‘My long lost son’: Milwaukee woman recalls time she gave Giannis Antetokounmpo a ride to arena during his rookie season
MILWAUKEE — As the Milwaukee Bucks prepare for the parade of a lifetime Thursday afternoon, Milwaukee resident Jane Gallop is once again led to reminisce on of a different type of route she once took with the team’s most valuable player.
A UW-Milwaukee professor, Gallop’s fandom began in earnest in 2001 when she developed a love for the team while watching with her son as the Bucks made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The decade to follow put her fandom to the test. The team failed to move past the first round of the playoffs. A half dozen coaches tried, and failed, to right the ship. It had not been easy.
Yet eight years ago, she had a good feeling about the team’s draft choice.
“It’s 2013, and the Bucks suck,” she said. “Giannis is a rookie. I am such a serious Bucks fan, and I’m an optimist. I think, this guy, he’s going to be it.”
Antetokounmpo was a work in progress. He’d only been playing basketball for five years. He grew up poor. During his rookie season, he sent nearly his entire salary home to Greece in order to support his family. Very few people knew of his potential, let alone how to pronounce his name.
“I thought, maybe he could be the next Ray Allen,” Gallop said.
That November, Gallop learned the one thing Antetokounmpo was truly unprepared for – a Wisconsin winter.
“We’re out shopping and I see like two blocks away, a very tall person running, and I think it looks like it might be Giannis,” she said. “He’s running, he’s wearing jeans and a windbreaker, and it’s 18 degrees out.”
Dumbfounded at the sight of the 7-foot tall teen running through the city’s downtown, she offered him a ride.
“We drive up right next to him, (my boyfriend) rolls up right next to him and says do you want a ride? He asked if we were going to the Bradley center.”
Then, the 18-year-old got into the car with two total strangers. While Gallop’s may have been driving a Honda Fit, Antetokounmpo did not.
“He climbs into the backseat of our car. He was at the time, he was maybe 6’9, maybe 6’10, and we have a really little car,” she said. “He’s sitting in the backseat, all folded, like his knees up to his chin.”
A true Midwesterner, Gallop couldn’t help what she said next.
“I say ‘You’ve got to wear a winter jacket!’ This is my concern. I’m old enough to be his mother. I know he’s never been in cold weather because it doesn’t get this cold in Greece. I said ‘You’ve got to get a winter jacket!’ He said ‘My credit card doesn’t work and I’ve sent all my money to my parents!’ He explained to me he was at Western Union sending all his money to his family, then he had no way to get to the Bradley Center because he had no money and alone. He decided he was going to run what was like 2-3 mile (to the Bradley Center).”
The ride itself didn’t last long. So short, in fact, Gallop didn’t even think to ask for a photo.
“I got his autograph,” she said. “I took out a piece of scrap paper from my purse, I said I want your autograph in English and in Greek. He signed it in both. We got out of the car, I shook his hand and I said good luck.”
It wasn’t until years later she’d learned a Bucks assistant coach had watched as Giannis exited the unfamiliar car, only to berate him for getting in such a car to begin with.
“(They were) watching some strangers drop off their new rookie who was like, the hope of the franchise, and they say to them ‘Who was that’? And he said to them, ‘I don’t know but they were very nice.’ They said to him ‘In America, you can’t take rides with strangers’, so he never did again.”
Years later, Gallop holds the memory close, wearing her green #34 jersey with pride. After all, maybe it never could have happened without her.
She, like many, feels a certain bond with the star player. As he has grown, the city has grown too. They are one in the same.
“I think he means everything to the city,” Gallop said. “This is a city where things are rough. The economy has been rough, the downtown was half empty, we went through a pandemic…He is somebody where adversity just means, ‘Ok, that’s life, I keep going, and I keep doing my best’.”
As Giannis wept tears of joy Tuesday night, so did Gallop – watching in Scotland, with her son who now lives and works there. During the moment, she saw Antetokounmpo as a man transformed through his hard work and determination. She also, however, still saw the 18-year-old sprinting to practice, no car, no cash, trusting enough of his surroundings to accept a ride from a total stranger.
“I’m so thrilled to have this little connection to this magnificent person,” Gallop said.
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