On Monday, around 4 a.m., Enes Kanter will wake up, eat a light breakfast of yogurt, fruit and peanut butter, and drink as much water as he can. Then for the roughly 16 hours between sunrise and sunset in Portland, Oregon, the center for the Portland Trail Blazers will abstain from eating, drinking and taking medicine, even for the shoulder he separated almost two weeks ago.
For Kanter, a Swiss-born Turk who has fasted for Ramadan while playing competitive basketball for the past decade, the routine is nothing new. But this time, the circumstances may be: Never before has he fasted while playing in the NBA’s postseason.
This year, with Ramadan having begun Sunday, his fast is coming during Portland’s second-round series against the Denver Nuggets. He’s averaging 16 points and more than 10 rebounds per game against Denver, and has often been a surprise difference-maker for the Blazers behind Damian Lillard.
In Islam, Ramadan commemorates the month that God started to reveal the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, and each year roughly 1.5 billion people observe it through daytime fasting, during which smoking, sex and chewing gum are also prohibited. In Muslim-majority countries like Turkey, where Kanter grew up, businesses and schools often adjust their hours to accommodate the observance. In the United States, it’s business as usual for most of the estimated 3.45 million Muslims, including Kanter. He’s become accustomed to fasting by himself.
The first time Kanter observed Ramadan while training seriously for basketball, he was 16 years old, living in Turkey and playing for a team with an international roster. That year, Ramadan started at the end of August — each year, it moves back by about 11 days — and the first two-a-day practice was grueling for Kanter.
“I was going against players who were 30, 35 years old, and I was the only one fasting,” he said. “When I would break my fast, I was drinking so much water, like ‘Man, there’s no room left for food.’”
Since then, Kanter has spent Ramadan in California, where he attended prep school; in Lexington, Kentucky, where he was recruited to play for the University of Kentucky; and with three NBA franchises before the Trail Blazers: the Utah Jazz, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the New York Knicks. Though there have been other Muslims in the league (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar converted to Islam in 1968, a year before he began a 20-season NBA career, and Hakeem Olajuwon was known for playing well while fasting), Kanter still makes a point of telling teams about the duties of his faith.
“Before I go to those teams, I say, ‘Hey, I’m a Muslim and I have to pray five times a day,’” Kanter said. “And they respect it so much that they give me a prayer room. So before the game, after the game, before practice, before I fly out, I can go to that room whenever I want and pray.”
After he joins a new franchise, Kanter said, there are always questions at first, like why he does not drink alcohol, but they are typically asked with good intentions. In fact, an Oklahoma City strength coach was so curious about Ramadan that he fasted for three days to better understand Kanter’s nutritional needs. The teams also provide special meals for Kanter, which some of his teammates have grown to love.
“Steven Adams was a very, very big fan of halal food,” Kanter said of the Thunder center, “and I remember the day I got traded to the Knicks, he was so sad. He was like, ‘Man, I’m not going to eat halal food anymore.’”
Though the past few Ramadans have been during his offseason, Kanter enjoys the feeling of fasting so much that he does it once or twice a week year-round. That routine has helped reassure him that his cravings, typically at their worst 15 minutes after basketball practice, will eventually pass.
Even traveling from the East Coast to the West, which adds three hours to the fast, no longer rattles him. “If you can do 15,” he said, “you can do 18.”
Fasting does not necessarily pose a nutritional problem for Kanter, said Dr. Richard Bloomer, dean of the School of Health Studies and the Center for Wellness and Fitness at the University of Memphis.
“A lot of people think, ‘Gee, my carbohydrate or glycogen stores could be depleted,’” he said. “That would be problematic, but the reality is, if they’re eating adequately during the ‘acceptable’ feeding period, they should be able to store all of the energy that they need.”
Recent studies have shown that fasting can both help and hurt an athlete’s anaerobic performance; Bloomer said that players’ experiences also depended on their mindsets. If Kanter believes that fasting inhibits his play, it may, “even though there may not be physiological adverse outcomes,” Bloomer said.
For Kanter, though, that is not a problem. “I actually work harder during Ramadan because my body’s used to it,” he said.
Tareq Azim, a San Francisco-based NFL trainer who was a linebacker at Fresno State, felt the same. “The level of clarity during Ramadan was just always insane — the way I can think and take in information,” Azim said. “Technically, I’d become really sound during that month. I wouldn’t rely so much on strength and power.”
Like Kanter, Azim has learned to cope with the challenges of fasting during Ramadan as he’s gotten older. In the fifth grade, when he started attempting to fast for Ramadan, he would wake up with his parents around 4 a.m. to eat suhur, the meal right before sunrise.
“It’d be so difficult to try and stay up and eat,” he said. “I’d sit up and maybe put a bite of an egg in my mouth and literally fall right over.”
After a few more hours of sleep, Azim would fast for as long as he could, but with nothing in his stomach, it was not easy. “Sometimes I would last until 10 a.m.,” he said.
As Kanter prepares for Game 5 of Portland’s second-round series against the Nuggets, he, too, will be wary of missing that last meal before sunrise and having to fast an extra 15 hours. He has a plan.
“That’s why I always put my phone away from my bed,” he said, “to make sure that I don’t fall back asleep and skip suhur.”