The tragedy that is Enes Kanter's Kentucky Wildcats basketball career has gone mostly unnoticed since the NCAA declared, for the final time, that Kanter would never be able to play college basketball in the United States. I say this is a tragedy not because the outcome ruined a promising young career -- it didn't. Kanter will be fine. He will be drafted to play in the NBA in this year's draft, and he'll be making millions next year. He could have already been making millions playing for Fenerbahçe Ülker in Turkey. So I use the term "tragedy" advisedly.
It is really a tragedy for Wildcat fans that we didn't get to see Kanter on the court. By all accounts, he was an impressive player at the same level of talent as Jared Sullinger, only taller and with a slightly more mature face-up game. From the day Kanter appeared at Big Blue Madness with a hat on in the style of WWE star "The Undertaker," Kentucky fans have found him to be a compelling and sympathetic figure.
There really is no need to rehash what happened with the NCAA matter, it has been done ad infinitum. This article is about the legacy of Enes Kanter at Kentucky, and there will be one. Just as surely as Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins have made places for themselves in the pantheon of storied Wildcats, Kanter will have a place there as well, although perhaps not as prominent or revered. That's a shame, in a way, because Kanter had a significant hand in helping shape this Wildcat team behind the scenes in ways that have paid off huge at season's end.
The story is just getting picked up by most media, but around Kentucky it has been a story all year since before January 7th, when Kanter was finally and irrevocably declared "permanently ineligible" by the NCAA appeals panel. Kentucky had been allowing to practice with the team when the NCAA permitted it, and that practice was instrumental in the development of Josh Harrellson, who has risen from a nobody from nowhere to one of the best stories in college basketball, and the most improved player I can remember.
Josh deserves most of the credit for getting there. He was the one who ultimately undertook the decision to swallow his childish pride, stop being the team cut-up, and begin his short but indispensable career as senior leader. He could have quit after Calipari punished him, or rebelled and been dismissed from the team. He chose the man's route, the Wildcats route, and persevered, and that perseverance has paid off like a 100-1 long shot in the Kentucky Derby.
But this article is not about Harrellson. His story has been chronicled over and over again ad nauseum. What hasn't been told until recently is the impact that Kanter had on Harrellson's development, although many Kentucky fans already knew it. After being declared ineligible, Kanter was promoted to undergraduate student assistant coach, and really helped Josh Harrellson from the get-go in individual instruction. The tough-as-nails Harrellson we see today was forged in the fire of Kanter's remarkable talent, and the result has been a weapon in the Wildcats' cause.
Kanter has become a Wildcat in many meaningful ways, but never in the way that counts the most, and he feels that keenly. According to an article by Yahoo's Marc Spears, Kanter explained it this way:
"I cry when I watch the games," Kanter told Yahoo! Sports. "When I watch them play I’m sad because I cannot help my teammates. When I see them losing, it’s frustrating."
Kanter said of the NCAA:
"They’re just trying to do their job, but I think they’re wrong," said Kanter, who claims he didn’t know how much money Fenerbache had given his father. "I didn’t want to be a professional. That’s why I came here."
That certainly makes sense, but the NCAA didn't see it that way.
Despite the frustrating role of a non-participant, Kanter has left his mark on this team in ways nobody could have predicted. An apparently innocent victim of circumstance, he came to find a way to help the school and the coach who did all they could to convince the NCAA of the uniqueness of his situation. Despite the hard line taken by the NCAA, Kanter does not seem bitter and seems to have enjoyed, to a surprising degree, going through this season with the young men in Blue and White, as a coach rather than the teammate he should have been.
So let's never forget what Enes did here. He gave up millions to come to Kentucky, and even after a sad and unfortunate set of circumstances made that impossible, he didn't run back to his home country or leave school. Instead, he stayed, studied, and coached his teammates. We have seen vast improvement of Harrellson, and I don't want to give away a secret here, but in case you haven't been paying attention, Eloy Vargas has improved rather significantly as well.
The Big Blue Nation owes Enes Kanter a debt of gratitude. He may never have suited up as a Wildcat, but for his contributions to both the team and the Big Blue Nation, he is just as much a Wildcat as if he did.
Thank you, Enes. Godspeed in your new, lucrative career in the pros. You will be missed.