20 People to Watch - Pero AntiÄ‡: The basketball player
The Hawks' 31-year-old rookie became the first-ever Macedonian NBA player. Can the tattoo-covered center make an impact in the league?
Few people in the United States paid attention when the Atlanta Hawks offered a two-year, $2.5 million contract to Pero Antić. But the signing made history more than 5,000 miles away in Antić's native Macedonia. When he accepted the deal last July, the Skopje-born athlete became the country's first NBA player.
Antić stands a towering 6-foot, 11-inches. The 260-pound center has a shaved head, thick black beard, and is covered in tattoos. Antić has his two sons' names, birthdays, and zodiac symbols inked on each of his arms. He also has a rose over his heart for his wife, his homeland's flag on his chest, a basketball on his calf, and a big soldier on his back that says "Macedonian warrior."
"That's what I do, I fight for my country," he says.
Antić traveled a complicated path from Macedonia, a country with a population half the size of metro Atlanta's, to play in the world's most competitive basketball league. He was born in 1982 and grew up in the former Yugoslavia, where his dad played professional basketball. When Antić was young, he watched future NBA greats Vlade Divac, Dražen Petrović, and Toni Kukoč dominate the late '80s and early '90s international basketball circuit. That national success abruptly ended when the country collapsed in 1991. Numerous republics declared sovereignty and civil war beset the Balkan nations.
"Before everything broke, it was difficult to make the Yugoslavian national team," Antić says. "You needed to be really, really good."
But Antić says opportunity emerged for him out of the regional conflict. From 1999 to 2013, the center developed into a skilled rebounder, fearless defender, and an on-court leader. He won numerous titles with teams in Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Russia. NBA franchises tried to court Antić, but he passed up the American offers for better financial deals with professional European basketball leagues.
In 2011, Antić led the Macedonian men's national squad to what he calls a "historical" fourth place finish at the EuroBasket tournament. He and his teammates received medals of honor from Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov for the team's success. He also took home the 2012 and 2013 EuroLeague titles in the continent's top professional league.
"After two Euroleague championships, I needed a new challenge," he says. "When Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer called, I couldn't refuse."
The first-year coach, who left an assistant coach gig with the San Antonio Spurs in 2013, has already infused the organization with other international players from Brazil, Germany, and Mexico. That same strategy helped his former Texas dynasty to 16 consecutive winning seasons and four NBA titles. Antić now is one of the NBA's oldest rookies at age 31. But given his experience abroad and his team-first mentality, he could become a respected contributor in the Budenholzer era.
Last offseason, Hawks execs rebuilt the team's entire frontcourt around high-scoring center Al Horford. They signed starting power forward Paul Millsap, 14-year veteran Elton Brand, and several other big men that Antić is currently battling for playing time. He's a rare center who can fiercely post up in the paint, hit a soft jumper from outside, and defend against the NBA top centers. Although his early season contributions have remained limited — he's averaging a mere 3.6 points and 2.2 rebounds in nearly 11 minutes per game — he could break into the Hawks' regular rotation.
Despite limited action, he has garnered more support than most reserve centers. Macedonian-Americans have come out of the woodwork to cheer him on and wave the Balkan nation's red-and-yellow flag at arenas such as New York's Madison Square Garden and metro Detroit's Palace of Auburn Hills.
"You can see it everywhere I go, there's the flags and people go crazy," Antić says. "People love basketball in my country. It's a big thing to see all of them have one guy to unite them and make them feel at home."