With Al Horford leaving to join the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics needed to add a starting center this summer. Danny Ainge decided to add Enes Kanter, who’s coming off a strong Western Conference Finals run with the Portland Trail Blazers in which he averaged 11.4 points and 9.7 rebounds while shooting 51.4 percent from the field.
On the court, Kanter could make an impact with his rebounding and interior scoring; off the court, he wants to provide comic relief and be this team’s glue guy. HoopsHype caught up with the eight-year NBA veteran to discuss his free-agency decision, new Celtics teammates, excellent 2019 postseason play, fight against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and much more.
How was your free-agency experience and what were the main factors you were considering?
Enes Kanter: It’s my ninth year in the league and I understand that, for many people, the money is important. For me, the most important thing is being with a team that you’re really happy on and playing with a team that’s competing for a championship. That’s was the big thing for me. For everybody else, the money matters [more]. For me, the No. 1 thing was winning.
After I got released by the New York Knicks, I would always hear, “Boston Celtics, Boston Celtics, Boston Celtics,” but I never really got a chance to talk to them. When free agency started and the clock hit 6 pm ET, I actually talked to Danny Ainge. He told me about his plans and everything. Then, the second time he called me, I answered the phone and it wasn’t him. It was Kemba Walker and he was on Danny’s phone. Kemba said, “Hey, my man, are we doing this or not?” Then, he talked to me about the team and everything. That showed me what kind of leader he is, and that made me very happy. That was one of the biggest reasons [I signed with Boston].
I feel like Kemba Walker to Boston isn’t being talked about enough, probably because so many other stars moved to new teams this summer. What will Kemba bring to this team?
EK: He was in my draft class, so I’ve been watching him a lot ever since he was at UConn. I know what kind of character he is and what kind of leader he is. He’s the type of point guard and type of leader who makes everybody around him much better. That’s what makes him really special. Of course, he’s an amazing player. But off the court, the leadership he brings to the team and the relationships he develops with all of the other players is very important. He was definitely one of the biggest reasons why I chose Boston. I really want to play with Kemba.
How good do you think this Celtics team can be?
EK: The reason I went [to Boston] is for a championship. I feel like the team is really young and willing to learn and we have an amazing group of guys. I feel like we can beat any team on any floor. All we have to do is just be good friends and stay together. Let’s just go have fun! It’s definitely going to be a very, very exciting season.
It seems like people aren’t talking about the Celtics as much when they’re discussing contending teams; you hear more about the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, etc. Do you feel like people are underrating this new-look Celtics squad a bit?
EK: I think so. People are just so focused on the Clippers and Lakers, like you said, and sometimes Milwaukee and Philly. But I definitely think we can shock the world. I already got a chance to work out with some of the guys, and I think it’s going be a very exciting season.
Brad Stevens is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the NBA. What have your interactions with Coach Stevens been like and did the chance to play for him affect your free-agency decision?
EK: Of course. He’s the type of coach who tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. He’s keeping it real all the time. Obviously, he’s one of the youngest coaches in the league and he’s already been so successful and done some amazing things. He’s a little guy! We had a practice and right after the practice, he was playing one-on-one with the ball boys. I’m like, “Wow, he’s good!” He was amazing. I sat there and just watched him for I-don’t-know-how-many minutes. He was playing defense, he was making shots, he was [joking with] them and he was having a lot of fun with them. I was just like, “Man, he’s definitely special!” He definitely played a big role in my decision.
What aspects of your game are you working on this offseason?
EK: Now, the league has changed a lot. There’s not much back-to-the-basket play anymore – that left – and that’s my game. Of course, with the league changing, everybody has to be able to make three-point shots now. That’s why my focus this summer is my three-point shooting. When I talked to Brad Stevens, he told me he wanted me to shoot threes. In the press conference, I was sitting next to Danny Ainge and he told me, “You know, that three-point line isn’t for decoration.” I was like, “Got it! Okay!”
Jayson Tatum has said that he wants to average 20 points and become an All-Star. Jaylen Brown is poised for a bigger role too. What do you think of their potential and do you think we’ll see them break out?
EK: I think they both have the potential to be All-Stars this year. I think they have all of the tools – they’re hardworking guys, they’re willing to learn, they have amazing character on and off the court and they’re amazingly talented. I think for Jaylen and Jayson the ceiling is, of course, to be All-Stars. With their work ethic and leadership, I definitely think they can take our team to the next level and take us really, really deep into the playoffs. I’ve already met Jaylen; he’s an amazing guy. We were actually playing two-on-two; it was me and Jaylen Brown against Gordon Hayward and Tacko Fall. It was amazing! I’m definitely very excited to play with those guys.
Wait, who won the game of two-on-two?
EK: We won some games and they won some games. The games were very fun!
Last time you were in Turkey, they canceled your passport and tried to detain you. Now, you don’t leave North America because you’re worried they’ll arrest you or assassinate you. That’s really scary stuff. What’s it like going through that and why do you feel it’s important to continue speaking out against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?
EK: I’m not a politician. I’m not a journalist. I’m using so many words now that I’ve never used in my life because I’m just a basketball player. But I’m trying to be the voice for all of those innocent people who don’t have one. I have this platform, so I’m using it. First of all, I love my country. I love Turkey. My problem is not with my country. My problem is with the regime in my country and the government in my country. Turkey could be the bridge between modern Islam and the West. But right now, there’s no freedom – no freedom of speech, no freedom of religion, no freedom of expression. There’s no democracy. Also, Erdogan is using his power to abuse human rights. What he’s doing is a human-rights violation. That’s why I’m talking about these issues. To me, it’s very important.
I understand that I could just shut my mouth, make millions of dollars in America and not care about these problems. But I think what I’m doing is way bigger than this – way bigger than the money I’m making, way bigger than basketball and way bigger than myself. It’s very important for me to talk about these issues because when I talk, it goes viral and people learn what’s happening. Teammates and other people have asked me, “Are you crazy?” They ask why [I speak out]. You have to understand that my family is still back in Turkey and there are thousands and thousands people in jail who are waiting for help. There are 17,000 women in jail and over 800 babies in jail who are waiting for help. I can’t just be selfish and not talk about this. Some of the people in jail are my friends, my neighbors, people who I played basketball with. I have to talk about these issues.
Recently, you had a camp scheduled at the Islamic Center of Long Island, but you announced that the Turkish consulate forced them to cancel your event. They responded and called you a liar. What happened with that and were you able to reschedule the camp?
EK: I was going to do a basketball camp in Long Island. It’s very weird and very sad that the Turkish consulate would cancel a camp in America. You are a foreign country consulate. You shouldn’t be deciding whether I can do a foreign basketball camp. But they called the mosque and said, “If you do a basketball camp with Enes Kanter, you guys aren’t allowed in Turkey anymore.” I was actually in Washington DC talking to Senators when we got the text message saying that the basketball camp in Long Island was canceled. I was so sad. This is the second time that’s happened; the first time was in Dallas. When a camp gets canceled, the kids think it’s my fault. Kids are thinking, “Enes canceled on us. Enes didn’t show up.” They don’t understand, you know? But it’s not my fault; I really want to do it. While I was in DC, I had a meeting with the Congresswoman from that district, Kathleen Rice. I told her my story and her eyes started watering. She said, “There’s no way we’re canceling this camp. We’ll relocate it and do this camp.” We relocated it and today, the 28th, we have a bunch of kids coming and the Congresswoman is actually coming to the camp too.
Some people do basketball camps just in the city they play in or where they’re from. For me, with all of these Turkey issues, I’m grateful that America gave me a home and I feel like I owe something to America. I want to give back. America has given me a lot, so this is my way of giving back. I just want to show my appreciation with community service and by helping kids all around the country. A lot of players do this for money, but I use my own money out of my pocket to travel around and host these camps and give out free shirts and pizza. I just want to see people smile. These kids are our future. We’re inspiring them! Whenever we do a basketball camp, we don’t just talk about basketball. We’re talking about how to be a good person, the importance of education, how to treat other people the right way, how to be a good friend and stuff like that. My manager told me that the record for most basketball camps [in a summer] was nine. I said, “Well, let’s get crazy!” We are planning to do nearly 40 free basketball camps this summer. The one in Long Island that got canceled, that was going to be the 33rd one. Now, we relocated and rescheduled it.
After you played well and eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder, you tweeted “CAN play Kanter.” That was a funny reference to the viral clip of Billy Donovan saying he “can’t play Kanter” during the 2017 playoffs. How nice was it to have that kind of performance against your former team?
EK: There was this video where [Donovan] says, “Can’t play Kanter,” so I just wanted to go out there and prove everybody wrong. I wanted to go show the whole world, yes, I can play. Yes, you can play Kanter. My focus was just going out there and playing for my team and just winning. With the leadership of Dame [Lillard] and CJ [McCollum], the game just comes so easily and we were able to win that series.
It was very important. When I was with the Knicks, the season wasn’t going the way that I wanted. I wanted to go out there and win. I’m glad that I picked Portland [after being waived]. Portland was definitely one of the best stops of my career. It helped me grow into a better player and a better person at the same time. I thank the people around me: Dame, CJ, Coach [Terry] Stotts. It was definitely an amazing experience. We had an amazing team and we really understood each other on and off the court, so we were able to go to the Western Conference Finals for their first time in 19 years. It really was amazing.
A lot of people were wondering why this Celtics team wasn’t able to live up to expectations last year and many people have talked about the chemistry issues they had. Now that you’re around the players and part of the organization, how can you ensure that none of those issues surface this year?
EK: I think I try to be that glue guy. I don’t know what [happened]; I wasn’t there last year, so I don’t want to judge or blame anybody. But I think this year, we have an amazing group of guys and I’m very excited to play with these guys. I think if you’re better friends off the court, it translates to on the court. That’s why it’s so important for players to just hang out together and go to a movie and things like that. You’re going to become even better friends and better teammates! What you do off the court definitely affects what you do on the court. This year, we have an amazing group of characters and it’s going to be an exciting season.
Your cheat days are the stuff of legend and the video of your hotdog-pizza-burger combination went viral. What’s your favorite cheat-day food?
EK: My favorite food, besides Turkish food, is probably burgers and pizza. I mean, we work so hard throughout the whole season and you have to treat yourself! I try to do a cheat day once a week. But I post about them so much that people have started saying, “You cheat every day!” I don’t cheat every day (laughs). It’s just fun. People always ask, “Did you really eat all of that?” I always tell them, “I tried!” It’s fun and you need to treat yourself and your body!
You were part of the Knicks for one and a half years. They weren’t able to add any stars in this summer, but they kept their cap flexibility and they’ll continue to pursue big-name free agents. Since you know the organization well, what do you think New York needs to do to land a star?
EK: They have all of the tools. You get to live in one of the best cities in the world, Madison Square Garden is obviously rocking every night and they have good people around. This year, they just didn’t get lucky. But I’m sure in a couple years, they’re going to get a lot of free agents because of how good the city is, how good MSG is and because they have good people in the organization. I’m sure they’re going to turn things around and become really, really good.
Basketball, Celtics, Free Agency, Interview, NBA, Free Agency, Interview, Top, Brad Stevens, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Tacko Fall, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers