SALT LAKE CITY — It’s understandable if Utah Jazz fans still harbor negative emotions about Enes Kanter. Not only did he ask to be traded, but he torched the place on the way out. It felt like a double betrayal.
The way he handled himself on the way out of Utah was not exactly mature. At least he gave the Wasatch Front mountains a ringing endorsement.
It’s been over four years now. An apology has been made. He said he was "a little harsh" in his criticisms of the Jazz and fans. Even so, time has softened some of the hard feelings.
Question is: Have Jazz fans forgiven Kanter or is he still considered Enes the Menace in these parts? My boss, Aaron Morton, asked some interesting questions the other day. We know Kanter likes to play the role of the heel — picture the bad guy in a melodramatic wrestling program — but is he a villain?
Or is he a good guy?
Maybe a misunderstood hero?
Oh, and is he a good player?
The last question is a divisive one. Kanter seems to be equally good at offense as he is bad at defense, and the latter part of that equation often gets the most attention. Teams can pick his team’s defense apart when he’s in pick-and-roll defense. It’s simply not his strength. He is not The Stifle Tower near the rim, that’s for sure. That's also why the Jazz could afford to do a one-sided deal with OKC — addition by subtraction. It was Rudy Gobert's time to step up front and center.
But Kanter has terrific footwork, creativity and shooting touch on the offensive end, which makes him a valuable asset to a team. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers have benefited from that more than his other two previous teams, the Jazz and the New York Knicks. It helps that he has become an even better shooter than when he played in Utah, where he shot under .500 in two different seasons. His lowest shooting percentage since leaving the Beehive State was .536 with a high of .592.
Kanter immediately became an integral part of Portland’s Western Conference Finals-bound squad in the aftermath of Jusuf Nurkic’s season-ending injury. The Turkish center stepped in nicely, averaging 13.1 points and 8.6 rebounds in only 22.3 minutes down the stretch for the Blazers. He gave Portland some nice minutes in the playoff run, too, averaging 11.4 points and 9.7 boards.
The Blazers would like to find a way to keep him in Rip City long term.
In Turkey, Kanter is either considered a traitor or a brave, outspoken patriot. He has been critical against the current regime, even calling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “the Hitler of our century.” Turkish media mostly ignores him, and even the NBA’s Turkish Twitter feed didn’t mention his solid contributions during the playoffs.
"Whoever runs the official account, NBA Turkey, lives in Turkey. Look how sad this is, they can't even put my name out there because they're scared," Kanter told the Washington Post. "They know if they put my name out there, they could get in trouble or they might even end up in jail.
"That shows it's a dictatorship. That shows there's no freedom of speech in Turkey. It's crazy. Basketball reporters in Turkey cannot even say my name because they will all be in trouble."
Kanter has been so openly against Erdogan that he’s facing at least four years of prison time for insulting the president, including calling him a "maniac."
An Oregon politician was pushing for a special exception to allow Kanter to safely cross the border into Canada and back into the U.S. had the Blazers advanced to the Finals. (Golden State denied his application.) Turkey is trying to extradite him for his alleged crimes, so there is no guarantee that he could safely leave the States and return again. He’s even had to skip regular season games in Toronto because of the dilemma.
There are always many details and sides to stories, but Kanter — a hilarious and generally kind guy I always got along with very well while he was in Utah and after he left — has really impressed me with two things he's done in recent months.
First, I was touched by the way he openly discussed his observance of Ramadan, which is a holy month for Muslims and includes fasting from sunrise to sunset. Kanter even stayed faithful to his religious conviction while the Blazers played in the playoffs. He turned to another member of his faith, Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon, to get tips on how to successfully navigate a difficult challenge for a high-level pro athlete who sweats buckets and requires a lot of energy.
While Kanter was feasting on pasta and burritos when it was dark, he laughed while sharing that Olajuwon told him he survived on oatmeal, dates and water.
The biggest reason why Kanter went public with observing Ramadan?
"I wanted to set an example for the younger generation," he told reporters in his Portland exit interview. "It doesn't matter your status. There's no excuse. If you put your mind to it, you can do it."
He can also pack away the food. Check out his post-Ramadan cheat meal — seven large, home-grilled burgers.
Kanter's summer plans are also heartwarming.
Because his travel is limited, Kanter decided to host 40 free basketball clinics for children in 30 different states this summer. He began with two in Portland last week and has since moved on to Oklahoma City.
Unfortunately for Utahns, he will not be hosting a camp in the Beehive State, so kids from these parts will have to travel to Las Vegas, Boise, California, Honolulu or, heck, Fargo, North Dakota, to participate.16 comments on this story
If all that isn't enough to convince Utahns to soften their stance on Kanter, maybe this will. At one of his camps, he made a kid sporting Stephen Curry garb put a camp T-shirt on over his No. 30 jersey. He also played one-on-one with a kid in a wheelchair. He isn't afraid to take on LeBron, either. (Not to mention he has a great relationship with the coolest guy in the NBA, Thunder center Steven Adams.)
Despite Utah's exclusion from the camp fun, this tutoring tour is an awesome act of kindness from a professional athlete who's similar to the rest of us — a complicated mixture of good and bad.
For now, I say we focus on the good because Kanter sure is showing a lot of it lately.