Stripped of the uglier sides of history attached to the holiday, Thanksgiving represents a coming together for friends and family. Relatives chomping down on various food groups, and a celebration of various generations congregating in the same warm environment. Not everybody is fortunate, though, to have the sort of privilege to relax and eat while not thinking of their own worries.
In the last years, the New York Knicks have turned into a melting pot of international players. Since Phil Jackson’s tenure in New York, he has drafted four foreign-born players (Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina, and Ognen Jaramaz) and traded for the draft rights of two (Louis Labeyrie and Willy Hernangómez). After Jackson’s departure, General Manager Scott Perry traded All-Star Carmelo Anthony for Doug McDermott and Turkey’s Enes Kanter.
While it’s not new to have a bevy of foreign nationals on NBA rosters nowadays, the Knicks have not-so-suddenly molded their team around talent from outside the United States. (Technically, the Knicks don’t even place first or second in most international players on a roster; Toronto leads with seven and four teams are tied with six.) As basketball slowly, but surely, gains momentum around the globe, the Knicks are trying to fortify their team with top talent that scouts would overlook 30 years ago (or the game wasn’t as popular outside the U.S. back then).
The city shoulders different people from different backgrounds together on a crowded A train and tells them to stand clear of the closing doors. New York has always been a place immigrants have flocked too, and although it hasn’t always been hospitable, people have built lives in the Big Apple, started families, and grew roots that shape how the city looks today. This is the story of how a few key contributors and developing franchise cornerstones came to the United States and found their way on the Knicks.
Kristaps Porzingis was born Liepaja, Latvia, in 1995 to father Talis and mother Ingrida. His parents played basketball, too, Ingrida on Latvia’s youth team and Talis in and out of the professional sphere. Kristaps was the youngest of three, Martins and Janis were 15 and 13, respectively, years older than him. Janis played professionally around Europe for approximately 15 years before becoming a certified agent for Andy Miller’s ASM Sports firm and not the one featured on HBO’s Ballers. A lot of weight came upon Kristaps’ shoulders being the baby of the family. Tragically, the Porzingises lost a child, Toms, at 14 months old, only an infant. Kristaps was born four years later, a new gift in the Porzingis’ lives. “It felt like a bulldozer had run over my life,” Ingrida told E:60 during a documentary on the New York power forward’s home life last June.
Liepaja is a port city in western Latvia bordering the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea. During the 16-18th centuries, possession of Latvia’s windy city passed between Sweden, Prussia, and Poland. By the turn of the 20th century, Liepaja was taken by the Germans. And during World War II, Kristaps’ hometown featured the battleground for German and Soviet aggression. Towards the end of the Soviet rule of the eastern bloc, Liepaja grew as an industrialized and military site, storing nuclear arms during the Cold War. When the U.S.S.R. dissolved, Latvia gained independence. (It had previously established independence as the Republic of Latvia during World War I after Russia fell into civil chaos and before Bolshevik power.) Liepaja and Latvia have since moved on from the Soviet occupation, growing into a modern nation with emerging technologies, beautiful sightseeing parks, and beaches.
Although Janis played professionally, Kristaps was always a gifted athlete and student of the game. He would follow his brother into training sessions with the professionals to learn about basketball. By 2012, Kristaps was in Seville, Spain, playing for the youth team at 17 years old. He struggled with the Spanish language and realized he’d have to be multi-lingual to communicate with his United Nations teammates. While in Spain, Kristaps was discovered to suffer from anemia, a genetic condition borne from fewer red blood cells necessary to provide the body with oxygen. Kristaps struggled with sluggishness and had to adjust his diet to curb the effects of the condition. Porzingis worked his way up from the ranks of the youth team to the big league squad in Spain’s ACB league. Along the way he found kinship on Seville’s team in Guillermo “Willy” Hernangómez, a Spaniard 15 months older than him who would later be selected in the second round of the same draft as Porzingis.
Porzingis was heavily scouted during his rise in Spanish professional hoops. While his profile increased, whispers of him jumping ship and entering the 2015 NBA Draft grew, just like his height. A wiry seven-foot-one European is generally considered dangerous among scouts and teams looking for franchise cornerstones.
Clarence Gaines Jr. was dispatched by then-President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson to Spain to scout Kristaps Porzingis. The sometimes dashiki-clad Gaines plucked Porzingis from relative obscurity after watching the teenager play. As legend has it, Gaines texted Jackson that KP was deserving of even the no. 1 overall selection. Gaines, the vice president of personnel in Jackson’s regime, had a respected eye for talent, dating back to the 1990’s when he served as a scout for the Zen Master’s Chicago Bulls teams.
Kristaps’ trip to the United States wasn’t an easy one. His first real experience of New York was emblematic for a lot of first-timers: he was profoundly doused with boo’s for the metropolitan’s locals. Since then, however, New Yorkers have changed their tune on Porzingis, for the most part. The boo’s on draft night have turned 180 degrees, and Knicks fans are cheering vociferously for the 22-year-old. Despite all of the obstacles that Kristaps faced (and there were plenty), Porzingis found himself surrounded by his family, a unit so close they followed him to New York to live with their beloved son “liv[ing] for two lives.” For Kristaps, family is the most important value instilled in him. That’s probably why his brother Janis made headlines in November when he contended money wouldn’t be the main motivation when the Knicks and KP come together to find a settlement in an appropriate contract extension. For anyone with insight into the Porzingis past, it was obvious that Janis’ quote came thematically with the family’s dedication to each other. In order to sign KP to a long-term deal in New York, the family wants their son in the best possible position to succeed, regardless of pay (although the cheddar isn’t bad either).
Kristaps has prospered in the NBA because he had a supportive family around him. While being gifted with fabulous genes was of great import, Kristaps’ family has nurtured him into the Latvian Unicorn we know of today. He has been able to come into his own on a Carmelo Anthony-depleted team because of the meticulously drawn out plan the Porzingis family drew for their youngest son to chase new heights in the world’s best basketball league that only a 7’3″ athlete could reach.
Jacqueline Ntilikina and her two sons, Yves and Brice, escaped genocide in Rwanda in 1993. The mother and her sons, then aged five and seven years old, relocated to Brussels, Belgium’s capital, where they resettled and reset their lives after leaving behind the war-torn nation of Rwanda. Jacqueline gave birth to Frank in 1998, far away from the death and destruction she sought to forget, and three years later the family found themselves once again in a new country, France, and a new home, Strasbourg.
As anybody with older siblings would tell you, growing up the youngest means fighting with bigger and stronger brothers and sisters. That didn’t discourage Frank, though, who was the youngest of three like Porzingis, and when he was up against his bigger brothers (both in age and size) on the court, he had to work his way through the David versus Goliath battles. Frank continued to play basketball while his older brothers pursued other vocations (both in the medical profession), and the young baller signed with Strasbourg’s team in the French league. Frank pushed himself to unimaginable limits while his mother worked to keep her three sons fed. By the age of 16, Frank reached Strasbourg’s highest level club. He was surrounded by professionals—not quite the NBA yet but professionals fighting for a roster spot on a nightly basis nonetheless. Nothing came easy for Jacqueline and her boys. As Frank grew into (and is growing into) his full body at 6’5″, his physical tools helped accelerate him to close the gap between himself and teammates and opponents. The cerebral element, however, has always been the part Frank had chased. In his mind, he was always the youngest in a room of adults, he could never change that fact, but he could learn from his teammates and NBA veterans that found their way to Europe.
The European leagues are notoriously played by athletes less reliant on physical gifts that NBA players are afforded. While he makes his mark on the Knicks roster, Frank brings with him a seemingly higher basketball I.Q., something he’ll need since he’s the second youngest player in the league. He knows he can’t rely on his physical gifts to be a long-time NBA player, he’ll have to train his mind in order to leave the impression he’s been seeking in the world’s best league. So far Frank has done just that. He’s found a working chemistry between O’Quinn and himself, dazzling highlight videos with almost psychic passes. In the pick-and-roll, Frank proves how he and Porzingis could be a dual threat in the future; Porzingis’ death-defying height and unlimited range is dangerous, he could put the ball on the floor, too, and turn opponents’ unwilling defense into posters hanging in the rooms of future aspiring NBA players. Or, double up Porzingis and leave Frank open for a three-point attempt, distance he’s found comfort in in the short season thus far. It’s a quandary for NBA defenses, and the Knicks hope they can pick apart defenses with their two lottery picks’ combined talent.
Frank’s journey to the Association was never built on his own hard work, though. For every NBA-er, there are countless individuals that help him on the tough road to the league, and there’s no promise he’ll be a long-term fixture. The player’s talent will only take them so far, but it’s the sacrifice and wisdom learned on the fly that fortifies him with the knowledge, which sustains flight. For Frank Ntilikina, that’s soaking up the lessons from the adults in the room, learning from his mistakes, and being grateful for the support of his family that has never lost sight of the distance they’ve travelled: from Rwanda to Belgium, France, and now New York.
Guillermo “Willy” Hernangómez was ostensibly born into a basketball family. The son of Margarita Ivonne Geuer Draeger, known as “Wonny,” and Guillermo Hernangómez, the Spanish native was born 11 months after his mother won the European women’s basketball championship on the national team. Willy’s younger brother, Juan, or “Juancho,” was born 14 months after him. Both Wonny and Guillermo played professionally in Spain, and Willy would go on to play for Seville, where his German-origin mother was born (hence the ‘B’ pronunciation of ‘Willy’).
While he was born into a basketball dynasty, Willy wasn’t given everything on a silver platter. All his life he had been waiting for a shot prove himself. It took some time for Willy to grow out of his tall and chubby pubescent self, and on his way to play on Seville with a stringy Latvian, he won a European championship with the U18 Spain team. The Knicks would trade for Willy’s draft rights in 2015 from the Philadelphia 76ers, who drafted him with the 35th overall pick. Evidently, while scouting Porzingis, Knicks brass were unmistakably impressed by Willy, relinquishing two future second round picks to the Hinkie-Sixers. Hernangómez would go on to finish his Spanish ACB career with Real Madrid.
If you’ve turned a Knicks game on this season you’ll more often than not see Hernangómez assume his position: sitting on the bench. Buried behind Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn, New York’s head coach Jeff Hornacek has yet to found room in his rotation for the center Hernangómez. It’s been a familiar theme for Willy in his brief career. When he plays for Spain’s national team, he’s buried behind the Gasol brothers. When he was drafted by Philly and traded to New York he had to wait a year to come over to the States. Even though Willy has shown glimpses and flashes of offensive brilliance, his inexperience on the defensive end has limited his role on every basketball team he has played for. On Spain’s national team, his time could be closer than he realizes; last summer’s EuroBasket championship that found favorite Spain finishing with bronze may have been Pau Gasol’s final bow with the country’s internationally competing squad. For the Knicks, however, Willy may have to wait longer and see whether Kanter exercises his player option or not, and how much longer O’Quinn and Joakim Noah are on the team. Nevertheless, Willy keeps himself ready; in his rookie season last year, he averaged 16.0 points, 13.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.0 blocks per 36 minutes. Willy led the 2016-17 team in True Shooting Percentage (TS%), shooting 56.4 percent, was second in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), at 19.0, and was fifth on the Knicks’ win shares list with 3.4, per Basketball-Reference. Recently in trade rumors when Eric Bledsoe and the Suns drifted apart, Hernangómez ended up staying clear of Phoenix. He has only played in nine of New York’s 17 games so far, finding scarce minutes in garbage time. He’s still waiting for his moment.
On the Knicks, Willy confides in budding superstar Kristaps Porzingis. When the Spaniard arrived in Manhattan, he found himself speaking his native tongue with the well-travelled Porzingis, shy to share himself with his teammates. It may be tough to entice the aggressive nature of Willy to make an appearance, but when his time comes, Willy could release his inner beast for the Knicks.
The first time Enes Kanter drew headlines in America was due to a mini–collegiate scandal for the then-18-year-old Turk. Kanter committed to John Calipari and the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team for the 2010-11 season, but the NCAA deemed Enes ineligible due to findings of payments by his Turkish team, Fenerbahçe, before he arrived in the U.S., thus violating his amateur status.
Enes’ path to the Knicks is quite windy. He was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on May 20, 1992. His father, Mehmet, is a genetics professor with a medical degree, and as of June was imprisoned by Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the controversial leader of the Eurasian country’s government. In July 2016, a coup d’état attempt to remove Erdoğan from power failed. Erdoğan has been called out for authoritarian tactics, notably for silencing freedom of speech advocates and curtailing criticism against his administration. Nonetheless, before all of this, Mehmet was supportive of Enes finding education and athletics in America, putting his 6’11” body to work and prospering in the land of opportunity. Enes tried to attend famed prep school Oak Hill Academy, the same school Carmelo Anthony attended. Oak Hill, however, would prove troublesome for Enes because when he attended Nevada’s Finlay Prep and West Virginia’s Mountain State Oak Hill would refuse to play against Kanter’s respective prep schools. Enes would find a place at Stoneridge Prep in California. He verbally committed to the University of Washington before swaying his commitment to Calipari’s Kentucky.
After the NCAA debacle, Kanter declared for the 2011 NBA Draft. Utah drafted the Turk third overall, and although Enes played only 66 games in his rookie year (he didn’t start in any), he showed flashes of his high-percentage field-goal looks. He played 70 games in 2012-13 and 80 games in 2013-14 (started in 37), and gradually carved out his role as the skilled offensive player in the low post that gave solid scoring bursts from the bench. At the trade deadline in February 2015, Kanter was traded to Oklahoma City in that deal that sent Reggie Jackson to Detroit. Enes, not unfamiliar with suddenly starting anew in different city, put up career-high numbers with the Thunder. He became a force in the starting unit, playing next to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in 26 out of the 26 remaining games with OKC in 2015. Enes averaged a double-double during that span, 18.7 points and 11.0 rebounds. Despite Kanter admirable play, the Thunder failed to reach the playoffs in 2015, and head coach Scott Brooks was canned in the ensuing offseason.
Billy Donovan found a new role for Enes Kanter during the 2015-16 season, placing him back on the bench for go-to post up looks while the Thunder stars rested. Kanter played all 82 games that season but was seldom used in the playoffs. After an early first round exit at the hands of the Houston Rockets, the 2016-17 Thunder, in the shadow of Durant’s departure, needed to reshuffle their roster. Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis were the first to go, to Indiana in exchange for All-Star forward Paul George. The Knicks, now with Scott Perry at the helm, found a destination for Anthony in OKC, swapping Kanter and Doug McDermott (and Chicago’s second round pick in 2018!) for the 10-time All-Star in Carmelo.
So, the map-hopping Kanter landed in New York, bringing enthusiasm and his outspoken dissent against Erdoğan to the Crossroads of the World. Thus far, Kanter has been a fixture in New York’s starting lineup, providing an almost nightly double-double and some exquisite interior game. The ball somehow gravitates towards Kanter when he’s near the glass, his hands like magnets attracting loose rebounds. Despite his known deficiencies, Enes has been a solid contributor on a team desperate for hounding presence on the boards (too many Knicks center, not enough premier big men). Enes has brought tough play to back up harsh words thrown around people like LeBron James. Kanter’s refusal to back off from the LeBron–Frank skirmish further catapulted himself into the endearing hearts of Knicks fans, so starved of the gritty realness of NBA rivalries since the days when Ewing would walk through the Garden. A comparison to Patrick Ewing’s hallmark of highlights is certainly a stretch, but Enes Kanter has found a home in New York as the Turkish muscle flexing the potent exhilaration that can fill Madison Square Garden, lest those with poor short-term memory forgot.
Thanksgiving’s annual occurrence gives people pause to meditate on what’s important in their lives and what they’re grateful for. For the Knicks, these four immigrants have sojourned through their own tribulations, but they now find themselves in New York on a rebuilding team, and playing for a fanbase rabid for reasons to celebrate. Although their paths may have differed, the Knicks’ immigrants celebrate Thanksgiving like the rest of us, gathered around those they care about. However, on this day, they can feel comfortable knowing they’ve carved not only turkey but also a home on the Knicks.