By Cassie Logan | @c4ssielogan
ARLINGTON, Texas - Erkam Kiris returned home from Turkish National Team camp to find the city of Istanbul recovering from a night of death and disorder.
On July 15, 2016, a coup attempt carried out by a faction within the Turkish military attempted and failed to overthrow the country's government. Buildings, parliament and presidential bases were detonated; soldiers raided media and TV stations, and gunshots echoed through the city as protesters charged the streets.
What painted the picture of chaos and unrest more were the hundreds of citizens lying slain and bloodied in the streets, and the nearly 1,500 injured in an effort to protect their country.
In the days following the threat, airports were closed and people were forced to stay inside their houses, but not once did Kiris lack faith in his plan to play basketball for UT Arlington this season.
"We came back the day after and we were still seeing the consequences of the attempt, and it was awful," Kiris said. "I hope our country will come back stronger and everything will be okay.
"I was hoping and praying every day to come to Arlington. I didn't have a plan B because I was so sure."
After receiving his visa to travel to the United States, Kiris said it took 25 days to arrange travel due to flight cancellations, delays and other concerns.
The United States isn't unfamiliar territory to Kiris. His father was a professor at Ohio State, so his family moved for a period of time when he was four. Last August, he returned to attend Ohio's Spire Academy, where he averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds during the 2015-16 season.
Kiris is the youngest of three in a close-knit family. He calls home to Istanbul every day to parents that still see him as a "young baby" despite the fact that he's living on a different continent without them.
His brother, however, is less of a reach as a graduate student at Florida Atlantic. Esad Kiris was a forward at Mercer Community College in 2010-11 and influenced Erkham to further his basketball career at an elite level.
Esad serves as a father figure to Kiris in the states and FaceTimes nearly every day to check in and show support of his new life in Arlington - one unlike what they've always known in Turkey. The only constant between the two nations is the weather.
Kiris said he didn't struggle to assimilate to the culture that differs in nearly every aspect of that in Istanbul. With a team of veteran Mavericks and one of the US's most diverse universities, meeting new people and receiving help in classes have alleviated the process.
"People, lifestyles, rules and laws are all different," Kiris said. "People here are close to each other. They really want to help me and I love that. I didn't have that in Turkey, so I feel special here."
When he heard Cross speak about his faith and familial love for his players, Kiris immediately knew UTA was a program he could be proud to build a home with. It was more than the Mavs' standout performance last season; it was the idea of that success being fueled by integrity, passion and honest teamwork.
"We're fired up about his potential," Cross said. "Down the road, he's a guy that could be an all-conference type of player for us. He's added some size to our team.
The forward also adds international experience from time on the National Turkish U18 team, which is ranked No. 5 in the world by the International Basketball Federation. He was selected to the preliminary roster for the 2016 European Championships before the coup attempt derailed the tournament located in Istanbul.
Kiris averaged 5.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in the spring and was part of the squad that won the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Tournament in Germany.
The newcomer will even be pitted against two of his own Turkish teammates when UTA travels to the Bronx to take on Fordham in November. The Rams are fostering freshmen Sinan Saglam and Cavit Havsa this season.
"It's priceless for sure," Kiris said. "There aren't many words to describe it. I had an opportunity to wear my national team jersey for 15 games and represent my country."
Kiris missed summer workouts with the Mavericks due to the national team's training camp, and later was stalled during Turkey's political conflict. He arrived at the beginning of the fall and quickly had to adjust to basic fundamentals and styles of Cross basketball.
"It's an adjustment period for him, but he's improving every day," Cross said. "It's a completely different defensive and offensive system.
"There are little things that are a bit different from his Turkish team. He has a good feel for the game and he'll pick it up fairly quickly."
UTA's four-year veteran Jorge Bilbao, a native of Bilbao, Spain, has played a key role in preparing Kiris for his first season at the Division I level. The duo have a big brother, little brother relationship that wasn't hard to form as both bonded effortlessly over their international upbringing.
Kiris' background was a factor in his recruitment because of fighters like Bilbao who have proved they can compete in the NCAA. It also opened the door for the coaches to consider international players in future recruiting classes.
Cross said the pair is connected at the hip, even chosen for the same fall boot camp team, and having a senior in Kiris' ear has motivated him to adopt the team's "championships are won today" mentality. The friendship has even grown into a humorous competition on the court to see who can defend their country's honor.
"Quite often throughout the year, we'll pit Spain versus Turkey to see who's the fastest or who can win the most, so that always seems to get them fired up," Cross said.
Now with season approaching, Kiris feels more confident than ever in his daring decision to charter into a new country. He's continuing his career with a brotherhood as strong the program's odds to become one of the best in the nation.
Kiris' journey was an act of bravery. One he understood would force him to mature quicker than normal 18-year-olds usually need to. And after witnessing his country suffer in the summer, he's grateful for freedom and the chance to represent Turkey in a part of something bigger.
"It might influence others in Turkey or anywhere else around the world to follow their dreams," Kiris said. "The system is a lot different here, so it might be hard to adjust, but it's worth it. I'm blessed to have the opportunity to continue my basketball career at UTA."
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