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How the director and stars gave ‘Rise’ to new Disney+ movie

By Erik Bacharach

The people responsible for bringing to life the improbable journey of NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo have movie-quality stories of their own.

Take Akin Omotoso, the 47-year-old director of “Rise,” the new film premiering Friday on Disney+ that’s based on the story about the family that produced the first trio of brothers to become NBA champions. It chronicles the family’s tumultuous path from Nigeria, to Greece — where Giannis was born — to basketball’s grandest stage.

Omotoso wanted to tell Giannis’ story long before Disney ever had any thoughts of pursuing it.

“As I became a storyteller, and as a lover of basketball, I became obsessed with stories of African players in the NBA,” said Omotoso, who was born and raised in Nigeria before his family emigrated to South Africa when he was 17.

In 2013, he got wind of Giannis, who was drafted 15th overall by Milwaukee in that year’s draft before going on to become a two-time NBA MVP and lead the Bucks to a title in 2021.

“I said to myself at the time, ‘If I ever make a basketball movie, it’ll be about this guy, because his story is not just about basketball,’” said Omotoso.

In 2019, Omotoso bought an issue of Sports Illustrated that detailed Disney’s plans to make a film about the 6-foot-11 superstar’s life. 

The film tells the story of the journey by Giannis Antetokounmpo and his family from Nigeria to Greece to the United States. courtesy of disney

“I said to my agent, ‘Whatever you do, you’ve got to get me in the room with them so I can tell these guys, if I get the opportunity to make the film, how I will tell the story, because I’ve been thinking about this for six years,” Omotoso recalled.

Omotoso said it took a year before his agent called to tell him that Disney higher-ups had watched “Vaya,” the 2016 drama that Omotoso directed, which is not about sports but has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. They loved it. So they shared Arash Amel’s script for the film. “It was beautiful,” Omotoso said. “I cried when I read it.”

Seven weeks later, he got the job.

The story of Omotoso’s key actors followed a similar trajectory. In October 2020, Giannis tweeted about Disney looking for young actors to portray him and Thanasis, his older brother and also a member of the 2021 champion Bucks, in the upcoming film (a third brother, Kostas, won a title with the Lakers in 2020). “No experience necessary!” Giannis wrote in the tweet. Uche Agada, a 20-year-old from Westhampton, N.J., had none. His audition tape was one of about 400 submitted from hopeful actors around the world. A few months later, after Uche assumed Disney had moved on, he got a callback. Then a second callback. A few weeks after that, Uche, whose family is Nigerian, landed the role. A producer had a couple of follow-up questions, though: Did Uche have a brother? If so, might he be interested in the role of Thanasis?

Uche asked his 22-year-old brother, Ral Agada.

Yes and yes.

“Then they had us do a chemistry read together,” Uche said with a smile. “That went well.”

In prepping for their roles, the Agada brothers quickly began studying Giannis and Thanasis’ mannerisms through YouTube clips and working with a dialect coach. When they went to Greece as part of the pre-production, Francis Antetokounmpo, an older brother to Giannis, Thanasis and Kostas, explained to the two his family’s journey.

All of this was entirely surreal for two Nigerian brothers who grew up watching the Antetokounmpos in the NBA without any hint that they’d soon be portraying them on screen.

“When Giannis went to New York to get drafted, Thanasis went with him. When my brother got cast for this movie, I ended up going with him,” Ral said. “It’s like life is imitating art.”

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