Children of all ages got to shoot hoops with NBA star Enes Kanter during a free basketball clinic at Island Garden in West Hempstead last Sunday. More than 200 boys and girls did layup drills and cardio exercises, and played three-on-three games. The 6-foot-11 Boston Celtics center joined in and swatted down several shots — although a few kids managed to score over him.
The camp was originally scheduled to run at the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, but was postponed because of threats from the Turkish Consulate in New York City. “It’s just sad that a foreign country’s counselor can affect or just shut down a basketball camp,” Kanter, 27, told the Herald.
Kanter, a native of Turkey and a practicing Muslim, is an outspoken critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Kanter was tried in absentia in 2017 for comments he made criticizing Erdoğan, and Turkey later revoked Kanter’s passport, which has prevented him from traveling outside the United States in the past year. Kanter said that he was also supposed to appear a camp at a Dallas mosque in June, but it was canceled due to “pressure” from Erdoğan’s regime.
“Everybody was mad at me because the kids thought I canceled it when I didn’t show up,” said Kanter, who played with the New York Knicks from 2017 to 2019. “That’s why I was like, whatever happens, I understand it’s a flight that’s over five and a half hours, but I’m still going to go [to New York] to do a basketball camp. I didn’t want to cancel it this time.”
Jim Fox, the executive director at Island Garden, said that when the opportunity presented itself, he did not hesitate to share his gym with Kanter. “Kids love the NBA and they love an active player like Enes,” Fox said. “It’s not every day that kids get to interact with an active NBA player on a beautiful summer afternoon. Quite frankly, no one’s going to intimidate us or take this wonderful opportunity away from the kids.”
Kanter has appeared at more than 30 camps across the country. He said that he enjoys holding camps in less popular places like North Dakota and Alabama, and he plans on holding a camp in Idaho in the near future. “One of the guys in Alabama told me, ‘The last NBA player who came was [Shaquille O’Neal] 28 years ago. He stopped to eat a burger,’” Kanter said.
Kanter had taken a red-eye at 12:40 a.m. from Los Angeles, where he attended actor Terry Crews' wedding anniversary party. He held another camp at the Masjid Darul Quran in Bay Shore later that Sunday, and left on Monday for Los Angeles — and another free clinic.
“What you do on the court is very important, but what I think what you do off the court means a lot more to people,” Kanter said. “When I’m done with my career, I want to look back and see how many people I’ve inspired. That’s the most important question.”
Kanter, who signed a two-year contract with the Boston Celtics last month, added that he’s excited to join some of his new teammates such as Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. “They’re all guys that are willing to learn, and I think it’s going to be a special season for us.”
Adeel Memon, of Franklin Square, whose 8-year-old, Sofyan, and a 10-year-old, Ameenah, participated in the camp, said that Kanter is a positive role model for children. “Maybe one day, when they accomplish certain goals, it can also inspire them to give back,” Memon said. “It’s unfortunate how things unfolded with the Islamic Center, but it’s not his fault. He pushed forward against all odds, and it’s a great thing that he’s showing the community. If somebody tries to stop you, just keeping going. Good always prevails.”
Kanter said that his father, Mehmet Kanter, was sentenced to 15 years in prison last year for his alleged role in a 2016 military coup attempt. He also said that his sister, who studied medicine, had been unable to get a job. “Right now in America, I feel safe,” Kanter said. “But if I step outside, it could be very dangerous so that’s why I’m becoming an American citizen in 2021. Until then, I’m planning to stay in America.”
When U.S. Rep Kathleen Rice heard about what happened with Kanter and the Islamic Center, she decided to help him find a new place for the camp. “This man is an amazing human being,” Rice said. “He’s a true role model. What this man has been going through . . . the persecution that he’s dealt with is unbelievable. With the opportunities this country has given him, he’s giving back to these kids. He makes you feel optimistic, happy and hopeful, and I want to do anything that I can to support that.”
Kanter said that while many of the children have asked him questions about playing alongside NBA superstars such as Damian Lillard and competing against players like Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry, he wants them to understand the importance of education.
“I always get a funny reaction from kids when they see an NBA player like me talking about education,” Kanter said. “I understand that the NBA is filled with dunking and three-point shooting, but right now their focus should be on education.”