Enes Kanter has started a food craze that has absorbed the Thunder’s locker room after road games—and stocked it with lamb platters
In the middle of every Oklahoma City road game, David Howarth’s phone buzzes in his pocket. The Thunder’s athletic performance coordinator excuses himself from the bench and escapes to the arena’s loading dock. That’s where he picks up the team’s dinner: takeout halal food.
This is not what most NBA teams eat after games. But the more adventurous Thunder players have done away with the traditional locker-room fare this season. Instead they’re digging into generous helpings of lamb and chicken kebabs.
The person responsible for Oklahoma City’s culinary revolution isn’t Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook or any other Thunder starter. It is Enes Kanter, the team’s reserve center, who is Muslim and observes his religion’s dietary laws.
Thunder executives took measures to accommodate Kanter’s religion when they traded for the Turkish-born big man last year and signed him to a long-term extension in the off-season. He has access to his own prayer room in the team’s arena, for example, and uses owner Clay Bennett’s office in the team’s practice center, where he uses towels as prayer rugs. The team also made sure that Kanter’s very first meal in Oklahoma City was cooked under halal standards, which means the meat was raised and slaughtered properly, and Thunder chefs started cooking for him with separate kitchenware.
But what happened next was something no one anticipated. The halal takeover started when Thunder center Steven Adams asked Kanter if he would share his post-game dinner. “Pretty much as soon as he came in,” Adams said, “I just told him that I’m eating his food, so I told the guys to order double.”
Westbrook and Serge Ibaka then began tearing into the halal trays. Before long, Thunder officials were searching the Internet for the top-rated Turkish and Middle Eastern restaurants in other cities when the team was on the road, all so they could feed a full lineup of NBA players with enormous appetites.
“It’s like a mini-party,” said Thunder medical director Donnie Strack. “Everyone wants to steal Enes’s food.”
It’s much easier to fulfill the team’s halal needs than it used to be. In 1998, when Shahed Amanullah started the website Zabihah as a guide for halal eating across the U.S., there were 200 restaurants in his database. Now there are more than 8,000. “People in the halal space have improved and embraced every aspect of that tradition,” Amanullah said. “America has done for this cuisine what it did for Chinese and Italian food.”
Kanter eats halal because of his religion. Adams eats halal for a slightly different reason.
“Because it’s awesome,” he said.
Kanter and Adams are more than the Thunder’s very tall halal lovers. The players who have become known as the “Stache Brothers” are a crucial part of Oklahoma City’s game plan against the San Antonio Spurs in their Western Conference semifinal that begins Saturday, because the Thunder are one of the only teams that can size up with San Antonio. The 6-foot-11 Kanter and 7-foot Adams shared 269 possessions this year, according to NBA Wowy, and 23% of those were against San Antonio, by far the most of any Thunder opponent.
After their most recent game against San Antonio, Kanter and Adams did what they always do: They devoured the delivery from a local Turkish restaurant. The team ordered that night for at least six people—and not just people, but large people who just played an NBA game—because the Thunder have come to understand they won’t be going home with doggie bags.
“I’m not going to lie,” said Howarth, the performance coach. “If there’s some lamb leftover, I’m eating that lamb.”
The food usually arrives after halftime, but Howarth’s phone has vibrated as early as the first quarter, he said. Thunder executives clear the deliveries with road arenas’ security officers, and they call the restaurants days in advance, explaining they’re an NBA team with a peculiar situation. Turkish restaurants tend to have the same response: “Is this for Enes Kanter?”
Now, after Kanter’s first full season in Oklahoma City, the team has a rotation of halal restaurants in NBA cities—and their players have become food critics.
“What’s our best city?” Adams said. “Orlando?”
“Boston?” Kanter said.
“Boston was good, wasn’t it?” Adams said. “Boston was the best city. I don’t know the top five, but Boston was definitely No. 1.”
They say there is a science to halal quality: The bigger the city, the better the food. The Thunder happened to be in Brooklyn this year when the Northeast was blanketed in several feet of snow, but that didn’t stop Kanter from leaving the Thunder’s hotel in search of the borough’s standout Turkish food. That week, when the Thunder played the New York Knicks, the full team meal was a Turkish feast. Outside their Madison Square Garden locker room were tables of halal food. “Everyone’s starting to jump on board,” Adams said, “just because it tastes so good.”
But not quite everyone. Durant is the Thunder’s highest-profile halal holdout. While others peek at Kanter’s plate, Durant sticks with staples of the NBA diet, which tends to be heavy on grilled chicken and, for the Thunder, brisket and short rib. Durant still knows all about the halal situation.
“I think it’s bull—,” he joked after a recent practice. “I’ve been here for nine years and I requested some stuff after the game and I have to pay for it on my own. And the second he gets here he gets his own menu.” Durant’s faux-outrage, however, may come from his personal taste for the food: “It’s nasty to me,” he said.
Even in Oklahoma City, where Kanter says the best restaurant is the team kitchen, he’s satisfied by the halal options. Thunder general manager Sam Presti took his staff to lunch at a local halal place. Other players have dined at Kanter’s home, where he hosted Westbrook for maqluba, a traditionally gargantuan dish with meat and rice. “That looks good as hell,” Westbrook said.
Not every city is as halal-friendly as Oklahoma City. “Sacramento—not good,” Adams said. After the Thunder played there, Adams could have eaten the ordinary meal, he admits. But he wanted Kanter’s anyway. That’s because the menu in Sacramento, Adams clarified, was lacking only by “halal ratings,” he said. “It’s still worth it.”
This article originally appeared on the Wall Street Journal and was written by Ben Cohen.