Justin Pahl

Enes Kanter is unique among American athletes. He is one of the few practicing Muslim players in the NBA, and in a league known for its political activism, Kanter is still one of the most outspoken players.

It wasn’t always that way. Born in Zurich to Turkish parents, Kanter spent most of his childhood in Van, a lakeside city in Eastern Turkey. He played basketball for Samanyolu College in Ankara before being signed by Fenerbahce, one of the “big three” teams in Istanbul. When he moved to the USA, he broke Nike Hoop Summit records for field goal attempts, field goals made, and points scored, topping Dirk Nowitzki’s 12-year-old record. After being drafted by the Utah Jazz with the third pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, he was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015, where he later re-signed. We had this interview with him before he was recently traded to the New York Knicks.

Were it not for the political situation back in Turkey, Kanter may have had a solid but quiet NBA career. But on the night of July 15, 2016, Turkey was rocked by an attempted coup. He is a vocal member of the Hizmet movement, one of the largest educational social movements in the world, and that originated in Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan falsely blamed Mr. Fethullah Gülen, the Muslim cleric who inspired Hizmet, for the coup, and Kanter soon became persona non grata in his homeland. In May, when he was traveling to promote his Enes Kanter Light Foundation, which works primarily with children, he was denied entry into Romania. His passport had been canceled by the Turkish government, which claimed Kanter was a member of a terrorist organization.

Despite being labeled a terrorist by the Turkish government and being threatened with arrest if he returned to Turkey, Kanter has been unbowed in his criticisms of the Turkish government – and especially of President Erdogan. He has also continued to spend his summer practicing and working with children.

The Fountain caught up with Kanter at his youth basketball camp in Englewood, New Jersey. Over the course of three days, Kanter taught dozens of children basketball skills, but more importantly, he also taught them life skills. His interactions with the kids weren’t just genuine; he seemed more at ease with the kids than with the adults. He took a real joy in laughing and teaching them – and he also seemed to relish the impromptu games of one-on-one so many of the kids challenged him to. As kind as he was to the kids, he showed them no mercy on the court, continuing the proud NBA tradition of viciously rejecting any and all shots, no matter how young his opponent. Despite this, the kids were all smiles whenever Kanter joked with them or hopped into the middle of a drill.

Kanter was kind enough to talk with The Fountain about his work with kids, Hizmet, life as a Muslim in the NBA, and the political situation back in Turkey.

The Fountain: Playing in the NBA as a devout Muslim, what has that been like? Have players been curious? Have fans been supportive?
Enes Kanter: People definitely ask a lot of questions. Every step you take, people are watching. They’re wondering what’s going on. Especially my teammates, they ask questions almost every day. About everything you can think of. But one thing I’ve learned in America is if you want respect, you have to show respect. You can’t judge anybody. It doesn’t matter if they’re Christian, Jewish, atheist. You can’t judge them. Everybody has their own beliefs, and you have to respect them… We have a lot of dialogues with my teammates, some are Christian, Catholic, some don’t believe in God. But we have conversations. They ask me questions; I ask them questions. But one thing I love about American people is they’re very respectful.

Here’s an example. The first time I went to Oklahoma City, I was wondering, how am I going to do this? I’m a Muslim player, I pray 5 times a day, fast, eat halal food. So when I got to OKC, I told the chefs, the organization, I’m a Muslim, I need to do this, this, this. They were so respectful. They actually have halal food for everyone now. So we eat halal food in the locker room. They’re eating Turkish food. (Laughs.) People are eating it with their [bare] hands [because they love the food so much]. Right now, after practice, even, we get halal food. They love it.

For praying, I told them I pray 5 times a day… They gave me a special room at the practice facility and at the arena. I go in there and pray. Sometimes when I leave the room, guys ask me, did you pray for me?

Not too many know about this, but before NBA games, there’s chapel (for the players)… I actually join sometimes. They’re talking about really good stuff, things from the Bible, and then they pray. It touched me. I said this is something cool, we need to do this in Turkey.

The most important thing for us is eating. If you don’t eat you won’t perform well. One of the lifting coaches, he fasted with me for three days, but he quit. He fasted with me and saw how it feels like as an NBA player to fast. How much protein you need, how many carbs you need to get… So it made them really respectful.

When did you first learn about Hizmet?

I’d been going to Hizmet schools since 2nd grade, but didn’t know what was going on because I was too young. The first thing I learned about Hizmet was from my mom’s book. My mom was reading one of Hocaefendi’s (the Turkish word for “respected teacher,” used to describe Fethullah Gülen, the inspiration for Hizmet) books and I asked, “What is this?” And she explained to me what it is, what the book was, who Hocaefendi is, what’s he doing in the world… From the first day, I thought, “This man is so cool, I want to be like him.” I was so young, I didn’t know what was going on, but I thought, I wanted to be like him.

As you’ve gotten older, and you understand more about Hizmet, how has that impacted you as a person – and as an NBA player?

As an NBA player, of course, you make more money, so you have expensive cars, expensive houses, and you live an expensive life… But meeting with Hizmet, I thought, I’m earning money, respect, fame, and I need to use this for a good cause. One thing Hocaefendi says that really touched me is, “Live for others.” So whatever you do in life, you try to raise generations, you try to do the best you can to help the young kids grow up well. I’m trying to have the camp for that.

You’re comfortable and genuine with kids.

I love kids. I’ve been working with them since my first year in the NBA. They’re very cool, and they love to learn about basketball.

I wanted to ask about the summer of 2016, the attempted coup in Turkey and the purge. I know you’ve had a tough situation with your family, too.

So if you want to understand who did the coup, you need to look at who got the most benefit from it. If you look at what happened after the coup, about 2,000 schools, dormitories, and universities were shut down. There are more than 50,000 innocent people in jail. 17,000 are women: pregnant, new mothers, young women, old ladies… You see (TV) channels, newspapers and magazines shut down.

It’s really sad that all these innocent people are going through this. Do you think these pregnant women did the coup? It’s crazy to me. It’s very sad… They did the coup? I believe President Erdogan did the coup. And it has been blamed on Hizmet. Why? Because that’s the only group that was standing up against him and was speaking truth. He is polarizing people, he’s creating groups and using religion to control people. That’s the easiest way to control people. Religion. It’s really sad to see all these people going through this; to see your country going through this. I can’t even invite my own teammates to see my own country. I can’t even go to my own country.

It’s really sad. You asked about my family, and I haven’t spoken to them probably over a year now. It’s a tough situation, because they (the Turkish government) listen to everything. They listen to phones… They searched my house. They took the electronics away. They took the phones, the laptops, the computers… They wanted to see if I’m still in contact with them.

What do you miss most about Turkey?

I miss the home cooked meal. You eat a lot of food here; I go to Turkish people’s houses. But it’ll never taste like your mom’s food. If you see my house in Turkey, it’s a little apartment. I have a bed like… how many inches is this? (Holds up his hands.)

About 30 inches.

I have a 30-inch-wide bed. I just like, squeeze in there, but it’s your house. You miss your house. You miss your family. You miss your friends. I don’t have any friends left [in Turkey] because of the situation. But if you are standing up for something you believe and you believe it’s the right thing to do, you have to stand up… A lot of my teammates are asking me, “Are you crazy? Your family is still there. Your sister is still there, your brother, your little brother, is still there. Why are you doing this?” But people don’t understand it’s more than just (my) family. There are thousands of people in jail getting tortured right now. So I have to speak up about what’s going on. So the world will know and do something about it.

And your teammates have been supportive?

Definitely. When I was in Romania, Russel Westbrook texted me with the hashtag, “Free Enes.” That means the world to me. Some of the rookies texted me. Even the GM [Sam Presti] texted me, a senator texted me… I love America, but I wasn’t born here. But when you see that people are supporting you like this, like your family; and your state, Oklahoma, is supporting you like this, it shows you a lot. I see America, Oklahoma, like my family, like my home.

I’ve learned especially from Hocaefendi that, whatever it takes, you have to speak up. There are a lot of people out there waiting for help, waiting for somebody to speak up, to say something about it. The people right now in Turkey, in jails, are my friends, my friends’ family, my mom’s friends, my dad’s friends… I understand I haven’t spoken to my parents for more than a year, but there are over 17k moms in jail who are misbehaved, some even tortured and raped. When I say tortured, it is not only me saying that. The reports – Amnesty International had one –are saying this is what’s going on. But you have to do what you’re going to do. You have to support your people.