'Oklahoma gave me so much': Why former Thunder player Enes Kanter remains fan favorite in OKC
A gruff voice from a few rows back greeted Enes Kanter as the Celtics center stood at the scorer’s table ready to check in.
“Remember your roots, Enes,” the fan said.
Kanter was born in Switzerland and raised in Turkey. He attended Kentucky for one year. Salt Lake City was his first NBA stop. He’s played for the Knicks, Trail Blazers and Celtics since his 2 1/2 season stay with the Thunder.
Kanter’s roots are more than 6,000 miles from Oklahoma City, where he lived as a steadfast Muslim in the Bible Belt. But inside Chesapeake Energy Arena on Sunday, Thunder fans welcomed Kanter as if he was a homegrown star.
For Kanter, the relationship is mutual.
“Of course it’s always emotional coming here and hearing all the cheers,” Kanter said after the Celtics beat the Thunder 112-111. “Every time I come here — from the top guy to the security — everybody is smiling and saying, ‘Welcome back home.’”
Even the mayor. David Holt dropped by the Celtics hotel to visit Kanter.
“He’s my really good friend,” Kanter said.
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Kanter was traded from the Jazz to the Thunder in February 2015. He played 180 games for the Thunder over parts of three seasons. Kanter was traded to the Knicks in September 2017 in a deal that brought Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City.
Less than 30% of Kanter’s career has been spent in a Thunder uniform.
Steven Adams, Kanter’s Stache Brother and close friend, did his best to describe the why of the loving relationship between Kanter and Thunder fans.
“One thing that kind of aligns well with Oklahomans and a thing that they kind of relate to is that real gritty, physical kind of nature,” Adams said. “They really enjoy that, and Enes is very much that.”
Kanter averaged 14.2 points and 8.0 rebounds per game with the Thunder. His offensive mastery helped overcome his defensive liability.
“So I think they liked him for his game play first,” Adams said, “but then found out the dude’s actually a really nice guy and is really passionate about his voice and wants to do a lot with his life while he’s here on this earth. It’s pretty impressive. You’ve got to be quite brave to take that path.”
Kanter has regularly criticized Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Kanter has advocated for human rights in his native country, which is under authoritarian rule. That’s why Kanter writes the word “freedom” on his basketball sneakers.
But his activism has extended to community levels.
Kanter is planning to open a charter school in Oklahoma City that would primarily serve minority students from low-income families.
“Oklahoma gave me so much,” Kanter said. “Not just the whole organization or the players, the whole state opened their arms and gave me a warm welcome. For me it was very important to give back in that way.
“And I think we need to work harder for our youth. The best investment for our future is education. That’s why I was like, ‘You know what? Oklahoma gave me so much. This is the best way to give back to the state I love.’”
Spurs at Thunder
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, OKC
TV: FSOK (Cox 37/HD 722, DirecTV 675, U-verse 751/1751)
Radio: WWLS-AM 640 / 98.1 FM