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Mustafa Canbas: Finding Home In The Game of Basketball

Uprooting one’s life in pursuit of their goals and development is difficult enough as is, but add in
the baggage of sociopolitical persecution, concurrently happening in formative high school
years, and you have what to many, would seem insurmountable. To Mustafa Canbas, this is
life…the norm. But don’t get it backwards, he understands, and appreciates, the obstacles he
had to overcome early on in life. The once Winston-Salem high school student recently sat
down for an interview and shared his extraordinary story.

Life in Turkey, Early Athletic Success
Mustafa was born in Ankara, Turkey in 2006. At first, basketball was just an activity to enjoy with
friends and family…but after officially joining a local club and showing early signs of promise at
a tournament in Antalya, he was selected to be on the All-Star team. He recalls this moment as
when “everything changed”. However, starting in 2013 – daily life began to become unstable.
Political corruption was getting out of hand and officials and their families were targeted by
those in power. As the risks they faced escalated, Mustafa’s parents initially went to the
Netherlands alone to assess the situation, while Mustafa and his sister stayed in Turkey to
continue their education (staying with family members who had not yet left). As their situation
intensified, Mustafa and his sister joined their parents in the Netherlands. This marked the
beginning of their lives as refugees.

Refugee Camp Life, Continuing Love For The Sport
Though being a young refugee far from home presented some incredibly difficult situations,
Mustafa stayed strong and focused on learning Dutch and pursuing his basketball dreams.
Reflecting on his time in the camp, Mustafa recalled it as being a period of growth and adapting
as he focused much of his energy and time on developing his basketball skills. A small
distraction from the reality of everyday life. Eventually, he found a basketball club that was a
thirty-minute bike ride away from the refugee camp where he was able to continue playing and
honing his talents.

Always looking for a greater challenge, Mustafa tried out for another, higher competition, club in
Amsterdam (a U18 team while he was only 15). He made the team, but the practices required
him to make regular three-hour round-trip journeys from his camp to the basketball club.
Mustafa was undaunted by this because he understood the value of competing at a higher level
and what it would mean to his individual growth.

Transition to the United States, Greater Opportunity

Mustafa and his family sought better opportunities and explored options for better quality
education and higher level basketball in the United States. A friend of Mustafa’s father
recommended Salem Baptist Christian School in Winston-Salem, NC. Initially, visa issues
stemming from the fact that he only had a refugee ID card and not a citizen’s passport, blocked
him from being able to enter the United States. After 7 months of back & forth, he received his
passport with the correct visa and took off for his new school. He credits the coaches at Salem
Baptist as his first support system in the states, as his family remained in the Netherlands
When he arrived, basketball season was already officially over. Mustafa wanted to stay sharp
and not waste any more time. He decided to play AAU basketball to keep his body strong, while
also learning about life outside of school sponsored basketball. Mustafa thoroughly embraced
adjusting to life in another new country, and throughout it all, he remained focused on his
studies and on playing basketball. He continued excelling both in school and on the court.

Discovering SPIRE Academy, Continued Growth
After his brief time at Salem Baptist Christian School, Mustafa decided to look for a new school
to further his education and basketball career. He reached out to Turkish professional basketball
player Enes Kanter Freedom’s manager and asked for advice. Among the schools he
considered attending was SPIRE Academy (located in Geneva, OH) which is renowned for its
rigorous athletic training programs coupled with high-quality academics. Impressed by the
school’s offerings and the state of the art facilities, Mustafa applied to SPIRE. With guidance
from Coach Dooley and the support of his family, he was accepted at the sports academy for
the 2023 fall semester. Mustafa notes that he was looking forward to the regimented schedule
designed for “serious players”.

Academic Achievements and Looking Ahead
Upon arriving at SPIRE, Mustafa began integrating himself into the High School Basketball
Program and quickly rose to be a leader on the court. Assistant High School coach, Jeff
Garofalos, describes Mustafa as a silent force on the court, exemplifying toughness and tenacity
with every play. He told us, “Mustafa may be soft-spoken as a person, but he is tough and
tenacious when he steps on the court,” the coach remarks. “His 100% effort on the basketball
floor reflects his passion and love for the game.”

In addition to his love of basketball, Mustafa understands how important it is to get a good
education. His hard work led him to be inducted into the National Honor Society, no easy feat
for somebody who claims English as their second language. These accomplishments reflect his
commitment to excellence on the court and in the classroom. Mustafa credits this to the smaller
class sizes offered at SPIRE, which helped him get the attention and interaction that fosters
deeper learning.

As this year’s high school basketball season draws to an end, Mustafa remains focused on his
future. With his aspirations of attending college back in North Carolina and studying computer
science or a related field, he’s determined to reach his goals. Mustafa also encourages others to trust the process and never give up on their dreams.

Head High School coach, Dr. JC Collins, remarks “I remember one morning when practice was scheduled for 7 am, and Mustafa was already on the court at 6 am, drenched in sweat from his workout. I am constantly inspired by his unwavering commitment to giving his absolute best every day. Whether he’s hitting the court for an early morning workout or staying late to perfect his shots, Mustafa is always pushing himself to be better.”

His story can serve as an inspiration to many, reminding us that with dedication and hard work,
anything can be possible. We wish Mustafa the best on his athletic journey.






NFL/Carolina Panthers


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