Review: ‘Rise’ chronicles NBA journey of ‘Greek Freak’ Giannis, brothers on Disney+

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Rise' on Disney+

It’s a good month for basketball movies about international stars making it to the NBA.

Netflix’s “Hustle” starred Adam Sandler as an NBA Scout finding Juancho Hernangómez.

Now, Disney+ chronicles the Antetokounmpo brothers in “Rise,” a movie that dominates its first three quarters, fades in the fourth quarter but still holds on for the inspirational win.

It follows the true story of Nigerian-Greek brothers Giannis and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, who rise to become NBA champions together on the Milwaukee Bucks, while their younger brother Kostas goes on to win an NBA title with the L.A. Lakers and their youngest brother Alex also signs with the NBA G League developmental team for the Toronto Raptors.

Dayo Okeniyi (“The Hunger Games”) and Yetide Badaki (“This Is Us”) shine as parents Charles and Veronica, who flee Istanbul to Greece. We see their immigrant struggle, hustling to pay the bills before their landlord shuts off the water and changes the locks. Oddly, their living room remains spacious. A more cramped quarters would’ve really sold it.

The brothers (Uche Agada, Ral Agada, Jaden Osimuwa, Elijah Shomanke) are well cast with realistic hoop skills and a believable brotherly bond. After witnessing racism, one asks, “Dad, why do they hate us?” He replies, “Ignorant people fear anything different.” An immigration official even admits the government works harder to keep folks out than in.

Our hearts ache for Thanasis when a EuroLeague opportunity is threatened by team owners worried about the family’s illegal status. As tears stream down Thanasis’ face, we realize we’re watching a film with a fascinating central quandary: no matter how hard the boys work at basketball, their potential fame could expose the family as illegal immigrants.

Nigerian Director Akin Omotoso, who starred in Disney’s chess flick “Queen of Katwe” (2016), delivers cool overhead shots of the basketball court, upside-down shots at turning points and detail shots of the brothers swapping a pair of Nikes on the sidelines. The idea of siblings sharing shoes because they can’t afford separate sneakers is underdog gold.

Screenwriter Arash Amel (“A Private War”) similarly “swaps shoes” in storytelling, keeping us guessing about who the main character is. We think it’s oldest brother Thanasis, who is the leader of the group but is a little shorter than the second oldest, Giannis. Eventually, the story shifts to Giannis as the main character, but in the end, it’s all about the brothers.

Their dad teaches them that if one of them scores, they all score. This lays the foundation for their loyalty to agent Kevin (Manish Dayal) when other suits come knocking. Their father also explains that their last name means “the crown has returned from overseas,” a fact that is also written in text during the opening credits. Once would have sufficed.

The pacing is strong for the first 3/4 as viewers enjoy the journey of family and basketball. The final 1/4 starts to rush, jumping pretty abruptly to the NBA Draft. The leap doesn’t feel narratively earned compared to “Hustle,” which patiently worked its way up to the NBA Combine. At 113 minutes, “Rise” could have added another 15 minutes to flesh it out.

The end credits confirm the success of Giannis, Thanasis, Kostas and Alex with highlight reels of NBA glory. However, we’re left wondering what happened to Charles and Veronica’s firstborn son left behind in Istanbul when they fled to Greece. We see him Skype, but the credits don’t list his whereabouts. It’s a loose thread that’s never tied up.

Either way, the film succeeds in its inspirational goal. NBA fans will feel like they know more about the “Greek Freak,” while newcomers will suddenly have a new favorite player to root for, perhaps making them tune into games in the near future. If you’re in the latter camp, here are a few fun facts about just how dominant Giannis has been in recent years.

Giannis was MVP in 2019 and 2020, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James as the only players to win twice before age 26. He also joined Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only to win both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. In 2021, he was deemed an all-time great on the NBA 75th Anniversary Team.

“Rise” adds one more important statistic — brother for life.

3.5 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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