Disney’s RISE is based on the triumphant real-life story about the remarkable family that produced the first trio of brothers to become NBA champions in the history of the league—Giannis and Thanasis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kostas Antetokounmpo.
Audiences have never seen a story like that of the Antetokounmpos, which mixes Nigerian heritage, Greek nationality and extraordinary athletic ability. In “Rise,” audiences will witness how one family’s vision, determination and faith lifted them out of obscurity to launch the career of three NBA champions—two-time MVP Giannis and his brothers, Thanasis and Kostas. Last season, Giannis and Thanasis helped bring the Bucks their first championship ring in 50 years, while Kostas played for the previous season champs, the Lakers.
In celebration of Disney’s RISE, a press conference was held with screenwriter Arash Amel, director Akin Omotoso, Dayo Okeniyi who plays Charles, Yetide Bakadi who plays Veronika, and brothers Ral Agade and Uche, who play Thanasis and Giannis. As well as the real Giannis Antetokounmpos, Thanasis Antetokounmpos, Veronika Antetokounmpos and Alex Antetokounmpos, who last season played for the Ontario Raptors 905, the NBA G League, and Kostas, who plays for this local team, L.A. Lakers.
After immigrating to Greece from Nigeria, Vera and Charles Antetokounmpo struggled to survive and provide for their five children, while living under the daily threat of deportation. With their oldest son still in Nigeria with relatives, the couple were desperate to obtain Greek citizenship but found themselves undermined by a system that blocked them at every turn. When they weren’t selling items to tourists on the streets of Athens with the rest of the family, the brothers would play basketball with a local youth team. Latecomers to the sport, they discovered their great abilities on the basketball court and worked hard to become world-class athletes. With the help of an agent, Giannis entered the NBA Draft in 2013 in a long-shot prospect that would change not only his life but the lives of his entire family.
“Disney approached us around 2018 giving us the opportunity to share out story with the world. We came together as a family. We decided that it was something we wanted to do. I think our story is very inspiring. A lot of people going to learn things about us they’ve never heard before. We really enjoyed the process,” said Giannis.
Giannis continued, “I am thrilled and honored that Disney+ is bringing my family’s story to people all over the world. My hope is it will inspire those in similar circumstances to keep the faith, stay true to their goals and not to give up on striving for a better life. Our story is such an amazing story where we started from and where we at right now. Everybody talks about us, about me, Thanasis, Kostas and Alex and Francis, but they always leave out our parents. We knew one day we going to tell them who the real heroes of this story are. When we came together in 2018 and we sat down as a family and said, we told ourselves this the right time to share to the world why we are here, who gave us the opportunity to sit in these chairs that we sit in which are my parents.”
Arash Amel, who had scripted 2018’s “A Private War,” about war correspondent Marie Colvin, was hired to write the screenplay. Amel says, “When I first heard the story, it was very clear we had an incredibly modern tale of triumph over adversity. What made it modern is that it’s a universal story. It’s a universal story family. It’s a story of faith and at the core of it, it’s a story about a very modern world where immigration and sort of cultural identity actually is sort of at the very root of it. And this ability for this wonderfully generous family to allow us into their lives and to be able to tell that story was really the genesis of it.”
Like any film, it’s important to find a director for the film who understands the Nigerian experience as well as the hardships of being an immigrant and moving to an entirely new place. After seeing Nigerian-born filmmaker Akin Omotoso’s 2016’s “Vaya,” he was struck by Omotoso’s compassion and sensitivity in handling the material, as well as his ability to deliver incredible acting performances. A Zoom call with the director convinced him that Omotoso was the perfect choice.
“Anyone who knows me knows I’m a basketball fanatic and love the NBA. I’m very fascinated, especially with African players in the NBA. So, in 2013, when Giannis was drafted, every year I’ll look at the draft and I’ll pick out who the African players are drafted; and when Giannis was drafted, I remember reading a story and I was like, ‘If ever I was to make a film about basketball and life, it’ll be this gentleman’s story’ and here we are now. So, I’ve always loved the story. I love the story of perseverance. The story of overcoming and just to be able to be telling the story with this amazing group and as Arash already says, this generous family that allowed us, is great,” said Akin.
When Charles and Vera left Nigeria, they had to leave their baby son Francis with his grandparents. Unable to secure a visa to Greece, they first went to Istanbul, where they were almost arrested in a police raid on their hotel. They managed to avoid detection on a bus to Athens and finally settled in Sepolia, a neighborhood north of central Athens. Vera gave birth to a son, Thanasis, and a few years later another son, Giannis. Soon there were two more sons, Kostas and Alex.
Since they were undocumented, Charles and Vera couldn’t work in the traditional way, caught in a Catch-22
situation, Vera says in the film, “No one will give us a payroll job without legal residency, and no one will give us legal residency without a payroll job.” To make ends meet, everyone in the family pitches in—Charles working as a handyman, janitor and day laborer, Vera as a caregiver, and the boys’ selling trinkets like sunglasses, watches and rosary beads to tourists on the streets.
Charles and Vera raised them to work together and operate as a unit, a team. Charles told them there’s no “I” in “team”; there’s not one person that wins above everyone. So, if one person on the team scores, everybody in the team scores. And that’s the way it is in their family. No decision regarding the family can be made without everyone weighing in. Each of them has a seat at the table.
Each of the brothers understood their duties toward each other. Which is not to say they all had the same personalities. As the eldest of the brothers, Thanasis was the one who set the pace. He was the leader. He felt the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. Thanasis was sensitive but also spirited, with a sense of fun and rambunctiousness about him. Giannis was the thinker, the worker, the observer, the gentle giant. Extremely capable but introverted. Says Amel, “He is just like a student of life.” Kostas was the comedian of the bunch, cheeky and quick-witted, who worshipped his two older brothers. And Alex was the youngest, absorbing everything and strangely mature for his age, which you wouldn’t expect from the baby of the family. According to Amel, Alex was “the glue that kept the family together, and often with the brothers he was the one that acted as a pacifier.”
“The thing for me that resonated immediately was the idea of the ability of the dream. To shine a light in really dark times. [I was] getting to read for this right in the middle of the pandemic. It had been a while since I had been on a set. I wasn’t sure if I would get on a set again and the thing about that time was that everything had to be incredibly intentional. I remember reading this script and it was one of those where the agency sent it. [I did] a quick read, [just] a couple of pages and I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those scripts. I think it was two, three a.m. when I was done, sobbing. I read it all in one day. I had to. I couldn’t put it down. I immediately sent that email to my agents, and I said, ‘I need to make this.’ We’re sitting here in what some would call a city of dreams with a company that unabashedly celebrates dreams. We get to make this piece of filmmaking that is an inspiring hour for family by an inspired family. That drew me from the very beginning,” said Yetide.
They received more than 400 submissions, which Goldmann and Omotoso watched and kept narrowing down. When they came upon a tape from a young man from New Jersey whose father is Nigerian, Uche Agada, they were struck by how much he physically resembled Giannis. They had U.S. casting directors Randi Hiller and Michael Morlani contact him for a video of him playing basketball. They were encouraged when Uche was immediately willing to shovel the newly fallen snow in his driveway in order to film himself. They figured if he was that eager, he must be able to play. A few days later, they received his tape and it confirmed he was a good basketball player.
“It’s a weird story, honestly. It’s crazy. I was just in bed one day and I was going on Instagram, and I see a screenshot of a tweet Giannis put out saying that Disney’s making a movie about his life and his family’s life and they’re looking for someone to play him and his brothers. So, I just clicked on a link, and I just send a video, just talking about myself. A few months later, I got a call back. I was never an actor prior to this, so this was very weird for me. So, when it said callback with a director of a movie, in my mind, I’m like, ‘yo, that’s crazy.’ I did that callback and did another callback. Eventually they told me I got the part, which is absolutely incredible. Then, couple weeks later, they asked me if I had any siblings and I said, ‘I had an older brother,'” said Uche.
“So, my little brother Uche calls me up one day. I mean, at this point, I know he’s in the movie and everybody’s just so happy that he’s in it. I’m so proud of him. So, when he calls me up saying, “Hey, you want to try out for the older brother?” I’m like, “What? That doesn’t make any sense. I just didn’t think that’s how things worked. So, I was like, “Of course, yeah, I’ll try out. Why not?” So, I sent in a tape and honestly, I felt like that tape was awful. I tried really hard, but I was like, I cannot get. I’m just going to do my best and send it in. So, then they say, “Oh, we need some basketball clips from you.” I’m like, “Okay, well, I know how to do that.” So, I go on the court, put in some clips, and then they asked me to do a chemistry read with my brother. I’m like, “Hm, all right.” ‘Because he is my brother. It shouldn’t be hard to act like that. So, we send it in and then right after Randy Hillard tells me, “All right, so you and your brother are going to go to Greece and shoot this movie all summer.” It was insane. Shocking. I couldn’t believe it,” said Ral.
The filmmakers wanted the basketball-game sequences in RISE to look different than how they’ve looked in past films. Since so many young people see sports through video games, they wanted to bring that “NBA 2K” approach to the film. To coordinate them, the filmmakers enlisted basketball supervisor Aimee McDaniel, who had worked on the films “Coach Carter” and “The Way Back,” saying she presented the most unique and collaborative vision about how to bring something different, something visceral, to a sports movie.
One of the first people they hired, McDaniel went through the script with them, and they broke it down. Each game in the film is meant to convey something about where the characters are in the film. McDaniel came back to the filmmakers with a ton of proposals for the “basketball choreography.” They discussed them at length, bringing in DP Thathe to discuss camera angles and every available cinematic tool to bring the film not the game itself but the feeling of the game and the feeling that the viewer is actually coming down the court. They ended up with five cameras on the court all the time capturing this basketball poetry.
“When I was watching the movie and I was watching myself basically. I was like ‘this guy studied me.’ There’s no way. I asked Akin, and he told me like they showed him clips, the way I use my hands, how I put my hands blah, blah, blah. There are so many things that goes into like the movie. At the end of the day, he did an unbelievable job. Everybody that played our family, they did an unbelievable job. We feel like they’re our family now and they’re a part of us,” said Giannis.
“Obviously, they’re real people. So, you’re going to have to study them: study the way they speak, their mannerisms, how they play, but also, they’re characters. You have to read the script, try and connect with that. I’m playing Thanasis the character, not Thanasis the man that stood in front of me. There’s a difference. I feel like a lot of our brotherly aspect is in the film, like, he’s playing my brother, and he is my brother. I feel like the most natural way to do that is just be brothers,” said Ral
“I’d say also, just that was very helpful, honestly, for him to be my brother. It was very easy. I remember the first day on set, we walked onto the basketball court, that was the very first scene we shot together. It made it easy because it’s like, again, this is my brother. So, I don’t have to act like ‘oh, this random guy is my brother.’ After like reading the script, and just doing the research, it all just became subconscious. Also, with the help from our directors, and our co-stars, because this is our first time ever doing this, we just ask questions. We were just like a sponge on set and really just tried to make it our own.,” Uche added.
For Thanasis, RISE is more than a movie and its message of support is something he hopes everyone takes away from the film. “It means support. It means like I have an army behind me know when I have my family with me. It’s hard to explain into words because it’s ingrained in my DNA. I’ve never felt any other way. I’ve never felt alone in my life, never. It’s a wonderful feeling and it means a lot now. Support each other, not only your family, but just people also you love, people you want to see move forward. I think where I am today, or where any of us is that today, I don’t think we would ever done anything remotely close if we weren’t together.” said Thanasis.