The PEN Ten: An Interview with Mirin Fader
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I took a class in college called “Women Writers” and when we read Beloved, I felt like my world cracked open. I had never been moved by a text before. I had never finished a book and thought to myself, “I want to read this again. And again. And again.” Beloved made me feel that way.
I felt like every sentence contained layers of meaning, and only by rereading would I even come remotely close to understanding them fully. I fell in love with the jazzy, auditory quality of Morrison’s prose and the way she seamlessly flows in and out of time and memory. The way she can write about horror and pain with eloquence. I would stay up late in the college library and read every one of her books over the course of the next few months. She became my inspiration to keep writing.
2. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
As a sports writer, I like to profile people that have interesting backstories or have compelling personalities. Sometimes people reduce athletes to what they can do on the basketball court or football field, but my approach is to figure out what drives them as people. What shaped them into the adults they grew into. Who raised them, where they came from. What moments of adversity defined how they operate and move through the world.
I am continually inspired by the number of stories there are to uncover in sports. Sometimes I watch an athlete and the curiosity unfolds, and suddenly I want to know everything about that person. A lot of the creative process is centered on reporting—digging for detail after detail, something I learned from my good friend and mentor Jeff Pearlman. He taught me to “always make the extra call.” I operate with the idea that there are so many people out there that are better writers than me, but I can vow to be the hardest-working, dogged reporter. That motivates me to do whatever I can to tell the person’s story with as much color as possible.
“As a sports writer, I like to profile people that have interesting backstories or have compelling personalities. Sometimes people reduce athletes to what they can do on the basketball court or football field, but my approach is to figure out what drives them as people. What shaped them into the adults they grew into. Who raised them, where they came from. What moments of adversity defined how they operate and move through the world.”
A lot of my inspiration comes from non-sports writing, such as fiction. I try to read at least one book a week. I’m inspired by writers like Ottessa Moshfegh, Louise Erdrich, Sigrid Nunez, Zadie Smith, and Mona Awad.
3. When did you first call yourself a writer? How did it feel?
I first called myself a writer, or really felt like a writer, when B/R Mag sent me to Philadelphia for my first assignment for them to profile the Little League sensation Mo’Ne Davis in 2017. I was a staff writer for The Orange County Register at the time, but I wasn’t really moving up there. Then, B/R reached out to see if I wanted to start freelancing for them.
I had never had a publication pay for me to travel outside of California to report a story. I wasn’t even old enough to rent a car! But my editor at the time—and now good friend—Christina Tapper, gave me a shot and sent me to Philly. When I was there in the basketball gym with Davis, watching her, taking notes, interviewing her, I really felt like I was slipping into a new life—one I had dreamt of for so long. It felt amazing and exciting and scary (I didn’t sleep the entire night before the interview!).
I was so energized and determined. And nervous—this was my “big break,” and I needed to perform. I remember Christina telling me I could expense meals, and when I bought a cheesesteak in the hotel (of course!), transcribing the interview that night, trying to figure out what the lede would be for the story, I felt like I was on the brink of my dream.
“I felt it was critical to portray the political climate [Giannis] grew up in, one where Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi criminal organization, was present in majority-migrant neighborhoods like his (Sepolia). Giannis is deeply proud to be Greek and Nigerian, and it’s important to hold that pride in our heads while also recognizing the backlash that he faced—and still faces—as a person of color in a majority white country.”
4. What inspired you to write a book specifically about Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo?
Elliott Pohnl, one of my editors at B/R Mag—where I became a full-time staffer after my tenure at The Orange County Register—suggested I profile Giannis’s youngest brother, Alex Antetokounmpo. Alex was one of the best high school players in the area at the time. I was curious what it was like being fourth in line, as the other Antetokounmpo brothers were quickly carving out their own careers outside of Giannis’s.
When I went to the family’s home in Milwaukee, I was surprised to see Giannis in the kitchen. I hadn’t known he was going to be there. I spent the day with him and the family (Veronica, the mother; Kostas, another brother; and Alex) at the home and at the Bucks practice facility. What started out as a profile on Alex actually became a profile about both Giannis and Alex. My other editor at the time, Jake Leonard, encouraged me to explore the relationship.
When the story ran, it revealed deeper, more vulnerable parts of Giannis. At the time, I felt like most of what people talked about was just his physical gifts—his “freakish” athleticism, his body. But what the story revealed, and what I was most curious about, was his mind. I felt like we knew so little about this budding superstar, other than: He sold trinkets on the streets of Athens, and then he became an NBA MVP. I felt like more storytelling was needed to figure out how he got from point A to point B.
As a book-obsessed nerd, I wanted to write a book for a long time. I never quite found the right topic or literary agent to represent me. But when I found an agent that believed in me (Anthony Mattero, Creative Artists Agency) and then this story that was deeply human, I felt like it would be a good idea to pursue.
“Though [the Antetokounmpos] didn’t have much money, they had each other. They were, in a sense, each other’s refuge.”
5. Identity seems like something that’s complicated for Giannis, as the son of Nigerian immigrants who was born and raised in Greece and who now plays basketball in the United States. The book covers the rough climate in Greece that Giannis grew up in and that still persists: one with rampant racism and immense difficulty for immigrants to obtain citizenship. And yet, through it all, Giannis has been vocal about his identity as a Greek and has proudly represented Greece on the country’s national basketball team. How did you come to understand Giannis’s sense of identity and his loyalty to Greece?
It’s complicated. I knew I couldn’t write a biography of Giannis without exploring issues of race and identity, because they are essential to who he is as a person. How he not only walks through the world, but how others treat him and view him. His story has been framed as this feel-good “fairytale,” “rags to riches,” “American Dream,” and I think that kind of sugarcoated framing does a disservice to the reality of his experience: that as many white Greeks as there were that did treat him with respect, dignity, and kindness (many of whom I profile in the book), that there were many—and still are many—that were/are racist toward him. They shouted racist epithets at him during games.
The Greek government dragged its feet on granting him citizenship, only providing papers once it became clear that Giannis had a real shot at going to the NBA. For most of his life, he was stateless—born in Greece, but unable to secure papers because Greece doesn’t offer birthright citizenship. I felt it was critical to portray the political climate he grew up in, one where Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi criminal organization, was present in majority-migrant neighborhoods like his (Sepolia). Giannis is deeply proud to be Greek and Nigerian, and it’s important to hold that pride in our heads while also recognizing the backlash that he faced—and still faces—as a person of color in a majority white country.
I made sure to interview young, Black Greek kids who are playing basketball today, largely because they are inspired by Giannis. But I also interviewed Black Greek childhood friends of Giannis, who were not able to ascend the way Giannis has, who are still trying to secure citizenship papers, to show that while Giannis’s journey is remarkable and inspiring, there are many people just like him who will never enjoy the advantages that he has. There are Nigerian journalists I spoke to who helped me understand how some Nigerian people would love a deeper connection and relationship to Giannis, and would like Giannis to speak more about his parents’ Nigerian roots and how it shaped Giannis.
6. I was struck by Giannis’s close relationships with his family, particularly with his brothers Alex, Kostas, and Thanasis, who all grew up together in Greece and shared everything from food to shoes due to the family’s financial hardships. What do you think made the Antetokounmpos’ bond so special as a family?
Though they didn’t have much money, they had each other. They were, in a sense, each other’s refuge. Though Giannis experienced hunger and difficulties in the family getting evicted numerous times, he also had a very happy childhood because his brothers were his best friends. They made a game out of everything. Even something as simple as walking to the bus stop, laughing, cracking jokes, play-fighting. They seemed to find joy in the most mundane activities.
Alex, the youngest brother, described perfectly to me why they were able to have such a tight bond: because nobody had any special treatment. They never fought because nobody was given anything individual to him. Each brother shared everything, and because of that, there was a sense of camaraderie that would enable them to get through each day.
“Giannis constantly professes his love for Greece. . . . He could not represent Greece with any more pride, respect, and dignity. And yet, those accomplishments—and the prestige and fame that he has brought to Greece—have not shielded him from bigotry. There are people in Greece who still refuse to accept him as Greek, and who only see him as Black. Although there are plenty (and many!) white Greeks who love and embrace Giannis, there are many who still do not. Both are true, and it seems pretty difficult for some people to hold both of these truths at once.”
7. Did your perception of Giannis change as you worked on the book, and if so, how did it change?
It did change. Giannis is always framed in terms of his athleticism, his aggression. How hard he plays, how “freakish” he can be on the open floor while dunking on someone. But the more I reported on him, I found the more softer, vulnerable, loving sides that are maybe not as discussed.
The part that really moved me was learning that, as a teenager in Athens, Giannis used to openly cry on the bench after games if he felt he didn’t perform up to standard. He would cry in front of coaches and teammates afterward, too. Nobody thought it was strange. They knew how deeply he cared about the game and how hard he was on himself. That continued when he moved to America, and former Bucks coach Larry Drew and strength coach Robert Hackett told me they would see Giannis start to tear up on the bench or in the practice setting when he was disappointed with himself. Hackett had to tell him, essentially, that one can’t cry in the NBA (at least not in public). That just isn’t something men can do, playing in the best basketball league in the world.
Giannis had to learn to tuck in his emotions, because he was socialized differently than boys and men in America. I loved learning this about him because this is why I think he is such a fantastic leader, role model, and teammate: He is empathetic, sensitive, and has high emotional intelligence.
8. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your book?
I guess I wasn’t “surprised” to learn this, but was still somewhat taken aback, by learning more about how Giannis is still a target of racism in Greece. That there are murals of him to this day desecrated with swastikas. That there are politicians openly saying racist things about him right now, all of which I chronicle in the book.
Giannis constantly professes his love for Greece. He has played valiantly for Greece’s national basketball team. His nickname, “Greek Freak,” is an ode to his home country. He could not represent Greece with any more pride, respect, and dignity. And yet, those accomplishments—and the prestige and fame that he has brought to Greece—have not shielded him from bigotry. There are people in Greece who still refuse to accept him as Greek, and who only see him as Black. Although there are plenty (and many!) white Greeks who love and embrace Giannis, there are many who still do not. Both are true, and it seems pretty difficult for some people to hold both of these truths at once.
“The book contextualizes how improbable [the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2021] championship is by going back to the inception of the Bucks franchise, when many felt that basketball couldn’t exist in the city of Milwaukee. . . . And now that [Giannis] has taken this team to unthinkable heights—winning the first title in 50 years—he has proven that the impossible can happen. . . . Giannis essentially saved basketball in Milwaukee. No matter what happens next, he has healed a wound that never seemed like it would have been able to heal. For once, the generational player stayed.”
9. Your book really came out at the perfect time, with Giannis and the Bucks winning an NBA title just a month prior. How does the book help contextualize Milwaukee’s championship run and Giannis’s role in it?
The book contextualizes how improbable this championship is by going back to the inception of the Bucks franchise, when many felt that basketball couldn’t exist in the city of Milwaukee. It chronicles the departure of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and what a traumatic wound that left in the city, and the decades of despair and mediocrity that Bucks fans felt, year after year. Fans described to me all the years they spent hoping, loving their team—and always expecting disappointment. I talked to many Milwaukee fans who have stuck by this team through the awful times, even one who shattered his remote control by throwing it at the TV when the Bucks made a disastrous draft pick.
Giannis was the first athlete in a long time to talk about Milwaukee positively: to praise it, to process his love for it. That endeared him to Milwaukee fans and made them feel seen and respected. They are used to people ripping on their city, telling them to be quiet, to just be thankful they even have a team. And now that he has taken this team to unthinkable heights—winning the first title in 50 years—he has proven that the impossible can happen. And it took a special person like Giannis to do it differently than any other modern NBA superstar. He didn’t leave for a big market team. He put in the work, he stayed, and he did it his way.
10. Home, and perhaps even the lack of a sense of home, was a common thread in the book. This applied to both the Bucks and Giannis. In some ways, as a promising young player, Giannis gave reason for the Bucks to remain in Milwaukee, and he provided hope to longtime Bucks fans. On another level, after Giannis grew up constantly on the go due to his family getting evicted several times, the Bucks gave Giannis the opportunity to live out his NBA dream by drafting him, molding him into the player he is today, and allowing him to make Milwaukee his home. I was really intrigued by this dual relationship between Giannis and the Bucks—did they save each other, and were the circumstances just the right fit for both parties?
Absolutely. They saved each other. The Bucks treated Giannis almost like a son. They taught him how to drive; they were there for him when he was lonely at night. This is not really a common thing to do in the modern NBA. Giannis felt safe and comfortable because people were looking out for him. And Giannis got to develop and grow as a man, because he was in the right environment that cared for his well-being as a person—not just as an athlete. As he morphed into an MVP-caliber player, he ended up saving this franchise.
The Bucks were in serious danger of even staying in Milwaukee for decades—a plight I chronicle in the book—because being a small-market team with terrible losing records and lack of a modern-day arena made it a target to be sold. Giannis essentially saved basketball in Milwaukee. No matter what happens next, he has healed a wound that never seemed like it would have been able to heal. For once, the generational player stayed.
Mirin Fader is a staff writer for The Ringer. She wrote for Bleacher Report from 2017 to 2020. Her work has been honored by the Professional Writers Basketball Association, the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Writers Basketball Association, the Football Writers Association of America, and the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2019, she was named a Top Woman in Media in the “Up and Comer” category of FOLIO magazine’s Top Women in Media Awards. Her work has also been featured in The Best American Sports Writing series. Fader has profiled some of the NBA’s biggest stars, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ja Morant, Brandon Ingram, and LaMelo Ball, but she focuses more on the person rather than the player. Her approach is that she writes about people who happen to play sports, telling the backstories that shape some of our most complex, most dominant, heroes.