The Celtics’ Enes Kanter (Turkey) and Tacko Fall (Senegal) are the latest in a growing line of international athletes to gain love and respect from Boston’s evolving sports fans.
“In Boston, they recognize us as more than athletes,” says Enes Kanter, a nine-year NBA veteran from Turkey who is averaging 8.2 points and 7.7 rebounds in his first season with the Celtics. “I get stopped on the street and people will tell me, ‘Great op-ed.’ I like that. I’ve met fans who love the game and root for us off of the court, too. I’ve been asked to speak on human rights at several events, which is also very important to me. Human rights are bigger than basketball and here in Boston, they support me in that.”
Kanter is one of four centers on the 2019-20 Celtics — and each hails from overseas: starter Daniel Theis is from Germany; Vincent Poirier is from France; and 7-foot-5 rookie (and fan favorite) Tacko Fall is from Senegal. To anyone who follows the NBA, the globalization of the game is no surprise. But for those stuck on the negative historical stereotypes of Boston fandom, this group is just the latest to show the evolution of the city’s sports landscape — both in the locker room and in the stands.
Asked about his emerging cult-figure status among Celtics fans, Fall says, “Honestly, I couldn’t say that there’s one specific thing that I’d attribute to that connection. Some things are just meant to be, and how they’ve embraced me has truly been a blessing. I’m very thankful to be a part of such a great organization and play in front of such amazing fans. I’m loving it in Boston.”
That’s a long way from Celtic legend Bill Russell’s well-documented complaints about the city’s racism while playing (and winning 11 championships in 13 seasons) in Boston in the 1950s and 1960s. Fall’s comments also stand in sharp contrast to the stigma of more recent events that harkened back to those past scars, such as Baltimore centerfielder Adam Jones’ run-in with a group of ignorant ticketholders at Fenway Park in 2017.
Racism and xenophobia continue to be ills the entire country must rise against. But in 2020, you needn’t look far across the Boston sports landscape to find the evolution of its teams and the vast majority of its fans.
When you think of favorites at Fenway in the past two decades, the Dominican Republic’s David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez come to mind, as does Japanese closer Koji Uehara, who secured the final out of the 2013 World Series. Today, Aruba’s Xander Bogaerts and the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Devers are among the most popular Red Sox. And across the TD Garden hall, the Bruins’ hockey heroes include 43-year-old Slovakian captain Zdeno Chara, Czech forwards David Pastrnak and David Krejci, and Finnish goalie Tuuka Rask.
Kanter — with his well-known conflicts with Turkey’s authoritarian government — and Fall — who is just seven years removed from his decision to come to the U.S. from Africa — represent the next step in the city’s evolution: both Muslim, both outspoken about their backgrounds, and both connecting seamlessly with the Celtics’ rabid fans.
“Boston fans are passionate, and you can feel that on the court, in the city, everywhere — you feel that energy!” Kanter says. “It’s contagious and I feel even more passionate playing and putting my best out there. I love playing for the Celtics. It’s been great, and my teammates and I get along great. We vibe really well, and I think the fans see this on the court. We are the team that is bringing the 18th championship to Boston.”
‘They Are My Family’
Though Kanter has been in the NBA eight years longer than Fall, at age 28, he’s just three-and-a-half years older than the Senegalese big man (24). Though both left their home countries during their teenage years to pursue basketball, that’s where their stories diverge.
Son of a doctor and a nurse, Kanter arrived in the U.S. at age 17, hoping to play high school basketball prior to moving into college and then his end goal, the NBA.
“The NBA is the world’s biggest arena when it comes to basketball,” Kanter says. “It is every basketball player’s dream — and not only in Turkey — to play in one of the world’s biggest sports leagues. I am very blessed that I am among a dozen Turkish players to be able to make it into this amazing league.”
However, his one season as a reserve for Turkey’s Fenerbahçe franchise threw a wrench into his immediate plans after arriving in the United States. After playing a season of high school ball in California (after being held out at two other schools), Kanter was ruled ineligible during his one year at the University of Kentucky. Nonetheless, he was selected third overall in the 2011 NBA draft by the Utah Jazz, where he played most of his first four seasons before being traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in February 2015.
“I’ve been fortunate to play with some of the best teams out there,” Kanter says. “And not just the teams but the fans of each of the teams. They have continued to support me or congratulate me on a good game even though I no longer wear the jersey of their team. I’ve learned that the love of basketball runs deep and not just as a player but as a fan, you hear stories of some of people’s favorite memories at basketball games. I love being a part of that.”
About this time, Kanter hired Chicago-based Hank Fetic as his manager (Fetic has since become a FIBA-certified player agent and managing partner of Maestro Sports). Kanter’s relationship with Fetic has an organic genesis that’s representative of how Kanter lives.
“About eight years ago, I went abroad to teach English — ironically enough, I taught at Enes’ former high school but we never met,” Fetic recalls. “When I returned to the States, I was doing nonprofit work in Chicago and was organizing a basketball tournament. At this time, Enes was in Chicago for a surgery. I reached out to him asking if he would come for free to our basketball tournament to support the young kids. To my surprise, he showed up, encouraged the kids, did a Q&A, and we kept in contact. Through the years, we got closer and closer and eventually he hired me to work for him.”
Kanter’s time in Oklahoma City is best remembered, though, for Kanter’s public denunciation of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Though Kanter had been critical of Erdogan for a number of years, comments following a 2016 coup attempt by Turkish revolutionaries led to Kanter’s contact with his family being cut off.
In summer 2017, Kanter was hosting basketball camps across Southeast Asia when he was forced to flee Jakarta, Indonesia after two men identifying themselves as Indonesian government officials visited the camp and asked to speak with him. Kanter eventually made it to Frankfurt, Germany, then went on to Bucharest, Romania, where he was scheduled to host another camp. Upon arrival, Romanian authorities told Kanter his Turkish passport was canceled, leaving him temporarily stranded.
Less than a week after his passport was canceled, an arrest warrant was issued for Kanter in Turkey, accusing him of being a member of a “terror group.” Eventually, he was able to fly to London and then back to the U.S. Since, he’s been unable to contact his friends and family in Turkey because of fears they will be harmed.
Kanter was traded to the New York Knicks in September 2017. He was released in February 2019, before spending the rest of last season with the Portland Trail Blazers. He signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Celtics in July.
“It was fun to play in small markets like Utah, Oklahoma City, and Portland. It felt like a tight-knit family. We really had great, historic wins with those teams,” Kanter says. “Playing in New York and Boston definitely has a distinct uniqueness to it, and I am so blessed to play here in Boston. We all share the same passion of playing basketball, but there is definitely a different feeling playing in a small and a big city.”
No matter where he’s played though, Kanter says one thing has been consistent during his time in the U.S.
“The best part of my experience in the U.S. has been the people,” Kanter says. “From my teammates to my fans, they have become my family. That is also the toughest part: not having my family. I wish I could talk to my dad, hug my mom, be there with my sister and family — but I can’t. It’s tough, but the people I’ve met here, including the fans, have always made me feel welcome. For me, they are my family.”
That family means the world to Kanter. “It is definitely a very safe country for me, and they’ve supported me in my fight for justice in Turkey,” Kanter says. “From politicians to public figures and to my fans, everyone has been very generous and extended their support when I was unable to travel overseas or when my family was threatened. It is no wonder that America is a beacon of democracy and freedom for all oppressed nations in the world.”
‘I Want to Be One of the Best’
As a teenager Fall — who, like many youths, played soccer from a young age — visited the International Sports Training Institute in Dakar, Senegal’s capital city. With his size, it became apparent that his future as an athlete was in basketball.
“When I was 16, I was recruited by an academy run by Ibrahim Ndiaye — his brother Mamadou played in the NBA — and he pretty much convinced my mom to let me come to the U.S. and pursue my education while playing basketball,” Fall says. “This was how I got introduced to the game. Seven years ago, I could not have imagined that I would play in the NBA, but here I am now: obsessed with playing ball and I want to be one of the best at it.”
When Fall left Senegal, he initially settled in Houston, playing one year of high school ball and even training with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. He then shifted for his second year of prep basketball to Liberty Christian in Tavares, Fla.
Fall decided to play college ball at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. In his first season on campus, he faced Mamadou Ndiaye, who then played for UC Irvine. As a sophomore, he earned the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Defensive Player of the Year award before losing much of his junior season to a shoulder injury. He bounced back strong as a senior, though, and led UCF to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, where he became a bit of a folk hero, scoring 15 points in a 77-76 loss to perennial power Duke.
“In my time in America, I have mostly learned about perseverance,” Fall says. “I encountered many challenges in high school and in college, but I never gave up. I was fortunate too that God put in my path some amazing people who helped me along the way.”
Though he went undrafted, the Celtics invited Fall to play for their 2019 summer league team, where he played well enough to earn a two-way contract with Boston and its developmental league team, the Maine Red Claws. While he’s only appeared in six games in Celtic green during the 2019-20 season, he averaged an impressive 12.9 points (on 71-percent shooting from the field) and 11.1 rebounds in 29 games with Maine.
Believing in Boston
Divergent paths from across the Atlantic led both Kanter and Fall to the Hub City last summer. But, while Kanter brought more than a decade of global travel and experience with him, the same cannot be said for Fall.
Asked about his experience in Boston (and Portland, Maine) so far, Fall says, “I rarely spent much time up north during my time in the U.S. — I barely even saw snow! But it’s been a delight to see how pretty the city is.”
Both, however, marvel at the opportunity to be a part of the Celtic tradition – especially as centers.
“Oh wow, it’s an honor. Really, it is,” Kanter says. “The Boston Celtics, with the most championships in the NBA, and Bill Russell with 11 championships in his 13 seasons. It really is a dream come true. Those are some big shoes to fill, but I’m up for the challenge. Russell’s defensive game is still one of the best to this day, and that is something I am working on.”
Fall adds, “Playing for the Celtics organization is something that I take a lot of pride in. My path led me here and they gave me an opportunity when many weren’t sure what I was capable of. There is still much work to do, but my game has grown tremendously, and the fact that they believe in me played a big part in that. I really enjoy putting on the jersey.”
And as half of a quartet of international big men, Kanter and Fall also see what a unique and different opportunity it is to join with Theis and Poirier to represent such diversity in the Boston uniform.
“We’ve got a great group of front-court players, experienced players,” Fall says. “I’m a very observant person, and I like to learn from my environment as much as possible. Being around them has taught me a lot — especially in the case of Enes and Daniel — even though I didn’t get to spend the whole season with them.”
Kanter calls it a “brotherhood,” adding, “On the court and off the court, we are brothers. We inspire each other, we give each other strength, and we have each other’s back on the court. We really have a great cohesion and harmony, and I love playing with them.”
Every Opportunity Counts
Off the court, both Kanter and Fall are active in the community and have other intriguing interests.
Kanter’s love of pro wrestling — a superfan of The Undertaker, he’s even said that his next career will be as a WWE superstar — is well documented. And his open-book attitude and willingness to talk about his experiences and his beliefs have made him a hot ticket on the talk-show and podcast circuit.
Perhaps less well known are Kanter’s extensive charitable efforts. “One of the things I love about being in the NBA is that every team I’ve played for has encouraged us to be at the forefront of helping our community,” Kanter says. “I have supported charitable organizations not only in the states I have played in, but probably in more than 30 states across America.”
Shortly after starting his NBA career, he started the Enes Kanter Foundation. “We have created lifelong partnerships with more than 30 major organizations that focus on providing education, as well as building and encouraging dialogue among different cultures and faiths,” Kanter says. “Here in the U.S., I have been blessed with two families: one is the fans of every team and city I have played for; the other is made up of Turkish-Americans living across the United States … the organizations supported by Turkish-Americans have been active in community building, charity, education, creating open and safe dialogue, and helping the homeless throughout the United States.”
Another topic Kanter’s foundation addresses regularly: education. “Access to education is also important to me and something my mother encouraged, as well,” he says. “It was something I committed to providing others before I even joined the league. One part of this includes opening up a charter school in Oklahoma City focused on educating low-income and minority students.This hits close to home for me because I grew up in Van, the poor side of Turkey, where many kids faced similar obstacles to education as they do in Oklahoma City. These kids need education and the charter school highlights reading, writing, math, and science skills with a focus on physical, emotional, and mental health education.”
Kanter continues to host basketball camps each summer, even after his troubles in Indonesia and Romania three years ago. “I really want to continue to do more,” he says. “Last year, we organized more than 50 free basketball camps for kids across the U.S., and we are planning to organize another 60 this summer if the pandemic slows down by then. No child should have to choose between an education and being able to be a kid — especially those most vulnerable in impoverished neighborhoods — and I am very happy to help in any way and capacity that I can.”
As a rookie, Fall is just starting out when it comes to finding ways to give back that resonate with his experiences. Still, he’s been active with charity work through the Celtics during this season, appearing regularly at events.
“Giving back to the community is important because it pains me to see people go through hard times like I did,” Fall says. “I remember when I was a kid, I would have loved to see someone come and give us a helping hand, and — in a way — this is an opportunity to share my blessings and to say thank you.”
Fall also has been active in the local community in other ways — including one of the city’s most popular traditions: conducting the Boston Pops during their famous rendition of the holiday classic “Sleigh Ride” on Dec. 23. Prior to accepting the invitation, Fall didn’t own a tuxedo — in fact, he’d never worn one before.
While he was a big hit in his first try with music, Fall has long had an interest in and a knack for engineering. He believes that, one day, this could be an avenue where he could create a successful venture and help others.
“For me, wanting to be an engineer started at a young age,” he says. “I was always very handsy with technology — I liked messing with phones and computers, broken TVs, etc. Plus, I had really close friends who wanted to be engineers, as well. In college, I did change my major after my sophomore year, but later on I do intend to add into what I had learned and get involved into some kind of tech, whether it’s investing or opening up my own company.”
Still, it seems that Fall speaks not only for himself when it comes to having the opportunities both he and Kanter have earned
“Coming to the U.S. has helped me grow so much, physically and — most importantly — mentally and spiritually,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot of lessons from everyone and everything that I have encountered. The best part is that God gave me the opportunity to play a sport that I love and a platform to be a leader and have an impact on so many people.”