NBA star Enes Kanter and hundreds of young Long Island basketball junkies had a ball Sunday at his free camp in West Hempstead, an afternoon of hoops and good times the former Knicks center said was nearly canceled because of intimidation from the Turkish government.
“We’re very happy it got to happen,” said Nicole Cafaro of Hewlett, who attended the camp with her 15-year-old son Michael. “People in the community got together and made it happen, and to stand up to bullying.”
More than 200 boys and girls — from peewees who could barely hit the backboard to teens who towered over their moms — ran through layup drills and played three-on-three before taking selfies with Kanter and munching on post-workout pizza. Kanter, a vocal critic of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Kanter’s native Turkey, said the point of Sunday’s camp was not about politics but about making connections with young fans.
“Having fun," Kanter said, "that is the most important thing for today.”
The camp was originally scheduled to be held at the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, but Kanter, who is Muslim, and his manager, Hank Fitic, said the mosque and its leaders caved under pressure from the Turkish Consulate in New York City.
Kanter has been an outspoken critic of the Turkish government and was tried in absentia for comments criticizing Erdoğan. Turkey revoked Kanter's passport, which has kept him from traveling outside of the United States in the past year. In January, he was forced to remain in the United States while the Knicks traveled to London for a game. He has been unable to return to Turkey since 2015.
Officials at the Islamic Center said last week that they were postponing the event because it had taken on political overtones, not because of pressure from Turkish officials. Officials did not return a call for comment Sunday. Iper Aktas, the consul general at Turkey’s consulate in Manhattan, last week called the allegations “lies, lies and lies.” Consulate officials did not return a request for comment Sunday.
The camp was moved to Island Garden Thursday, said Jim Fox, the owner of the West Hempstead hoops haven.
“These kids love basketball, and they love Enes Kanter,” Fox said. “Kids love the NBA and they love him. I’m glad we could host it.”
Kanter’s father, Mehmet Kanter, was sentenced to 15 years in prison last year for his alleged role in a 2016 military coup attempt. The charges were trumped up, Enes Kanter said, to keep his dad from traveling abroad. His sister, who studied medicine, had been unable to get a job, Kanter said.
Kanter said he has put on dozens of free basketball camps in 25 states, his way of saying thanks to the security and opportunities offered by living in the United States.
“America gave me a home,” he said.
Kanter said he likes to conduct camps in communities off the NBA’s beaten path. He’s done camps in North Dakota and Alabama, and is traveling to Idaho for a camp in the near future.
“One of the guys in Alabama told me, ‘The last NBA player who came was [former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal] ... years ago. He stopped to eat a burger.’ ”
When the NBA season starts in the fall, Kanter will play for the Boston Celtics, but he made a lot of fans in New York at Sunday’s camp. He seemed intent on spending one-on-one time with every kid packed into the Island Garden gym.
“Doing something like this is great,” said Howard Schneiderman of New Hyde Park, who attended the camp with his daughter Mia, 14. “He is actively engaging with every single kid out there.”
Nazo Khashang of Huntington, who accompanied her cousin, Joseph Shafaq, to the camp, said the 16-year-old looks at Kanter as a role model.
“It’s great to have a successful Muslim as a role model,” she said. “I’m glad we came to see him.”