Right around the time the Toronto Raptors were hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy in June, Enes Kanter found himself in Evergreen, Alabama, a city that’s a 75-mile ride along Interstate-65 from the nearest major airport and boasts a population south of 4,000.
While Kanter interacted with wide-eyed youth campers at one of his free youth basketball camps, a local shuffled up to inform Kanter that no one could remember an NBA player passing through Evergreen since Shaquille O’Neal stopped for a burger more than two decades earlier.
On Saturday, Kanter, who signed a two-year pact with the Boston Celtics in July, will host his 50th and final camp of the offseason at UMass-Boston. Like the others, registration is free. So are the T-shirts. And the pizza.
“When the season ended, we had a team meeting [in Portland] and then everybody was talking about, ‘Oh, I'm gonna go home and play video games all day. I’m just gonna go to the beach and take vacations all day,’” said Kanter. "For me, it was just a waste of time, you know? So that's why I want to do something special. I asked my manager [Hank Fetic], ‘Hey, what is the record by an NBA player for the most basketball camps?’ He told me it’s nine. Nine! He's like, ‘Let's do something crazy.’”
In that moment, a 25-state, 50-camp trek was born. Fetic essentially let it be known that Kanter desired to visit and the invitations came pouring in. And not just from the places that he had played during his NBA career, like Portland, Oklahoma CIty, and New York. Requests arrived from Opelousas, Louisiana. And Fargo, North Dakota. And Anchorage, Alaska.
So Kanter booked his flights.
"These places that we pick — I don't pick, they just invite us and then we just go,” said Kanter. "We take care of everything. We take care of the flights, the hotels, the facility, the food, T-shirts, everything. For me, it's a really good experience because I never get to see this part of America. We went to Louisiana, went to Alabama, went to Idaho, Alaska … it was just so interesting because, the other [reason] I am doing this is because America gave me so much. America gave me home, and the American people, so that's why I want to give back to America, not just the city or the state I play for, I want to give back to all of America.”
Kanter cannot safely travel outside the United States. The Turkish government put out an Interpol red notice for Kanter in January, which puts him at risk of being arrested if he leaves the country. The warrant came as Kanter remained an outspoken critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose regime previously revoked Kanter’s passport in 2017.
Still, Kanter didn’t have to be anywhere near as ambitious as he became with his camp tour. This isn’t a player whose season ended in mid-April. The Portland Trail Blazers picked up Kanter in February, after he was waived by the Knicks, and advanced to the Western Conference finals before being knocked out by the Golden State Warriors on May 20.
By the time Kanter arrived in Evergreen, he had 13 camps under his belt. Next summer, Kanter would like to bring a camp to Guam, a U.S. territory in Micronesia that would require roughly 36 hours of roundtrip travel (a fact that he relays with impossible excitement).
"I think the most important thing for me is just put a smile on kids faces, right?” said Kanter. "That is definitely priceless. I don't need their money. So that's why I'm doing free basketball camps. They come in, we’re having fun and, after, when I say, ‘Hey, by the way, I got free pizza for you,’ they all go crazy.
"I understand basketball is important but I think this is way bigger than basketball, to try to go out there inspire millions of kids.”
Kanter said he traveled just about every weekend in the offseason in order to put on these camps. But, as his social media confirmed, Kanter remained focus on basketball. He said most summer days he did weight training from 7-8 a.m., then engaged in basketball activity from 8-9., leaving the rest of his days free to do everything from media tours to visiting with state senators, to delivering social media jabs at Kyrie Irving, whose No. 11 Kanter will wear this season.
The Celtics signed Kanter, at least in part, because of his personality, which could take the edge off a locker room that was overly taut last season. He’s eager to provide leadership to a young group while also tasked with helping to fill the massive voids in Boston’s frontcourt after the departures of Al Horford and Aron Baynes.
"I think Celtics fans already know my game. But I think, for me, the most important thing is to be the glue guy, be the good locker room guy, be the guy who brings positive energy,” said Kanter. "I think that is the most important matter because we know we’re all good at basketball, we play in the NBA, we’re all good basketball players, talented players. For me, the most important thing is just bringing the guys together because I've been in the league for nine years.
"I've been in the Western Conference finals twice, I've been in a lot of playoff games, a lot of crazy games. Again, try to bring the positive energy, try to be that glue guy. When things are going bad, trying to bring the team together. I think that’s what matters.”
Kanter’s status as a good teammate isn’t in question (nor is his ability to fill a reporter’s notebook) . During a visit to NBC Sports Boston recently, he said Gordon Hayward should start eyeing the All-Star game, gushed about the relief of never having to guard Kemba Walker in a game this season, and even talked up coach Brad Stevens’ basketball skills.
Those that have lived the Kanter experience in other cities will suggest that his basketball shortcomings can sometimes balance out the positive vibes he emits. While Kanter’s defensive deficiencies can sometimes be overstated, the challenge remains for Stevens to figure out how to best utilize Kanter on that end of the floor. What Kanter brings on the offensive end — especially on the sometimes neglected offensive glass — could help balance out any of his struggles defending the pick-and-roll.
The Celtics are hoping his locker room presence will be equally impactful and he’s ready for that vocal role.
"You gotta break the ice,” said Kanter. “Sometimes, 1-on-1 conversation is very important. I understand like, right after [games], a lot of the teams I played for, of course everyone's going to get mad because we all have tempers, we all have angers, this and that. But what I’m looking for is how can we break the ice between us because, ‘Oh, he didn’t pass me the ball, he should have defended this.’ When the game is over, it's over. You just learn from it and you have to focus on the next game.”
Kanter, whose fame grew after he repeatedly trolled LeBron James in 2017, won’t be so accommodating with rivals. He's already warned the Celtics’ media relations staff that he’ll probably create a few issues that will become headline news.
"Well, first time I remember meeting the PR guy with the Celtics, I shook his hand and I'm like, 'I'm sorry, first of all, I just want to apologize.’ From the beginning I was like, ‘Hey, man, I’m sorry, I’m going to make your life very difficult.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we got you.’”
As Kanter’s attention shifts from his offseason camps to the NBA season, he hopes that PR promise is, ahem, evergreen.
KANTER'S 25-STATE, 50-CAMP TOUR:
1: Oregon (Portland); 2: Oregon (Portland); 3: Oregon (Portland); 4: Oregon (Portland); 5: Oklahoma (OKC); 6: Oklahoma (OKC); 7: Oklahoma (OKC); 8: Oklahoma (OKC); 9: Texas (Dallas); 10: Texas (Dallas); 11: Louisiana; 12: Louisiana; 13: Mississippi; 14: Alabama; 15: Alabama; 16: New Jersey; 17: New York; 18: Illinois (Chicago); 19: Ohio (Cincinnati); 20: lllinois (Chicago); 21: North Dakota; 22: Florida (Boynton Beach); 23: California (LA); 24: California (LA); 25: Alaska; 26: Alaska; 27: North Carolina (Raleigh); 28: Minnesota (Minneapolis); 29: Michigan (Detroit); 30: Michigan (Detroit); 31: Texas (Houston); 32: New York (NYC); 33: New York (Long Island); 34: New York; 35: Hawaii; 36: Hawaii; 37: Idaho; 38: Texas (Austin); 39: Connecticut (Milford); 40: New York (Syracuse); 41: New York (Commack); 42: California (LA); 43: Texas (El Paso); 44: New York (Brooklyn); 45: Pennsylvania; 46: Maryland; 47: Virginia; 48: Washington, D.C.; 49: Pennsylvania; 50: Massachusetts.
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