The Strange Case of Enes Kanter Thinking Utah Is a Trash MountainMelissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images
Shouts to Enes Kanter for being the dude to finally put Utah on blast. The state has been getting by, thanks to its breathtaking natural beauty and the interesting role it’s played in American history, for far too long. It’s about time someone spoke up. And really, who better than former Jazz big Kanter — 6-foot-11, the no. 3 pick in the 2011 draft, currently putting up career numbers for the Thunder, while also low-key costing the team about 4.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court? After all, this is a guy whose agent had been trying to get him out of the Beehive State for years, and whose absence has transformed Utah into a legitimate defensive force.
Kanter’s semi-backhanded ethering of Utah was the flip side to his effusive praise of his current employers in Oklahoma City. Asked what he enjoyed about being a member of the Thunder, Kanter said:
“First of all, we have a leader like Russell. And I love my teammates. The fans are amazing. I love the city, it’s a clean city. Everything there is just professional. Everything they do is just for the players, you only focus on the basketball and just go out there and do your job.”
It’s a clean city, not like the sewage-strewn, fecal-waste hellscape that is Salt Lake City, which Enes obviously did not love or think was amazing. Also:
“It wasn’t just basketball stuff. It was professionalism of the team. After I see in OKC, I see this is how NBA teams are. You know how you’re like in a dream and you have a superpower and just don’t want to open your eyes and end the dream? Oklahoma City’s been like that to me.”
Let a dude dream, Utah! Why can’t a guy close his eyes and find himself leaping the decrepit buildings of downtown Salt Lake in a single bound? But wait — does Utah have any redeeming qualities, Enes?
“Mountains,” he finally said. “That’s it, I guess.”
Mountains of trash, he obviously meant to say. Glimmering vistas and towering peaks made of old tires and food waste.
As an aficionado of the NBA, I’m a fan of rivalries. And you can’t be a fan of rivalries without being a fan of all things beef — the delicious animosity that nurtures sports conflict. What’s notable about Kanter going off on his old team, city, and state is how rare this kind of thing is. Players move around all the time, often in unhappy circumstances, but they seldom set fire to the bridges they’ve just crossed. And there’s a simple reason for that: Players, as employees, do not own the bridges. That power imbalance results in a situation in which we (fairly) criticize players for not being magnanimous in moving on, while not even blinking when owners and management make similarly sniping comments.
The closest situation to Kanter’s that I can remember was in 2003, when Latrell Sprewell, whom the Knicks had traded in the offseason to Minnesota, repeatedly came over to the sideline directly in front of James Dolan to unleash a tsunami of vulgarities at the Knicks owner, on his way to 31 points and a Wolves win. Said Spree: “All the little games he’s played this entire year, talking about my character and all of that. I let him do the talking earlier, and I’m just glad I was able to do the talking tonight.” Sprewell never went in on the city and state of New York à la Kanter, though.1
Dolan, however, kinda did, playing the big-city überschmuck to the hilt. “There is no place like New York,” he said. “I’m sure it’s nice in Minnesota, but it’s not New York.” Enjoy the tundra, Spree! (Dolan, it should be mentioned, is from Long Island.)
Then there’s Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, who became a minor Canadian folk hero when he screamed “FUCK BROOKLYN!” at a gathered throng of Toronto fans before the team’s playoff game with the Nets. (Ujiri was fined $25,000.)
Owners and management get to play around with these illusions of loyalty and tribalism that make sports fun (but also dumb) because we view their success in terms of recognizable, normal work rather than as the result of winning some cosmic DNA lottery.
Kanter is happier with OKC because the team uses him in a way that’s in line with his strengths. The glut of traditional frontcourt players in Utah pushed Kanter out to the perimeter, making him the holder of the Kevin Love Memorial Stretch-Big short straw. This isn’t a problem in OKC, where Steven Adams is the only rotation big whose game overlaps with Kanter’s. A constant knock on Kanter, throughout his career, has been that his low basketball IQ keeps him from grasping the subtle complexities of the game. OKC’s relatively bare-bones offensive scheme means less weakside trickery to execute and more pick-and-rolls.
Many people work jobs that aren’t tailored to their talents, much less that fulfill their dreams. The weird thing about professional sports is that, from the outside looking in, just getting in the door is essentially the dream. So when players express dissatisfaction with their roles/minutes/salaries, there’s no way for it to come off as anything other than ungrateful. Which is not to defend Kanter’s comments, because they were jerk-ish. It’s simply to point out that a dude whose first language is not English, who broke Dirk Nowitzki’s Nike Hoops Summit scoring record, who turned pro at 19, and whose representation is prone to saying shit like, “[Kanter] is one of the most dominant players of his generation” probably came by his overinflated view of his talents organically.
Kanter took the court at Energy Solutions Arena this past Saturday to a fusillade of boos, cupping his ears to make the international sign language gesture for “deaf wrestling heel.” His ex-teammates refused to acknowledge him. He scored 18 points with 11 rebounds and two blocks and was a plus/minus negative-7 in 34 minutes. Jazz 94, Thunder 89.
After the game, Trevor Booker summed up the tempest over Kanter’s comments with: “[H]e got his stats, but, as always he took the L,” after which Booker dropped the mic, unplugged the mic cord, turned off the PA, and then burned down the club.