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Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: The Heartbreaking Journey of Enes Kanter

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How Enes Kanter went from a man without a college team to a man without a country or family.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Beginning

The first time I saw Enes Kanter play basketball was in the 2010 Nike Hoops Summit Game. In that game, Kanter looked like a man amongst boys, scoring in just about every way imaginable. He was more physically ready for the next level and his skill set was unmatched by his competitors. My jaw was on the floor. With the loss of DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton, Kanter was going to be an integral part of Kentucky's re-loading effort for the upcoming season.

Kanter was the top recruit in 2010 according to some ranking services. With the commitments of him, Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, and Doron Lamb, the Kentucky Wildcats were going to, seemingly, chug right along without missing a beat.

Enes had originally committed to Washington but then later switched to John Calipari and the Wildcats. Big Blue Nation was thrilled to have the Turkish big man fill the void left by Cousins. Josh Harrellson, a senior and a Billy Gillispie product, would give valuable minutes in relief, but it was going to be Kanter as the starter.

But things didn't go as planned. The NCAA was investigating Kanter for money he was paid by a Turkish pro team. Kanter was stuck in limbo as the NCAA and former Washington president Mark Emmery weighed their decision. A Free Enes movement started among the fan base in hopes of swaying the NCAA decision in the favor of Kanter and Kentucky.

The Decision and the Fallout

Kanter wasn't allowed to participate in any games while the investigations proceeded. He practiced with the team, he helped mold Harrellson into a solid starter for the 'Cats, and he waited to learn his fate going forward, hoping all of the while that he would get a chance to pursue a national title at Kentucky.

It wasn't to be as the NCAA ruled that Kanter would be permanently ineligible to play college basketball in early November. Kentucky appealed the decision, but the lost the appeal in early January. Kanter's college career was over before it even started. The amount of money that the NCAA decided was too much for Kanter to be considered an amateur? $33,000.

John Calipari came to Kanter's defense after the final decision:

"We are obviously disappointed in this decision and find it unfortunate that a group of adults would come to such a decision regarding the future of an 18-year-old young man," coach John Calipari said.

Calipari has maintained from the beginning that Kanter is an amateur in his eyes. He says his job now is to prepare the Kanter for the NBA draft. The 6-foot-11 center is projected as a top-10 draft pick.

"Enes will always be a part of our family and I plan to be by his side in the green room whenever he is drafted," Calipari said.

That season for Kentucky was a bumpy one as the Wildcats dealt with depth issues in the front court. Terrence Jones and Harrellson were a good one-two punch on the low post, but their only back-up was JUCO transfer Eloy Vargas.

They went 10-6 in the SEC and struggled in conference road games. But something with the team clicked in the tournament and the Wildcats upset top overall seed Ohio State and advanced to the Final Four as a four seed. They lost to Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies, but the unexpected run was a joy to behold and remains one of the most exciting tournaments in recent history.

But the question in the back of everyone's mind was "What if Enes Kanter had been able to play?" Harrellson became a fan favorite, but his skills compared to the skills of Kanter were not in debate. Enes was far superior and would have been a major factor that season. It's assumed that Kentucky would have won a championship if Kanter was able to play.

Even though Kanter had the backing and support of his coach, his teammates, and an entire fanbase, the fact that he could do nothing in order to reverse the decision by the NCAA must have been crushing to him. As his team struggled in conference play, he couldn't help. As his team struggled against UConn in the Final Four, he couldn't help. His season had been lost but the next step in his journey would take him on a much happier course.

The Draft and Mixed Results

Kanter didn't play a single minute of college basketball, but that didn't stop him from being drafted early in the lottery. He was a known talent and what GMs had seen from him was enough for him to be projected as one of the top players in the 2011 draft.

He was taken by the Utah Jazz with the third overall pick. In his first season at Utah, he didn't start once and only averaged 13.1 minutes per game, 4.2 rebounds, and 4.6 points. It must have been a rough transition from barely playing competitive basketball for a year and then being thrust into the best professional league in the world.

He spent two and a half more seasons in Utah and became more productive every season. He is currently a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder but is a backup player to Steven Adams. Kanter was a big contributor to the Thunder last season as they went all the way to the Western Conference Finals. He averaged 12.7 points a game and 8.1 rebounds.

Being a solid backup isn't what's expected of the third overall pick. But Kanter seems happy in OKC and has developed a kinship with Adams. He is still young and there are many years left in his career. He may never reach the potential of his draft status, but he can continue to be a very good role player for years to come.

After the upset of blowing a big lead in the Western Conference Finals, Kanter's personal life took a turn for the worst as his politic alienated him from his country and his family.

Instability in Turkey

In late June, a terror attack rocked Istanbul leaving 36 people dead and over 147 people injured. The Turkish government blamed ISIS for the killings. Kanter took to his twitter page to mourn the loss of his fellow countrymen:

The aftershocks of what happened in the Istanbul airport reverberated after the dead and the wounded had been identified. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised that his country would not be divided in the aftermath of the destruction. But less than a month after the attack on the airport, there was an attempted coup by the military to overthrow Erdogan. But why? Erdogan is seen as a strongman by many of the Turkish people, especially those that are a part of the Gulen Movement.

In the chaos of the attempted coup apparently perpetrated by elements of the Turkish military on Friday, the nation’s president and incipient strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pointed the finger squarely at one source: the Gülen Movement.

In an address to the nation via web video stream, Erdoğan explained that the coup attempt came from "a faction in the military, the parallels," which Turkey observers understood as a reference to followers of Fethullah Gülen, a moderate Sunni cleric whose movement claims millions of followers in Turkey and around the world. Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag repeated the accusations in a TV interview, claiming the coup plotters were tied to Gülen.

A Gülen-allied organization, the Alliance for Shared Values, has condemned the coup unequivocally and denied any involvement. And there is no evidence as of this writing that Gülen or any of his groups or followers were involved in the slightest.

Gülen was formerly a close ally of Erdoğan’s government, but they had a massive falling-out in late 2013. Since then, Gülen and his movement — now officially designated as a terrorist group in Turkey — have emerged as one of the government’s favorite targets. So it’s very possible that Erdoğan would target Gülen even if he played no role in the events.

What does all of this instability and political factions have to do with Enes Kanter?

Political Stance Leads to Rejection

Kanter is a follower of the Gulen Movement which, as is stated above, is a dangerous prospect for anyone that lives in Turkey or is of Turkish nationality.

The repercussions for his political stance have been dire. Kanter has been rejected by the Turkish National Basketball Team. Kanter's own father, Mehmet Kanter, has disowned him and encouraged him to change his last name.

Kanter's father, Mehmet Kanter, wrote a public letter that said Enes was hypnotized by the Gulenist Terror Organization and that Mehmet apologized "to the Turkish people and the president for having such a son."

"His statements and behavior trouble our family. I told Enes that we would disown him should he not change his course. He did not care," Mehmet Kanter wrote.

Enes, of course, responded to his father:

"Today I lost my father, my mother, my siblings and all of my relatives of 24 years," Enes Kanter wrote. He went on to praise the Gulen movement and concluded: "God exists, grief does not."

Kanter went from a man without a college basketball team, to a man without a country and a man without a family. Lately, his life has been a series of personal tragedies. We were first introduced to Enes as a player that was persona non grata to a small collegiate policing agency. That was a harbinger to what was to come as he is now persona non grata to an entire country.


The political and social climate in the United States has reached a fever pitch like I have not seen in my lifetime. I'm a child of the Eighties, I wasn't alive for the change in the Sixties that lead to multiple social and political revolutions as well as public assassinations.

I wasn't around in the Seventies for Watergate or the Fall of Saigon. I've lived through some of the most prosperous years of our recent history. But with the attacks on September 11th and the War in Iraq, things have changed.

The political climate of this country has gone from a civil discourse to something that resembles grade school bullying and name calling. But no matter how bad things are here, we sometimes forget how lucky we actually have it.

No matter what our political beliefs, we won't be ostracized, banished, or worse for having them. Though are disagreements may be petty, we can still have them. This isn't the case for Kanter and many people around the world.

I don't know enough about Turkish politics to definitively say that Enes is completely in the right. But I do know that I could or would not ever disown one of my children for a political stance, a religious stance, or for any reason that I can fathom.

Enes is a member of a terrorist organization in the eyes of his government. His father, Mehmet, may have no choice but to disown his son. That's a difficult decision to make and one that cannot be taken back.

For what it's worth, Enes always has a home with the Big Blue Nation. Though he never played a game for the Wildcats, he is still one of us and he always will be.

I doubt that the Jazz fans are that loyal or that the Thunder faithful will be once his time in OKC is finished. There's something special about the relationship between college athletes and their fans. And that is especially true in Kentucky.