Kentucky Basketball: The Kanter Dilemma, And What It Means

As Ken mentioned in this post last night, the New York Times' Pete Thamel has reported that the Turkish team Kanter played with is claiming they paid more than $100,000 to Kanter and his family, and a "salary" of $6,500/month.

What we have to speculate on here is, "What does this mean for the Kentucky Wildcats?"  As you would expect, many people in the sports world have taken an interest in this story and have opined on it, one of whom is Luke Winn from Sports Illustrated.  Here is the crux of the biscuit, as Frank Zappa would say:

The NCAA is still reviewing Kanter's case, Kentucky is defending his status as an amateur, and the public has yet to see the financial documentation Fenerbahce says it gave to the NCAA. But if Fenerbahce's claims are legitimate, there's no chance Kanter will play at Kentucky. The key here isn't the $100-150K that Kanter allegedly received, since amateurs in the European system are allowed to receive necessary travel, lodging and food benefits from their clubs and still be eligible in the eyes of the NCAA. What matters is that Kanter, according to Karakas, was paid a salary for his time with Fenerbahce's senior club.

I think this is right.  If Kanter indeed took a salary, any salary at all, that makes him a professional, period.  It's one thing to have expenses paid, but it is entirely another to take a salary.

Winn goes on to scoff at Fenerbahce's claim of pure motives and trying to do the right thing.  From the original Thamel article linked above, Fenerbahce's general manager, Nedim Karakas, made this rather extraordinary claim:

"I am sorry for telling this for Enes, but we cannot lie if someone asks the whole story, we cannot hide," Karakas said.

I don't believe Kanter or anyone else asked Mr. Karakas to lie.  The fact is, Karakas has a vested interest in the NCAA turning down Kanter's appeal, to the tune of a six-figure transfer fee.  If Kanter is admitted, Fenerbahce gets zero.  Karakas is being as false as Marv Albert's brown locks in this comment, and unabashedly so.

Thamel's article goes on to describe how unhappy the leadership of Fenerbahce was about Kanter's decision.  I think that's understandable, but before you start pointing the finger at them, recognize that Euro leagues as a whole are rooting against Kanter in this affair.  If the NCAA makes an easy path to college for underage "club" players, it could cost them millions of dollars worth of defections to NCAA basketball.

Mike DeCourcy explains for Sporting News:

And in any debate about that issue, it should be hard to trust the word of the club.

The European clubs have obvious motivation to dissuade their best young players from coming here to play. For starters, if somebody’s playing in the NCAA Tournament, he can’t be playing in the Euroleague. Also, if a young player is under contract to a European club and is ready to try the NBA, the club almost certainly will receive a substantial buyout in return. A 19-year old who wants to leave Kentucky for the draft merely signs a paper declaring that intent. He is free to leave.

That's exactly right.  The thing you have to notice here is that the Fenerbahce people failed to provide proof of their claims to Pete Thamel.  The reason is fairly clear -- the proof they have very likely does not live up to the standards that they claim it does.  

Indeed, DeCourcy goes on to tell us that FIBA rules do not permit teams to enter into contracts with players under 18 years of age, which would include Kanter.  If they were paying him a salary, as they claim, I suspect it would be in violation of the rules of their oversight authority in spirit if not the letter.  I'm not sure about that, though, but if is against the rules to sign them to a contract, it would seem to be suspect to pay them money described as a "salary."  But FIBA's interests lie squarely with Fenerbahce, so I wouldn't expect any help from them on the matter.

The purpose of the Thamel article was clearly to create a public relations problem for Kanter, the NCAA and Kentucky.  Evidently, Fenerbahce hopes that by doing so, the NCAA will find enough "complexity" in the matter to declare Kanter a professional.  It may or may not work, but keep in mind that the NCAA is an inherently conservative organization, and this rule change was a real departure for them.  They may decide that it is wisdom to err on the conservative side of amateurism (a view that I suspect few NCAA coaches or presidents would oppose, particularly when the subject is a Kentucky player), and that hope is clearly revealed in Karakas' disingenuous comments.

What does this mean for Kentucky?  Well, obviously it would hurt the team's chances, since Kanter was to be the workhorse in the inside game.  If Kanter becomes disqualified by the NCAA, Kentucky will have to rely on Josh Harrellson and Eloy Vargas, both finesse rather than power players like Kanter, to take care of the work inside.

There is no doubt that Kanter's loss would leave Kentucky's team in a much worse roster condition this year, not to mention incredibly thin in the front court.  Overall, it would leave the 'Cats with only 10 players on the team, one of them a walk-on guard who was granted a likely one-year deal.  But somehow, they will find a way -- the Wildcats always do -- to be as good as they can be.

For those of you who want to harshly criticize Thamel, don't bother.  We should not be taking shots at a guy who is trying to earn a living, and reporting on Kentucky, particularly negative reporting, is good for business.  His article contained all the relevant facts necessary for a person to recognize the strong conflict of interest that Karakas and Fenerbahce have in their claims of altruistic motivations, and clearly points out the lack of proof provided.

In the end, we'll just have to hope for the best.  In any case, this year's Kentucky team was not shaping up to be championship-caliber on paper anyway, but if the Kanter matter goes ill for UK, the road will become significantly more difficult to the more minor milestones, like the SEC championship and a high national ranking.

In the end, if the worst happens, that's just how life goes sometimes.  We'll still have a good team, and you can never tell if the loss of a particular player can be a major blow, or addition by subtraction.  Sometimes, it's just not obvious and can't be predicted.

But the smart money would be betting against us.

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