—also a collaboration with WhatsApp—is heart-warming, which shouldn’t be surprising considering the man himself. In the NBA, Giannis is known for his dominance, a battering ram who asserts his will by sheer force and unbendable will. He’s the type of player opposing teams build a wall against, because of how he easily obliterates single coverages and can barrel through multiple defenders on his way to scoring at the rim. The combination of his freakish abilities and an ultra-competitive drive makes him one of the more intimidating and intense players at the highest levels of basketball. It’s quite different off the floor, though. Ugo has shown himself to be incredibly jovial, the type of guy who amuses himself and wants to amuse everyone else with dad jokes.

A day after becoming an NBA champion, Giannis went to a Chick-Fil-A drive-through and ordered 50-piece nuggets, an obvious, fun reference to scoring 50 points in the closeout game of the finals series. Everyone is happy when they win but it takes a level of joy and levity to be that effortlessly endearing. After all, this is the guy who pokes fun at himself for being a not-so-good 3-point shooter. He’s also the kind of player that would try to rationalise being upset by a series loss because failure is relative but resilience is absolute. Joy and resilience, two things that are incredibly Nigerian.

In ‘Ugo’, several of the featured interviewees reinforce the trope of Nigerians being perennial seekers of happiness, and working really hard is sewn into wanting better for ourselves. In relation to the ‘Japaing’ era especially, that’s Giannis’ story, a son of two illegal immigrants who were both national sportsmen but moved in search of a better life, to an entirely new country where their family surname—Adetokunbo—was drastically altered. Basketball provided an opportunity for several of the Antetokounmpo brothers to create a better life for their family, and Giannis ran with it. By his sixth and seventh seasons, he had become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for two years in a row. He finally won the coveted championship chip in his eight, stacking a highlight of all-time NBA Finals plays.

Three years later, Giannis has explicitly stated that he’s hungry for more success. Part of that also stems from legacy considerations, and that applies away from basketball too. ‘Ugo’ is about touching your roots, going one giant step further than repeatedly acknowledging the spiritual origins of your traits and person even. The excitement on Giannis’ face is front and centre of the documentary. Arguably its most wholesome is an early sequence where Ugo spots a counterfeit Giannis jersey and goes to buy it, even haggling with the seller just because, you know, he’s Nigerian. Haggling is one of the things we do.

The rest of the documentary follows a laid out itinerary that makes sense from a cultural immersion standpoint: Going to watch surfers at Tarkwa Bay, a landmark area in Lagos despite recent displacement acts by the government; swinging by Rowe Park to surprise young hoopers; the Afrikan Shrine, a foundational spot for Nigerian music; and buying fish at the seaport market in preparation for a dinner prepared by a celebrated chef. There’s the trademark Giannis vigour in every conversation, and seeing him revel in the warmth of seeing extended family for the first time might as well melt your heart.

‘Ugo’ is worthwhile for seeing Ugo soak in all this experience. Where it gets compelling is in its depth, with Giannis bringing viewers into his own identity. Where ‘Naija Odyssey’ could veer into Meta and get unwieldy in defining its central person, there’s a more accessible approach to ‘Ugo’ that allows Ugo speak more spontaneously, as opposed to being heavily scripted. Around the lower middle part of the mini-doc, Giannis explains how he’s slightly more familiar with the Igbo side of his heritage, through a closer relationship with his mother, even though his Yoruba father disapproved.

The importance of Igbo people handing down their language, culture and practices to their offspring is not lost on anyone who understands the weight of the civil war in Eastern Nigeria back in the late 1960s. Already, there have been incredibly stupid tribalistic comments online, a holdover of the gross events and propaganda from the last election, with some being angry at Giannis for being more familiar with his Igbo heritage, regardless of how he’s never disparaged being Yoruba. During his visit, revered fashion house ALARA Lagos created custom traditional for Ugo and his mother Veronica, blending both his Yoruba and Igbo heritage into distinctly beautiful pieces.

“I know I am Nigerian but you gotta go back,” Giannis says near the very end of ‘Ugo’. “It allowed me to understand better who I am and what kind of person I want to be, what kind of son, what kind of husband, what kind of father I want to be.” It’s a profound encapsulation of what we already saw on screen in the prior 25-plus minutes. There are many things Giannis Ugo Antetokounmpo will never forget about his first time coming to Nigeria.