The NBA's Man of Many Faces
New York Knicks center Enes Kanter is on a mission to improve (and confuse) the entire world. In so many different ways, he's already succeeded.
Illustration by Elliot Gerard
On a hot day in early September, three glass revolving doors twirl into the midtown Manhattan high-rise where the most fascinating man in the NBA spent most of his summer. The lobby is palatial, with a dazzling chandelier fixed in the center of the room; a young woman with platinum blonde hair stands directly underneath it, inside a front desk that looks like someone cut a marble egg in half, juggling phone calls and small talk with delivery men as they scurry across the floor.
New York Knicks center Enes Kanter steps out from an elevator behind her, armed for the heat in a white short-sleeve hoodie, dark mesh shorts, and solid teal low-top Nikes. A trimmed beard accentuates his baby-fat-free face, and the thick hair atop his head takes the shape of a Brillo pad that’s been dyed black. A long, red scar runs along his right forearm, memorializing the time he fractured it punching a chair in the middle of a game. A towering, chiseled, bronze sculpture of a man, Kanter’s stride is unexpectedly graceful; it’s unclear if his heels ever touch the ground. If any other first impression can be had, it’s that he’s almost too affable: Over the next two minutes, Kanter asks how I’m doing and/or if I’m good four separate times.
We exit the elevator and pass through a noisy weight room and congested lounge, towards a cafe that’s attached to a broad outdoor terrace. Before we move outside to escape the crowd, Kanter points up at a giant menu populated by fresh pressed juices, açaí bowls, and almond butter shakes. “They have smoothies!” he smiles. I’m not really hungry. “Are you sure you don’t want something? You’re not getting anything? Seriously you have to get something.” We grab two water bottles and make our way outside to sit in the far corner, beneath a giant sun umbrella for the rest of an afternoon that’s already unlike any I’ve ever had. For Kanter, it’s a typical day: A visitor is here to ask questions about his inexplicably complex life.
Over the past two years, Kanter has manifested one of the NBA’s most distinct personas: He’s an activist, one of the world’s hundred best basketball players, a political dissident, gentle humanitarian, and proficient troll. (“I don't know what's wrong with him," LeBron James once said.) He combines mild mischievousness with a big heart, adored by those who know him as he exasperates those who don’t.
“He was a straight enemy,” Kyle O’Quinn, Indiana Pacers center and Kanter’s former New York Knicks teammate, says. “[Now] that’s my boy. Make sure you quote me on that. That’s my boy. That’s my boy. There’s a bunch of o’s and a bunch of y’s. That’s. My. Boooyyy.”
On the court, Kanter is determined but limited in ways that have prevented him from logging heavy minutes on a good team. Off it, he’s an impossibly generous, vulnerable, and self-motivated spirit.
“I think there’s a lot of guys in the NBA who’re blessed with this huge size and huge strength and huge ability, and therefore they act accordingly. They are loud or they are dominant or demonstrative,” 11-year NBA veteran Steve Novak, who played with Kanter in Utah and Oklahoma City, says. “I think Enes has been blessed with so many of those things. He’s this huge dude. But he’s holding kittens at the humane society and going to the children’s hospital. He uses his platform in as amazing a way as I’ve seen a teammate use it.”
“When I look back at my basketball career, I want to say I tried to inspire as much as I could.”
This summer, Kanter organized 14 free basketball camps for children all over the United States, paying for everything—t-shirts, pizza, the gym, water—out of his own pocket. “When I look back at my basketball career, I want to say I tried to inspire as much as I could,” he says. “When I go to those camps, I don’t just talk about basketball. I talk about education, how to become a good person, everything.”
His interests span wider than the average human, let alone your typical NBA player. He still gleams as the boy who used to dream about becoming an astronaut—he follows NASA on instagram, and half-jokingly won’t let the narrow physical dimensions of a spaceship’s cockpit ever impede him from strapping into one. (“I still would love to go to space,” he says.) Kanter also grew up watching David Copperfield and Chris Angel. He can turn a cup of water into ice, bend spoons with his mind, and plunge a tight string into and through his Adam’s apple. “I actually learned a few tricks from him,” Kerem Kanter, his younger brother who plays professional basketball in France, says. “I try to do them every once in a while to impress people.”
Kanter’s most intense obsession is the WWE, and it’s grown ever since he introduced himself as The Undertaker at the University of Kentucky’s Big Blue Madness in 2010. “It was funny as hell, and the fans flipped out,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari says. “There were people falling from the upper deck to the lower deck when he came out.” (When he met the real Undertaker a few months ago, Kanter’s knees shook.) Today, he’s close friends with several professional wrestlers and is dedicated to becoming one after he retires from basketball, which he hopes won’t be until his mid-30’s.
“I’m actually talking to the people over there now. Vince McMahon, he knows me,” Kanter says. “I had dinner with [Paul Heyman] two, three days ago. I asked him how long he’s gonna do this and he said ‘as long as Brock [Lesnar] goes, I go, and then I’m with you.’ I’m like yes! Seriously. I’m really serious about it.”
A few minutes later, as we discuss how Jersey Shore, Spongebob Squarepants, and Home Alone—“You can not beat that. It’s a classic. I watched that when I was growing up and I still watch it when I get bored,” he says—helped him pick up English, Kanter is suddenly adamant about showing me who he’s been exchanging DM’s with on Twitter. He taps his phone: “I’m talking to Mike The Situation! He said ‘let me know when you have some tickets when the season starts, I will bring Vinnie and the wifey.’ That’s my man.”
All this makes Kanter compelling enough, but the intersection between that playfulness and a literal life-or-death fight he’s waged against the Turkish government is where he becomes one of the most fascinating professional athletes in recent memory. With a voice that serves as a tight fist for thousands of imprisoned Turkish citizens who themselves have been silenced by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian regime, it’s critical that Kanter’s diverse interests and sometimes bizarre behavior do not damage his credibility. Instead, what he represents in public is the natural and masterful interpretation of a benevolent rebel. At 26 years old, Kanter pursues it all in the most admirable, cringeworthy, and immeasurably hilarious ways; he exists without an analog.
“I don’t want to say socially awkward,” Kerem Kanter says. “But Enes used to be shy and he didn’t like to talk to strangers. Now he loves the attention. He talks to the media a lot. He has a ton of friends. He talks to people every day. He actually enjoys doing that.”
So much of this side can be seen every ten minutes on social media, where Kanter floods his feeds with political opinions, videos of himself strolling through Times Square, dressing up like a Marvel character, and, of course, the unprovoked albeit harmless attacks on fellow NBA players and teams.
“This guy doesn’t stop. I don’t know when he sleeps,” O’Quinn says. “He just sits on the internet, and I think there’s somebody helping him, behind closed doors, because I don’t know when he gets any rest. He’s on Twitter and Instagram all day.”
That incessantness translates offline into other areas of his life. The impact Kanter’s energy has in locker rooms, on bus rides, and cross-country flights feels relatively miniscule—to a certain degree it very much is—but so many of his teammates cite his ability to loosen the atmosphere as a professional advantage.
He’s the butt of a trillion jokes, but never gets sensitive about any of them, knowing that A) he brings most of the ridicule upon himself, and B) nobody is actually trying to hurt his feelings. Even when they mock his accent, diet (knowing he avoids pork for religious reasons, Kanter’s teammates would sometimes order bacon just to put it on his plate, or convince him their meals were cooked on the same grill), tight clothing, or not-that-rare refusal to shower after practice, it’s never done with malicious intent. The result is an endless collection of stories that make those who tell them smile.
Indiana Pacers wing Doug McDermott didn’t really talk to Kanter when they were teammates in Oklahoma City, but things changed after they were both traded to New York. “He called me like ‘Doug! Man! We’re going to the best city in the world!” he says. McDermott chuckles at all the different ways Kanter made himself an easy target. “Just how cheap he was. I think he still had an iPhone 4 when that was like four iPhone’s ago.”
A popular topic of conversation at the Thunder practice facility was the house Kanter purchased in Oklahoma City (that he’s since sold, at a loss). He was so excited to furnish it and asked around about hiring an interior decorator. But later, when he saw the bill and noticed that he was charged around $10,000 for curtains alone, he lost it. “It became a joke in the locker room,” Novak says. “Like, ‘Oh God, Enes is bitching about his curtains again.’”
Bring up the curtains with Enes and his smile turns into a sheepish grin. “She didn’t charge me that much but it was very expensive curtains. Very, very expensive curtains. I was like ‘what was I thinking?’”
Now a minimalist, Kanter does not own a car or a house. He refuses to indulge in the same luxuries any person on a $70 million contract is expected to enjoy, and in fact, continuing a life-long habit that began in the small bedroom he once shared with his two younger siblings, Kanter sleeps on the ground. “It’s actually better for your back” he says without the slightest trace of embarrassment. “I’m comfortable!”
This is a tiny exaggeration. A twin XL mattress is plopped in the corner of his otherwise deserted bedroom in White Plains, where he lives during the season. It’s wrapped in dark brown sheets, one matching pillow, and a champagne-colored comforter. But that’s literally it. There is no box spring, headboard, bed frame, nightstand, or lamp. (Kanter laughs out loud for a solid five seconds when I ask if he ever reads before bed.) There are no posters, rugs, or, well, anything. Officially listed at 6’11”, his calves still dangle off the foot of the mattress. “I know it’s weird,” he says. “I just like it that way.”
Even though he was born in Switzerland while his father, Mehmet, earned his M.D. at the University of Zurich, Kanter’s earliest memories trace back to kicking a soccer ball through the mundane streets of Van, a small city on the east side of Turkey.
His mother was a nurse, but soon retired to take care of her four children (Kanter’s two younger brothers play basketball—the youngest attends high school in Atlanta—and his sister recently graduated from medical school.) “We were not too wealthy, we were not too poor,” he says. “We were comfortable.”
For the Kanter family, countless weekends trickled by on the beaches of Lake Van, Turkey’s second-largest body of water. “There was a rumor that there was a monster inside,” he says. “I don’t think there is.”
Kanter’s passion for soccer grew—he still thanks it for developing his low-post footwork—until other kids in his apartment building and throughout the neighborhood stuck him in goal. They laughed at his big feet and poked fun at how huge he was. He hated it. Life in the classroom wasn’t any more pleasant.
“I don’t know what happened. I became a very terrible student.”
Kanter can still picture the wood switch his first-grade teacher used to wield at students who fell out of line. “Whenever you did something crazy they’d say ‘open your hand,’” he says. “I still remember, man. My hands would hurt so bad. Oh my God.”
School was everything in his family, but it wasn’t his thing. “I was a really good student, first, second grade, third grade, and then fourth grade a little bit. And then I don’t know what happened. I became a very terrible student. I wish I took it more serious.”
His parents still pushed him up through middle school, until the pressure to succeed conflicted with the cold reality of knowing he wasn’t put on this Earth to master or even enjoy academia. (Years later, when enrolled at Kentucky, Kanter passed all his classes except art, which he eventually dropped. “It was three hours at night. Too long,” he says. “We weren’t drawing either. It was like history, with reading and stuff.”) Whenever organized basketball came up as a possibility, Kanter’s father would rant about poor grades and the money he already paid the school. His mother repeatedly reminded him that millions of kids wanted to do the exact same thing. “I was getting so much shit from my parents, from my family,” he says.
But perspectives began to shift when he was eleven. A competitive game of after-school ping-pong against his dad spilled onto the basketball court. The two played one-on-one, a boy against his athletic, volleyball-keen, 6’5” father. Enes won. In Mehmet’s eyes, stifling this gift was officially foolish.
Fate intervened a couple years later, when, according to Enes, Mehmet attended a conference in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. He walked into a store for school supplies and a man tapped him on the shoulder. “Is your son as tall as you?” It was a local basketball coach who wondered if today might be his lucky day. (It was.) Enes’s family followed him to Ankara, where he spent two years playing at a school called Samanyolu. After that he moved to Istanbul to play for Turkey’s top basketball club, Fenerbahce Ulker. Not even 16, Kanter had already become one of the world’s more alluring big man prospects.
He never stayed up until 4 AM to watch NBA games when they aired at home, but did catch Utah Jazz highlights the following day, so he could see Turkey’s Mehmet Okur in action. Aside from Okur and Hedo Turkoglu, there weren’t many Turkish role models in the NBA for Kanter to look up to. But even then, when he was banging up against grown men literally twice his age in the Euroleague, Kanter’s focus was always on the United States. He desperately wanted to play high-school, college, and professional ball against the best of the best. But leaving Fenerbahce was more complicated than he expected. During his second season with the team, Kanter turned down a six-year contract for one million Turkish lira (which translated to about $785,000 U.S. dollars at the time). “They’re saying ‘don’t go, don’t leave,’” he remembers. “I was scared.”
The relationship grew tense. One day at the gym, an older teammate untied his shoes, took them off his feet, and hurled both right at Kanter. “How can you leave without talking to me?” he shouted. Kanter wanted to scream back “You’re not my dad!” but kept quiet.
Another long-term contract offer was made, this time for six million Turkish lira. But Kanter spurned the club once again, and along with his life coach and eventual agent Max Ergul, flew one way across the Atlantic Ocean for the very first time. The first stop was Chicago, where Kanter worked out with Tim Grover, Michael Jordan’s famous personal trainer. “There was so much free Muscle Milks,” Kanter says. “I was drinking three or four a day. A day! It was free! I was like ‘Oooh, it tastes so good.’”
From there, actually playing high-school basketball wasn’t easy. As a coveted international prospect, prep schools all over the country wanted him on their side, but thanks to a Nike contract his father signed, along with the money Fenerbahce gave his family, they were also weary of his flimsy amateur status. Kanter initially wanted to enroll at Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy—a basketball factory that’s produced an untold number of success stories, including Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, and Rajon Rondo—but the team’s head coach, Steve Smith, preferred to avoid any potential scandal.
Plan 1-A was Nevada’s Findlay Prep. With the hope of joining forces with Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph, Kanter was a tank with ball skills. “He could step out and put it on the ground,” Mike Peck, Findlay Prep’s former head coach, says. “His movement was fluid, much like a perimeter player. He wasn’t stiff and rigid.”
But Kanter only spent a couple weeks in Las Vegas before the program ended their relationship. (Oak Hill’s Smith had reportedly refused to compete against any team Kanter was on.) “Our understanding was I think there was something with his dad,” Peck says. “His dad may have signed something over in Turkey that, on behalf of Enes, affected his amateurism. So that’s when we had to say ‘Hey, sorry but we can’t jeopardize our program.’”
Enes, understandably, was crushed. “Think about it, man. I came [to the United States], turned down millions,” he says. “Turned down all the big Nike deals. Turned down...I could be like a legend in Europe. I was killing everybody my age.” But he didn’t sulk. In the days after Findlay Prep informed him of their decision, as Ergul tried to figure out their next move, Kanter’s drive didn’t decelerate. “He was in the gym and he was sweating and he was working,” Peck says. “He wasn’t just, shoes unlaced, messing around. His poise and composure was commendable.”
A similarly frustrating pitstop at West Virginia’s Mountain State Prep preceded Kanter finally landing somewhere that was willing to let him play: Stoneridge Prep in Simi Valley, California, a few miles north of Los Angeles. It was nice to have some stability, but Kanter remembers the situation as anything but normal.
“I walked into the classroom and there were spiders everywhere,” he says. “It was like spider webs. It was very weird. There were like fifteen students in the whole school.” Kanter was there seven months, first living in a house with his teammates before he moved into an American family’s home. It was his first uninterrupted taste of a new culture. At first, he didn’t shop for groceries and ate Nutella for lunch. One morning, he grabbed a box off the top of the refrigerator, opened it, then mixed its contents in a bowl with some milk. A teammate strolled into the kitchen and couldn’t stop laughing. “They said ‘You’re not supposed to eat it like that.’ I said ‘Why? It’s cereal!’ They said ‘It’s not cereal. It’s Cheeze-Its.’”
Practices were held at a 24 Hour Fitness, and Kanter still remembers being confused when random gym members shot at the same basket his team used. But he was dominant, and knew he wouldn’t be there forever. “I remember I had one game, I was so tired of scoring,” he says. “I missed a shot on purpose. A free-throw! I don’t want to score anymore. I still remember that game. It was too easy.”
Kanter verbally accepted an offer made by the University of Washington without ever visiting the school or even stepping foot in the same state. He knew a couple coaches there but had no serious ties or desire to attend. Not long after, Calipari flew to Los Angeles to see Kanter in person for the first time. It was a pickup game at 24 Hour Fitness.
“I immediately said ‘Holy cow, this kid is like 18? This is ridiculous,’” Calipari says. “He was really skilled. Obviously he was really big. But he was really skilled for a guy his size, which kind of surprised me.”
Once he realized they were interested, Kanter immediately decommitted from Washington to sign with the Wildcats. He had emerged as a prodigious cult figure, having recently broken Dirk Nowitzki’s single-game scoring record at the barometric Nike Hoop Summit in Oregon, with a 34-point, 13-rebound gem in just 24 minutes off the bench. (Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson finished with 29 points combined.)
But Kanter’s alleged impropriety followed him to Lexington. And the fact that Washington’s former athletic director, Mark Emmert, had just been named President of the NCAA probably didn’t help. Weeks before his freshman season began, Fenerbahce went public, alleging that Kanter had received “over $100,000 in cash and benefits.” They also submitted financial documents to the NCAA. Instead of playing basketball, Kanter sat through several interviews with investigators, some lasting six hours.
“His dad didn’t want him to go to a club school [in Turkey]. He wanted him to go to a private school, because his father was a professor,” Calipari says. “The club agreed to pay for it, and instead of paying the [private] school directly, they paid Enes’s father to give the money to the school, which the father did. And he had checks and everything that he wrote and showed. The club was upset that [Enes] didn’t come back and said that they wouldn’t cooperate. In other words ‘we’re not gonna say that’s what it was,’ but the dad showed that’s what it was. The NCAA said he’s not paying. I was appalled.”
Kanter learned about his lifetime ban watching television in his dorm room. Calipari remembers a meeting soon after in his office: Kanter looked at the floor and held back tears. Going back to Istanbul never crossed his mind, though, especially after he received a barrage of texts from his former club that outlined how hopeless his NBA dream truly was. If he wanted to succeed, it had to be in Turkey, they told him. “I knew if I went back, that road would be closed and none of the [Turkish] players would take that risk and come to America again,” he says. “Everybody would be scared.”
Kanter stayed in Kentucky throughout the season. Initially he wasn’t allowed to be in the same gym while the team practiced, so the school assigned Kanter his own coach. “I would practice after or before [the team],” he says. The restrictions extended to weight training, where strength and conditioning coaches wrote instructions on note cards and then taped them all over the room. “He said ‘When you work out, we’re not allowed to talk to you’,” Kanter says.
That was short lived, though. Kentucky quickly made Kanter “a student-assistant coach,” and the NCAA allowed him to practice with the team. “Every day, NBA people came in and watched him. He got Josh Harrellson drafted because every day Josh had to go against him. Josh Harrellson got drafted because of Enes Kanter,” Calipari says. “I told him ‘we have a plan. You’re gonna practice, we’re gonna have pro scouts, and you, my man, you’re getting drafted, son. And you’re getting drafted in the top five.’”
In 2011, Kanter was selected third overall by the Jazz, but the NBA’s lockout robbed him of a formal training camp, leading to an understandably rough adjustment period, on and off the floor. He was hazed by veteran teammates, especially Al Jefferson, and found that the more he tried to fit in, the further he drifted from who he really was.
“Enes partied a lot. Everybody knew that,” Trey Burke, Kanter’s current teammate who also played with him in Utah, says. “That was his rookie season, though. He’ll even tell you that.” Indeed, he does: “I was going out with my teammates and hanging out and stuff, but once you’re in your second year and your third year, you get more smarter and more smarter, you know? And you’re like ‘OK, basketball comes first, so stick to basketball,’” Kanter says.
He was not happy in Salt Lake City, primarily due to limited minutes and a diminishing on-court role. “He was boiling on the inside,” Novak says. Right before the All-Star break in the last year of his rookie-scale contract, Kanter demanded a trade. A couple weeks later, he was dealt to Oklahoma City. Novak was included in the deal, news that prompted his wife to burst into tears. When Kanter heard, he immediately called to apologize. “My wife wanted to kill him,” Novak laughs. “If you’re mad at Enes you’re usually not mad for long. He’s crazy so he does dumb stuff, but it usually comes from a really good place.”
The most meaningful upshot from his departure was Kanter’s own maturation intersecting with a rediscovery of the altruistic Muslim principles he embraced as a child. The need to help others, especially those who can’t help themselves, took on a much larger role in his life, dramatically altering how he viewed his responsibilities as a public figure. Kanter was about to become so much more than a basketball player.
As we sit ten stories above New York City’s rush-hour traffic, a fire truck’s deafening siren pauses our conversation. Kanter stops fiddling with his black matte watch, turns his phone over and raises his eyebrows. “Look at this, man.” He shakes his head and stretches his arm across the table. It’s a clip of Florida senator Marco Rubio dropping Kanter’s name during a senate hearing about political censorship on social media. (Kanter’s Twitter account has been blocked by the Turkish government.)
A few weeks later, outside the Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, sunlight sifts through a cloudy fall sky and glares off automatic machine guns held by NYPD officers clad in riot gear as they effectively secure the building’s perimeter. We’re at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a conference sponsored by the Human Rights Foundation that’s designed to promote and protect human rights all over the world.
As the conference begins, Kanter stands in the back, watching as a young North Korean defector tells her story in front of a packed, teary-eyed audience. When she’s through, he bends over to give her a hug as organizers latch a microphone over his ear. During their on-stage talk, Thor Halvorssen, the forum’s founder, calls Kanter an accidental activist, someone who didn’t set out to change the world but stepped up once he realized he had enough influence to do so.
Kanter first considered speaking out against Turkey’s backsliding government in 2013, after Erdogan embroiled himself in a corruption scandal. The subsequent power struggle culminated in an attempted coup, allegedly orchestrated by Fethullah Gulen, one of the country’s most popular religious and political figures. Gulen, who denies he was involved, lives in exile in Pennsylvania, where Kanter visits him regularly. Kanter's criticism of Erdogan is well documented, and nearly led to his abduction in Romania while on a worldwide charity tour last year. Since, Kanter has taken every opportunity possible to denounce a regime that’s imprisoning innocent citizens and kidnapping dissenters who live in democratic countries.
“He’s the second-most wanted person in Turkey, after Gulen, and we’re walking aimlessly in Hawaii, in Des Moine, Iowa, not hiding from anyone,” Kanter’s manager Hank Fetic says. “There were a few times this summer where I said ‘Bro, this guy is walking a little close to us. I’m a bit worried.'”
A warrant for Kanter’s arrest was issued by the Turkish government last year, and his father is facing a trial that could put him in jail for years. It’s a neverending nightmare, but Kanter is somehow able to compartmentalize the most psychologically corrosive aspects of his life and stay as upbeat as possible. While with the Thunder, the team’s psychologist tried to speak with him. Kanter politely refused. “Don’t worry about me,” he said he told the doctor. “If I ever need someone to talk to maybe I will. But right now I’m okay.”
The emotional toll is obvious, but Kanter’s sacrifice is evident elsewhere. He can’t leave North America and hasn’t been able to secure any endorsement deals. Nike, the same company that championed Colin Kaepernick’s controversial remonstration by putting him on the frontlines of a recent ad campaign, now refuses to sign Kanter. “I talked to Nike and they said ‘we want to give Enes a contract. We’re watching him. But if we give him a contract they will shut down every store in Turkey, so we cannot give him a contract,’” he says. “I’m an NBA player with no shoe deal. No endorsement deal. And I play in New York!”
He’s curious about the fluidity of American politics, and didn’t initially understand why so many people get upset when he tweets anything negative about Donald Trump—particularly during his time in Oklahoma. Speaking as someone who’s still shocked by what’s happened to Turkey, America’s violent divisiveness and piping hot political climate terrify him. But he still dislikes the idea of protesting in the United States, for fear of turning another country into his enemy. (Don’t expect Kanter to take a knee during the national anthem anytime, ever.)
He wants to be a U.S. citizen—he’s two years from becoming eligible—and has thought about giving himself an American name. (Kanter scratches his chin when I pitch “Michael” as an option.) “I see [America] is going there, to become another Turkey,” he says. “I hope not. I pray not. But right now you see people are getting polarized. When I think about America, I think about freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion. It’s a peaceful country. Now it’s like, for an immigrant, you’re kind of scared.”
Inside the Knicks practice facility, a dozen media members file into a gym that has two full-length basketball courts. New York’s second day of training camp has just ended. As players break up to shoot free throws and work on individual skills, Kanter is the only one who jogs over to the near sideline, where several coaches and front office executives—the team’s president (Steve Mills) and general manager (Scott Perry) included—are seated in a row. He goes down the line, like a the world’s most earnest politician, and shakes everybody’s hand.
Kanter recedes to a far basket and simulates pick-and-rolls with one of his coaches. He steps outside to attempt a few mid-range jumpers and then settles into the corner to hoist some threes. From shoulder to hip, his muscles ripple like a miniature mountain ridge.
“How do you not like Enes?” Knicks head coach David Fizdale says a few minutes later. “For me, he’s like our spirit. He keeps our gym light. He keeps the guys in an upbeat mood, an energetic mood. He doesn’t have bad days. And thinking about what he and his family [are] going through, the fact that he can come in here and still have enough energy to give to us, I love him.”
“How do you not like Enes?”
Kanter began preparing for this, his eighth NBA season, less than a week after his seventh one ended five months ago. Even with a hectic travel schedule, he still spent between three and four hours a day in a gym all summer. The only days he took off were those designated for rest.
“Honestly, he’s the most consistent athlete I’ve been around in a long time, as far as just being on time and punctual and what he demands out of himself,” Mike Atkinson, Kanter’s personal performance coach, says.
Kanter walked into camp with 2.8 percent body fat and 20 more pounds of muscle than he had a year ago. “He’s the healthiest eater of all time,” McDermott says. “I’ve tried multiple times this summer to go to Shake Shack, but he won’t do it. I remember on a plane ride once, I was like ‘Enes, if this plane goes down, what’s the first thing you’d do?’ He said ‘I would eat all the cheeseburgers and cookies on here,’ just because he eats more quinoa and kale and spinach than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
On the court, Kanter is aggravatingly schismatic. At his best—AKA when his team has the ball—he moves like a rhinoceros who could place in the Kentucky Derby. He consistently finishes around the rim at an elite rate and creates second, third, and fourth chances whenever a teammate’s shot (or his own) doesn’t fall. “He’s a walking assist for a lot of us guards,” Burke says. Kanter finished seventh in rebound chances per game last season, averaging at least five fewer minutes than everyone who ranked higher. Since he entered the league, only seven players have grabbed more than 1,400 offensive rebounds. Kanter has tallied at least 2,100 fewer minutes than all of them.
“My thing is to do the dirty work, bang inside, and just be a banger, you know?” he says. “I know my weaknesses. That’s the most important thing. You have to know your weaknesses. I think my [weakness is] defense, of course.” For the past five years, Kanter’s team has been atrocious on defense with him in the game and significantly better when he’s on the bench. Two postseasons ago—after a play in which Kanter was helpless to stop James Harden and Clint Capela from connecting on a lob—that reputation collided with the national spotlight when a camera panned to Thunder head coach Billy Donovan right as he turned to his assistant Maurice Cheeks to seemingly say the words: “Can’t play Kanter.”
“I did see the clip. I could read his mouth. But he said ‘I never said anything like that, I was saying something else’,” Kanter says about Donovan. “He told me he never said anything like that and I go with it. You know what I mean?”
Kanter will never be Rudy Gobert, but he’s spent the offseason building up his legs, training himself to stay in a lateral stance, watching more footage, and conceding that where he is and how he reacts is increasingly critical in a league that goes out of its way to attack him. Physical improvement can only accomplish so much without awareness, zippy instincts, and the capacity to communicate on the fly, though. And big men, like Kanter, who neither protect the rim nor shoot threes—something Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks first encouraged him to try when both were in Oklahoma City—are an endangered species.
His game is often synonymous with these flaws, but Kanter can still be a devastating weapon if deployed correctly. Size and strength will always have a place in the NBA, particularly when found in someone who’s coordinated, physical, and willing to exert maximum energy.
As a 27-year-old free agent hitting a marketplace that’s flush with cash, so much of his next contract hinges on the progress seen in 2019. “You always think about [free agency],” Kanter says. “Even if people said ‘Oh I don’t think about it, I’m focused on the season’ it’s always in the back of your head. It can not let you affect your game, but you always think about ‘Hey, what am I going to do?’ ‘Where am I going to go?’ ‘Am I going to stay,’ ‘Am I going to leave?’”
Based on everything seen so far, odds are strongly against Kanter ever approaching league average on the defensive end, but marginal improvement is always possible. Even more likely, though, is further growth on offense, where Kanter’s assist rate—normally near the bottom of the league—has ascended over the past couple years. An opportunity to show off his three-point range will be there, too.
“Before I was saying ‘I want to average a double-double. I want to score this much points, this much blocks.’ But how can I make my teammates better? How can I make the young guys better? Because that will take you to the next level. To share the ball, to make an extra pass, to cheer for your teammates. If you’re having a bad game and other big men are having a good game, you clap for them. You stand up and cheer for them. I think those little things add up and you become a better teammate and become a better player.”
The most popular example of Kanter’s loyalty—and quite possibly his most relevant on-court moment—happened one year ago, when the Cleveland Cavaliers visited Madison Square Garden. The conflict started hours before the actual game, when LeBron incidentally disrespected New York’s baby-faced French point guard Frank Ntilikina by saying Dennis Smith Jr. should’ve been the Knicks pick instead.
Late in the first quarter, LeBron dunked home a lob, bumped into Ntilikina, and then refused to get out of his way. It was pure intimidation. The rookie responded by shoving James back before Kanter sprinted over to join the fray. “I was like ‘I’m proud of Frank. He’s pushing with LeBron, that’s good!’ But then after that it’s like OK, LeBron is 260 going up against an 18-year-old kid,” Kanter says. “So then I break in and I actually didn’t say nothing crazy. I was like ‘Don’t mess with my man.’ That’s it.”
The Knicks barely lost that game but then won three of their next four. “Our team needed that. Frank needed that. And I think it went a long way in the locker room,” O’Quinn says. “[Enes] got under the skin of somebody who is kinda unfazed by the many different things that people throw at him.”
The moment also cemented a bond between a veteran and a rookie who’s as shy as Kanter used to be. “The first person that I saw who wanted to help me was Enes,” Ntilikina says. “And it’s always like that, in the locker room, on the court, you always know that Enes is going to be there for you.”
This is who he is. Even still with a slight language barrier, Kanter speaks with an intent to ease. At the end of every other sentence, the man he’s talking to is “bro” or “my man.” Back at Lincoln Center, I sat on a yellow couch in the second-floor media room while he conducted an entire day’s worth of on-camera interviews with outlets from all over the world. A little after 4 PM, Kanter met me around the corner at the Empire Hotel. He looked the opposite of exhausted. We sat down on a gray couch in the brisk lobby, and without saying a word, Kanter grabbed my digital recorder and moved it to his side of the table, just to make sure it’d catch his voice. Again, he's almost too well-mannered.
“We’ll be having dinner, and someone will come to the table and ask to take a picture and he’ll stand up and take a picture with them. I’m like ‘Bro, you’ve gotta say ‘No. After dinner.’ But he just doesn’t decline it,” Fetic says. He’s unfailingly polite, but add everything he brings to the table that’s completely disconnected from on-court performance and it’s easy to see why signing him to a long-term deal is risky. So long as he’s on their roster, the Knicks aren’t broadcast in Turkey, no small loss considering a potential market of approximately 80 million people who would certainly tune in to watch.
McDermott believes Kanter is a perfect fit where he is: “I think, not anything bad against anywhere else he’s played, but I just think he’s meant to be in New York or L.A. He just has that presence.”
He’s unpredictable and different, but being unpredictable and different, in this case, is good. Instead of ego, there’s curiosity and compassion. Given all that encompasses his world—a deteriorating homeland and troubled family that's endured so many challenging circumstances—who has time to feel pressure on a basketball court, especially when it’s impossible to prepare any more than he already has? Kanter is unafraid of his own ambition and has long established himself as a productive professional, someone who can unmistakably affect his team’s culture without taking it over.
One day after the loss to Cleveland, Ntilikina sat by himself in a cold tub at the Knicks practice facility. A few minutes later, Kanter walked in and slid into the freezing water. They acknowledged each other and then sat in an awkward, shivery silence before Ntilikina looked up, turned his head, and stared at the teammate who just stood up to one of the world’s best and most famous athletes on his behalf. “Thank you,” Ntilikina said, softly. Kanter nodded back. “No problem, my man. I’ve always got your back.” The room fell quiet once again. “Whatever happens,” Kanter said. “It’s us against the whole world.”
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.