A promise made to his mother as a child is one of the many reasons behind NBA star Enes Kanter’s decision to open a charter school for young students in Oklahoma.
The 27-year-old center for the Boston Celtics announced in January plans to open the Enes Kanter School for Exceptional Learning in Oklahoma City, his home of nearly three years while he played for the Thunder from 2015 to 2017.
With his school, Kanter — who was raised in Turkey — aims to primarily help minority students from low-income families.
“Where I grew up, not every kid has a chance to go to school and learn about life,” Kanter tells PEOPLE. “I grew up in a really poor side of the country. A lot of families didn’t want their kids to go to school because they wanted their kids to go find a job so they can bring money at home.”
“I remember I promised my mom when I was 9 years old, I was like, ‘Mom, if I ever become very famous one day or if I ever become very rich one day, the first thing I’m going to do is build a school.'”
Kanter never lost sight of that dream and began making it a reality within a few years of entering the NBA in 2011 — during his sixth season in the league, Kanter built a school in Africa that he hasn’t had a chance to visit yet.
“They sent me some pictures of it. It’s amazing,” he says of the building.
The school in Oklahoma City will include students from fourth to 12th grade and will also accommodate students from immigrant families who are still developing their English skills, according to The Oklahoman.
Officials in Oklahoma City were extremely receptive when Kanter approached them with the idea for the school, an extension of how the city treated him when he joined the Thunder in 2015.
“They opened their arms from the first day. They gave me a warm welcome, the players, the coaches, the fans, everybody,” he recalls. “That’s why the process was very, very easy. The mayor was involved in it. He messaged me. The Senator messaged me. He said he was very proud of me. The process was pretty easy.”
But the Oklahoma location is just the first location of a series of schools Kanter envisions opening in the future.
Kanter’s school comes two years after NBA star LeBron James opened the I Promise School as an addition to the Akron Public Schools in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. Kanter says James has been a source of inspiration.
“He does so much on the court. He breaks records and this and that. But I think the best thing he’s ever done was open up the I Promise School,” Kanter says. “You’re inspiring millions of people out there, so that’s why I got inspired by him a lot, for sure.”
“I think it’s cool that you play basketball and you score 20 points, 30 points,” he adds. ‘It’s good and everything. But the question is how many people you’re affecting, how many lives that you’re inspiring, the hearts that you are touching. I think that is very important.”
But much of Kanter’s motivation to give back simply comes from his gratitude for the life he has built in America. Kanter has been outspoken in his criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been accused of human rights abuses.
“For me, what I speak out, it was so important,” Kanter says of bringing attention to the situation in Turkey. “It was bigger than basketball because I talk about freedom, I talk about democracy, I talk about human rights. And I feel like those things are bigger than basketball.”
“People now know my story because I play in NBA, but there are thousands and thousands of stories and families out there, their story is way worse than mine,” he continues. “So I’m trying to use my story to be the voice of their story.”
While Kanter plans to become an American citizen next year, he isn’t waiting to make a difference in the country he cherishes.
“America gave me so much,” he says of his decision to open the schools. “I feel like if I do something about education with our youth, I think it would be the best way to give back to America.”