Enes Kanter: Forward Thinking

Photographs by Chad Griffith

Styling by Melina Kemph

Featured Shirt and Jacket: Bonobos

Did you know that you always wanted to become an NBA player?

I actually wanted to be a soccer player growing up. Soccer was always the number one sport in Turkey. Unfortunately, soccer never worked out because I was way too tall for it. That really led me to choose basketball because that was the only sport that someone of my height and weight could compete for a high level at.

Growing up in Turkey, did you ever have the opportunity to watch the NBA?

I never really had much opportunity to watch basketball when I was younger. The games were always on at 3 or 4am and I’ll be honest, I never felt like waking up (laughs). Whenever I wanted to watch a game, I’d watch Fenerbahçe (Süper League).

What’s something that a lot of NBA fans don’t know about your path to the NBA?

I played for Fenerbahçe for three seasons in the Turkish league. In the history of the Euro League I was actually the youngest player at the time.

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Pants: GapFit x Ovadia+

After playing abroad, you moved to the United States, what was the hardest part of that?

I was 17 years old when I first came to the United States. It was really difficult because I didn’t speak a word of English. And I didn’t even know what people were saying about me, I couldn’t have a lot of the food that I was used to and it was very difficult. The first 2,3 months of my time here I was really sad and stressed. After that I was able to snap out of it and just tell myself, “this is going to be home for the next 20-30 years and I better get used to it”. 

You came of age in the NBA with guys like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant on your team, what kind of impact did that have on your development?

When you play with superstars on your team, you see just how hard they work every day and night of the week. They don’t take any time off. Everyday you see nothing but 100% from them. The one thing I loved about both of them (Westbrook and Durant), is they didn’t only make themselves better, they made everyone around them better. They had an attitude that rubbed off on me: Just making yourself good is not enough, you’re playing for your organization, your whole city and state. The NBA is bigger than just one person.

What has coming into the New York spotlight been like for you?

It’s been different. Since I was 17 and first came to the United States I’ve lived in nothing but small towns. I went to prep school in Simi Valley California, college in Kentucky, I was drafted by the Utah Jazz and then moved to Oklahoma City. I had never lived in an American big city before. With that said, I was super excited to come here (New York City). I loved spending time in Istanbul when I was younger and I saw coming to New York as a dream come true in many ways.

In terms of your own basketball, you embody a lot of the 1990s Knicks attributes of being a tough physical guy, how did that style come about for you?

So learning to play basketball in Europe has always given me a tougher approach to the game. I grew up, when I was 16, playing against really old men in their 30s in Europe. They’d always try pushing you around on the court and they’d play very physical. To survive out there I had to learn to stick up for myself and my teammates at a very young age.

Since coming to New York and even before, you have been a vocal critic of the Turkish President Erdogan, was there one moment in particular that sparked your activism?

There was a big moment of corruption in December 2015 in Turkey. And that really stood out as the moment where people all over the world saw that the President of Turkey was stealing money and really hurting all the innocent people of Turkey. That’s when a lot of local celebrities in Turkey started speaking out. And that inspired me to really speak out and let the Turkish people know that I see what’s happening and I care about them.

What kind of difficulties have you seen since the Turkish government started cracking down on political dissent? 

It’s been crazy. Since the crackdowns have been happening I’ve wanted to bring my family to the United States but I’ve been not allowed to do that. The Turkish government put a hold on all their passports so they’re not allowed to travel anywhere outside of Turkey. On top of that, not only can my family and friends not travel outside of Turkey, a lot of them are in jail being tortured by the government.

When was the last time you were able to see your family?

It’s been almost three years. The last time I was able to see them was summertime of 2015.

Do you have any regrets about speaking out given the backlash you’ve seen from the Turkish government?

No, I believe firmly in freedom of speech. Not only for myself but the Turkish people as well. I would never be able to sit silently as innocent people of Turkey are being hurt everyday. The government there tortures, kidnaps and kills innocent people everyday. The least I can do is be their voice and let people all over the world know what is happening.

If you could deliver one message to the Turkish ruler Erdogan, what would it be?

I would just tell him to stop hurting innocent people and to stop the corruption. All I want is peace and all the Turkish people want is peace. The people he is hurting are people’s mothers, brothers, sisters and fathers. There’s no reason to hurt innocent people.

Looking ahead, what hope do you have for Turkey and the Turkish people as a whole?

There’s two parts to that. Number one, people really don’t know what’s going on in Turkey. I want people in the United States to know that the Turkish government is kidnapping people from their own beds and torturing them. For the Turkish people, I just want them to be happy and have peace without having to be scared of a dictator.

With your own activism focused on Turkey, do you feel a sense of connectedness with your teammates and other athletes who have been outspoken on behalf of Black Lives Matter and other American activism movements?

Yes, of course. On my Twitter and Instagram accounts I try to support them too. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black or anything, we are all the same, we are all human. It’s important for people to peacefully talk about their differences.

Going back to your own NBA career, you have a big decision coming up. You could opt-out of your contract or you can stay another year in New York. With all things being equal, do you feel that New York is a place you’d want to stay?

It’s funny because when I was in OKC I felt at home there and New York felt like such a far away place. Now that I’ve been in New York a full season, I definitely feel at home here. But at the same time that’s a big decision for me to make and it would be selfish for me to think about that decision before the season is over. Right now my focus is on four more games then, after that I’ll worry about the contract and myself.

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