Training camp is for introductions. So here comes Enes Kanter, the newest Knick to enter a white tent in the NBA’s forever circus. He is 25, hails from Turkey and stands 6-foot-11 outside the team’s practice facility in Tarrytown. He sports a beard and is dressed in the home whites with No. 00 on his back and orange pads on each elbow. Doug McDermott, another newbie from OKC, accompanies Kanter. They dip their heads to make their way inside. Fans whir; a heat wave rolls on past noon. Players settle between microphones and a team-logo backdrop. Kanter smiles; he commences by charting his course from a free camp for orphans in Edmond, Okla.
A friend brought a phone to Kanter as kids played two weeks ago.
“Hey, this is urgent,” the friend said.
“I’m doing a camp,” Kanter said.
“It’s urgent,” the friend insisted.
Kanter put the phone to his ear. His manager, Hilmi Cinar, spoke first.
“You got traded,” he said.
“OK, where?” Kanter said.
Kanter’s compass spun east to Madison Square Garden. Looking to close the gap on the Warriors, the Thunder struck a September deal with the Knicks. Kanter and McDermott were packaged to acquire Carmelo Anthony. For New York, it ended a six-season era that started with playoff appearances and a co-star punching a fire extinguisher in Miami before eroding with Phil Jackson’s tire-fire triangle of exit interviews, trade clauses and posse complaints. For Kanter, a center on a team reloading for a title chase with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, it meant transitioning to a fresh start and possible starting spot in a diverse city. His manager knew Kanter would be ecstatic about playing under city lights. He cautioned Kanter.
“Don’t look too happy,” Cinar said. “Don’t look too happy.”
Kanter kept a straight face, but he tried out a new message. He finished the camp, ending it with kids gathering around and Kanter attempting to lead them through the new breakdown, chanting “One, two, three, Knicks!” All Thunder fans, the kids demurred. Kanter offered to change it to New York on three. Again, the kids refused. They settled on “One, two, three, family!” and went their separate ways.
Kanter went home to pack. Later, he dined with Westbrook and Thunder center Steven Adams, Kanter’s fellow Stache Brother. Kanter recalls their advice:
“New York is a dangerous place to play, just focus on basketball.”
Kanter is no tourist. Born in Switzerland and raised in Van, Turkey, he trained in New York over the summer with the likes of Hoodie Melo during runs at Life Time Athletic’s Sky Gym on 42nd Street. He favors Aba, a Turkish restaurant on West 57th Street, and notes that he lost more than 20 pounds since last season. Once the third pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Kanter, now 25, averaged 14.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last season as Westbrook wove together triple doubles. Typically a substitute behind Adams with the Thunder, Kanter will compete to start for the Knicks with Willy Hernangomez early on as center Joakim Noah sits the first 12 games as part of his suspension for PEDs. Kanter maintains that optimism is in order as he ingratiates himself with a unique combination of candor and curiosity following a summer where his passport drew as much as attention as his post play. An outspoken critic of Turkey’s authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kanter refers to the country’s leader as “the Hitler of our century.” Attuned to politics, Kanter is careful to scout out Turkish restaurants that he eats at in the city.
“I cannot go to every Turkish restaurant because of if the owner is on the president’s side or my side,” he says. “If his, they would just kick me out. First my friends go. If they say, ‘It’s a safe place to go,’ then I go. If not, I would not even try.”
Kanter’s first meal in New York was with coach Jeff Hornacek, McDermott and team officials on the night that he arrived. He visited the team’s practice facility the next morning to commence his seventh season. The Knicks are his third team. He eyes his new surroundings and expresses optimism inside the hot tent.
“When you get traded from a team, you feel a little weird, a little awkward, “ he says, “but when I stepped in to that locker room, everyone was just laughing, smiling, good friends. That’s what I was looking for, a team that will stick together.”
* * *
“Free Enes” is an old campaign phrase. Its roots trace down Derby way, to Lexington, a college town in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Bluegrass zealots stitched the demand into T-shirts and hats, spray painted it onto bed sheets and flags, and shouted it at home games for the Wildcats at Rupp Arena. Kanter, a recruit under coach John Calipari, never gained NCAA clearance to play for the program with the most wins in Division I history. Instead, Kanter became a cult figure in 2010, viewed by the faithful as a victim. The NCAA ruled Kanter permanently ineligible before he played a minute. He was found to have received $33,033 above his actual and necessary expenses for one year while playing for the Turkish sport club Fenerbahce, a professional outfit, in 2008-09. In Kentucky, Kanter idled.
“Those were some good old days, man,” he says. “Kentucky nation was supporting me. It was just really sad. I turned down millions just to come here and play NCAA basketball. Then NCAA says I cannot play never. It was so frustrating.”
NBA scouts kept tabs on Kanter nevertheless. He was a curiosity who offered international intrigue for NBA front offices. He first moved to America in 2009, and initially tried to enroll at Oak Hill Academy, a basketball powerhouse known for producing Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, in Mouth of Wilson, Va. Coach Steve Smith declined to accept Kanter due to word that he had been paid as a professional in Turkey. Kanter considered his next steps, attending Findlay Prep in Nevada for a few weeks. He departed there, as well, because Smith refused to face Findlay with Kanter on the roster. Kanter pivoted again, this time to Mountain State in Beckley, W Va., but ran into the same issue. His final stop was at Stoneridge Prep in Simi Valley, Calif. No matter the itinerant path, Kanter committed to coach John Calipari’s 2010 class. He was the headliner before the NCAA dropped its hammer. Calipari, forever toeing amateurism’s lines, failed to convince the NCAA of Kanter’s eligibility. Unable to play basketball, Kanter served as a student assistant coach. Kentucky lost in the Final Four, and Kanter was trotted out for a first pitch at the university’s baseball team opener. He wound up and threw the cowhide. It bounced over the plate.
“It was a terrible two and a half years,” he says. “Terrible time.”
The NBA welcomed Kanter to its draft as a one-and-done prospect who recorded zero statistics in his stay on Kentucky’s campus. On draft night, Kyrie Irving, a Duke freshman who played in 11 games (eight starts) due to a right toe injury, went No. 1. The Utah Jazz selected Kanter with the third pick overall, going with his potential over future All-Stars Kemba Walker (No. 9), Klay Thompson (No. 11), Kawhi Leonard (No. 15), Jimmy Butler (No. 30) and Isaiah Thomas (No. 60). Kanter had not played since the Nike Hoop Summit the previous spring. He scored 34 points then, breaking Dirk Nowitzki’s record of 33 points, and grabbed 13 rebounds. On the Jazz coaching staff as an assistant was former NBA guard Jeff Hornacek. He took the measure of the greenhorn, who averaged 4.6 points per game as he played 12 minutes per contest. Hornacek remembers a raw 18-year-old talent.
“Heck, he didn’t even play at Kentucky,” Hornacek says. “He’s just as hard a worker as he was from Day 1. That’s the thing that sticks with me. He can run, he’s powerful and he plays hard all the time. When you get older, the game slows down. You’re not so frantic when you do get the ball. He takes the ball, uses his body.”
Kanter has described his development stage with the Jazz as a “three-and-a-half year frustration.” He was part of a three-team, seven-player deal that sent him to Oklahoma City, Reggie Jackson to the Pistons and Kendrick Perkins to the Jazz in February 2015. It was the busiest trade deadline in a quarter century, and Thunder general manager Sam Presti maintained that Kanter, who was putting up 13.8 points and grabbing 7.8 rebounds per game at the time, had his best basketball ahead of him. Kanter looked back and openly expressed joy regarding his leaving the Jazz. On subsequent visits to Utah with the Thunder the last two seasons, Kanter embraced boos. Upon arriving in New York, he noted his long-held wish to play in a big market.
“I always played for the small cities, and I was wondering what it would be like to play in a bigger city like New York,” Kanter says. “I was with all these New York guys playing pickup this summer, and they were just friendly, really nice and warm people.”
Kanter’s connections to Turkey were never more prominent than this spring. Following Oklahoma City’s playoff elimination, he trekked back to Europe. A fervent opponent of Erdogan, Kanter was detained at an airport in Romania on May 20. Authorities there had learned that Kanter’s Turkish passport had been revoked. Kanter, who holds a resident card that allows him to live and work permanently in the U.S., returned stateside.
Kanter’s family quickly became a target. With a warrant out for his own arrest in Turkey, Kanter announced that his father, Mehmet, had been arrested by the Turkish government “because of my outspoken criticism of the ruling party.”
Mehmet Kanter, a genetics professor, was detained in his Istanbul home for an investigation undertaken by a prosecutor’s office in northwestern Turkey, according to the Anadolu news agency. Enes Kanter wrote in a statement published on his web site that his family’s home in Istanbul had been raided.
“For a second please think and imagine, if something like this is happening to an NBA player, what is happening to the people with no voice or podium to speak on?” Kanter wrote. “There could be hundreds of thousands of people that are detained, tortured, or murdered that we are not hearing about.”
Kanter trained in New York in the months afterward. Kanter keeps track of kidnapping and torture statistics, lamenting the state of affairs in Turkey. He notes that there is a hold on his father’s passport and that his father lost his teaching job. Kanter remains socially active, contemplating whether or not to kneel for the American national anthem as protests continue across the sports landscape. Kanter looks at the U.S. and Turkey, comparing and contrasting current political climates.
“I feel like what happened in Charlottesville was an eye opener,” he says. “It shows America has a lot of work to do, especially with all these things going on right now with the NFL, with Trump. I just feel bad because when I look at America, when I was a young age, it was freedom of religion, freedom of speech and everything. Now all these amazing people going through these tough times. It’s breaking my heart. I’m not from here. I’m from Turkey. I feel them because I’m going through tough time with my country, too. It’s tough man, but I am praying for you guys.”
* * *
There is a five-man weave of Knicks working its way up court in practice. Back and forth they go, touch-passing, filling lanes and finishing at the rim with lay-ins and sprints. Dribbling is outlawed. They are all big men, each one standing at least 6-foot-10: Kyle O’Quinn, Kristaps Porzingis, Hernangomez, Noah and Kanter. A different Knick ends each run against the clock. Kanter, in a long-sleeve shirt beneath his jersey and tights under his shorts, pumps his arms and drives his legs.
“I feel myself moving faster,” he says. “Better, more energetic.”
Kanter counts off his calories. He outlines his annual weight gain in the offseason before he starts working out again. He typically puts on 20-25 pounds.
“You know, Turkish food,” he says.
This summer, he put on 23 pounds by gorging on greasy gyros following the season, which put him at 273 pounds overall. Through workouts and a stricter diet. he proceeded to lose 37 pounds to come to New York at 235 pounds. He shies from carbohydrates and red meat in season, focusing on salads, oatmeal and fish, instead. He notes that he never eats Turkish food prior to NBA games after a bad experience.
“During the game I was about to throw up,” he says. “Too greasy.”
Kanter is a throwback in the post. He is at his best with his back to the basket, and he insists the trimming down only took pressure off his knees and back without sapping him of strength. He knows defense will be a point of emphasis for him as he negotiates his way through picks and rolls. For now, there are conditioning drills to complete and post positions to establish. From the town of Van to the Hudson Valley, Kanter charges ahead, shedding a few delicacies in search of greater gains.
“If you want to lose weight, get off Turkish food,” he says.