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NBA center Enes Kanter rediscovers love of soccer through MLS New York Red Bulls

New York Knicks center Enes Kanter dribbles a soccer ball at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. He is a fan of the Major League Soccer team. (Courtesy of New York Red Bulls)

HARRISON, N.J. – When NBA center Enes Kanter was traded to the New York Knicks last September, the Swiss-born, Turkish extrovert was eager to experience all the best parts of his newly-adopted home: Times Square, Central Park, Red Bull Arena – wait a minute. Like many good stories, this one starts in Hollywood.

Three weeks after the Knicks finished their 2017-18 season, Kanter, who moved from Turkey to California in 2009, was spending time in Los Angeles. One of his friends offered him tickets to a late-April bout between the New York Red Bulls and the LA Galaxy.

Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimović was the main attraction for the 6-foot-11 center, but the other factor was a chance to support his hometown team. At 25 years old, this cross-country MLS encounter would be the first soccer match he attended in his life.

Kanter grew up in Turkey -where his family still lives and is facing persecution by the Turkish government – at first aspiring to be a soccer player. His house was a Steph Curry 3-pointer from the Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium in Istanbul, where volatile crowds of Fenerbahçe supporters often damaged property and threatened lives during heated rivalry matches or poor runs of form.

“[The Turkish fans] were so … fanatic, you know what I mean?” Kanter said during a phone interview. “I mean, I was hearing with the ultras, people were getting killed, people are getting stabbed, people are drinking and just going crazy.

“And that’s why it was, like, so scary, for me as a kid. And that’s why my family never sent me to any of the games or I’ve never been to any of the games.”

“In my head, I thought only girls played soccer in America. No, seriously.”

Kanter came to the United States for his senior year of high school, an attempt to further his chances at an elite college scholarship for basketball. While chasing his dream on the court in a new setting, Kanter lost sight of the sport that once captured his imagination. More so, the future NBA star was not even aware that men played soccer professionally in his new country.

“I didn’t watch men’s soccer at all when I came, because, I thought they just really don’t play soccer in America, because I never heard it,” Kanter said. “I thought, like, in my head I thought only girls played soccer in America. No, seriously.”

Eventually, he became aware of U.S. men’s soccer, but the sport did not fully resurface in his life until this spring, when on a late-April night, he witnessed a back-and-forth goal-fest between the Red Bulls and Galaxy.

Rarely disconnected from social media, Kanter was sitting in StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., when he noticed the New York Red Bulls’ Twitter account followed his. Surprised and elated, he quickly typed up a direct message, asking if he could greet the team following the match.

Across the country, Red Bulls communication assistant Willy Whitelaw was the first to receive word of Kanter’s interest. He quickly reached out to the team’s senior manager of digital and social media, Andrew Vazzano, who was on-site and managed to ask former coach Jesse Marsch whether the first-time spectator could visit the locker room.

“I ended up running through the back of the stadium after wrapping up interviews, getting Enes back to our locker room to meet the players and technical staff,” Vazzano  said. “It was crazy, but fun!”

The energy and camaraderie of the group struck Kanter. He wanted to be a professional soccer player before he committed to basketball, but his height and lack of straightaway speed put him in goal, a position he did not enjoy. Now, though, he was in the away locker room after a 3-2 win, hitting it off with – of all people – the Red Bulls’ goalkeeper.

“I saw the locker room, I saw how close friends they are, I saw the teammates, I saw the vibe in the locker room and I’m like, ‘Man, this is fun’,” Kanter said. “And New York has other teams, too. But I’m like, ‘You know what? The Red Bulls are fine. Cool man, from now on, I’m a Red Bulls fan.’

“I mean, right now I’m really, really good, cool friends with their goalkeeper, Luis Robles. I actually went to his [Tackle Kids Cancer] event. He’s my really close friend.”

New York Knicks center Enes Kanter chats with New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles. The two athletes have become close friends. (Courtesy of New York Red Bulls)

More than three months later, on Aug. 5, a towering figure walked onto the grass of Red Bull Arena during halftime of the New York-Los Angeles FC match.

It was an occasion already ripe with intrigue, from Bradley Wright-Phillips’ postmatch 100-goal commemoration to the relationship between the two head coaches: Chris Armas and Bob Bradley, the former once a player for the latter.

But, another storyline emerged while most fans jostled through the concourse.

Kanter, decked in his own customized Red Bulls jersey, was doing his best to juggle a ball along the sideline, shaking off more than a decade of rust. A camera flashed as he kicked the ball to himself, and soon a video published on his Instagram page showing nine humble juggles – the highlight of his endeavor.

Once the match restarted, he watched from his skybox seat as New York utilized a second goal on the night from Daniel Royer to take another entertaining, this time 2-1, win.

Twenty-one days later, he was back in Harrison, this time in a club seat behind the home bench for the Red Bulls’ Atlantic Cup reunion with D.C. United. Along with Kanter, former Red Bulls captain Thierry Henry was in attendance. However, the larger-than-life NBA veteran was more fan than returning legend.

Kanter waved a red card in the 88th minute at a D.C. player and cheered at the sound of the final whistle. Once again, the Red Bulls held on, this time by a score of 1-0.

“Our boy Enes Kanter – we’re three for three when he shows up to a game, no joke,” Robles said in the locker room after the win. “If he needs a little luck with the Knicks, I’m willing to show up as well.”

Kanter and the Knicks will search for all the help they can get this season, with the goal of transforming an 11th place Eastern Conference team into a playoff-worthy one. The Knicks paint protector did everything he could in his five-month offseason to both prepare and recuperate, but he also found time to rediscover his first sporting passion.

In doing so, he developed genuine friendships with those within the Red Bulls organization. Kanter may or may not be the lucky charm to end the club’s 23-year cup drought, but one thing is for certain: he will not lose sight of soccer again.

New York Knicks center Enes Kanter poses in a Red Bulls jersey. (Courtesy of New York Red Bulls)

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