An N.B.A. Star Takes On Erdogan
For nearly six months, the Knicks have been anticipating their Jan. 17 road game against the Washington Wizards in London, where the accompanying festivities have the feel of an All-Star weekend no matter their less-than-stellar records.
One member of the team, however, now views the trip with dread and will be watching from his couch in New York.
Knicks center Enes Kanter, who is from Turkey, said this weekend that he had decided to skip the game because he fears for his life. An outspoken critic of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kanter said he worried Turkish spies might kill him there.
It was a dramatic escalation of his longstanding criticism of Erdogan and a reflection of the way Kanter has been determined to use his fame as an athlete for political activism he considers crucial and dire.
His activism has made him an important figure for a faction of the opposition protesting an autocratic government that also happens to be a strategic ally of the United States.
“The N.B.A. provides a big platform to shed light on the human rights violations in Turkey and gives a voice to the thousands of people persecuted,” Kanter said in an interview. “This platform allows me to speak my mind.”
Turkish officials have dismissed his comments as baseless, but Kanter said the fear is real — and personal. He said death threats have been “coming a lot more and more every day” since his latest comments.
“I was scared. I’m not going to lie,” he said.
In March, his father, Mehmet Kanter, a professor, could be sentenced to five to 10 years in prison after being accused of being a member of a group the Turkish government considers terrorist. In May 2017, Enes Kanter was detained for several hours at an airport in Romania after the Turkish government canceled his travel documents. Later that year, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported that prosecutors were seeking to sentence Enes Kanter to more than four years in jail on charges that he had insulted Erdogan on social media.
In the last several years, Kanter has received death threats through social media. He does not worry Turkish operatives “would do something crazy” in New York but said he never ventures out alone in the city. He said he feels London presents more of a threat because of the large number of Turkish communities in the city where he presumes spies are operating.
Kanter’s father, mother and sister remain in Turkey. He has not seen them since 2015 when, he said, the government destroyed his brother’s school, imprisoned his dentist and arrested a man after his child took a picture with Kanter.
In 2016, the Kanter family’s house was raided and their electronics were taken.
Kanter has stopped communicating with them because of the fear of retribution.
His brother Kerem played basketball professionally in France and is now based in Chicago hoping to land a spot in the N.B.A.’s developmental league. Kanter’s youngest brother, Ahmet, plays high school basketball in Atlanta and is due to return to school this week after spending winter break in Turkey.
Kanter said he does not think his recent comments — he called Erdogan a lunatic, a maniac and a dictator in one fell swoop — will further jeopardize his family. On the contrary, he said he thinks being outspoken will secure his family’s safety. If Turkish officials detain his brother at the airport or throw his father in prison, Kanter said, his voice will only grow louder.
“I will speak to every newspaper and make it one of the biggest stories,” he said.
Kanter has a close relationship with Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania for nearly 20 years and whom the Turkish government has accused of masterminding a bloody coup attempt in July 2016. Gulen denies the accusation.
Kanter visits Gulen every two weeks when not traveling with the Knicks. For decades, Gulen’s Hizmet movement has claimed to be trying to push the country toward democracy, education and cultural openness. But critics say the movement has secretly undermined democracy by infiltrating its followers into government institutions in order to seize power.
Kanter said he was with Gulen in Pennsylvania the night of the coup attempt, praying for peace. That comment is likely to outrage many in Turkey; the leading coup plotters were Gulen followers who ordered tanks and planes against protesters, killing 251 people, including several soldiers and 60 police officers.
Since then, more than 60,000 people have been jailed by the Turkish government — journalists, academics, political opponents and those who express an opposing viewpoint or are affiliated with the Gulen movement.
To crack down on dissent, Erdogan has steadily turned Turkey into an authoritarian system through control of the military, the courts, the media and the internet.
Kanter is also friends with Hakan Sukur, one of Turkey’s most famous athletes, a hero of its 2002 World Cup team and a veteran of several of Europe’s top soccer leagues.
Sukur left Turkey a year before the coup, sensing the country’s unrest, and lives in exile in Palo Alto, Calif., where he is a co-owner of a bakery. Sukur’s political ties and status made him a target of Erdogan’s widespread distrust.
Another famous Turkish athlete, Hidayet Turkoglu, who played in the N.B.A. and is now a chief adviser to Erdogan, voiced his criticism of Kanter on Monday.
“Kanter can’t enter the U.K. not because of fears for life as he claims but due to passport and visa issues,” Turkoglu, who went by Hedo in the N.B.A., said on Twitter. “This being the long-known truth, he is trying to get the limelight with irrational justifications and political remarks.”
In response, Kanter posted a picture to his Instagram account of what appeared to be his travel documents and wrote: “It’s NOT a visa issue!!! I CAN go to London. Either you are delusional, or still Erdogan’s lap dog. Keep wagging your tail Hedo Turkoglu.”
Two weeks ago, the Knicks suggested to Kanter that his travel in London be strictly limited to the gym and hotel for safety reasons, he said.
After Kanter announced his decision to skip the trip, the team said it was because of an unspecified visa issue, though Kanter disputed this.
“I was confused by that,” he said. “I have the travel documents. I have a green card. I can go anywhere.” He assumes the Knicks wanted to remove themselves from the politics of his stance to avoid “negative energy around the team.”
Kanter is a citizen of Turkey, but his passport was revoked in 2017. His American travel documents issued by the Department of Homeland Security enable him to enter the United States and the United Kingdom. Once the London game was scheduled, the N.B.A. obtained the documents on Kanter’s behalf.
“The N.B.A. has played hundreds of games outside of the U.S. and this is a very unique and unprecedented situation,” Mike Bass, the league’s spokesman, said.
Kanter started most of the season, but lost his starting job as the team decided to focus on developing its younger players. His poor defensive play made the decision easier. After a 12-point, 16-rebound night on Tuesday in a 122-95 loss at Golden State, Kanter was averaging 14.4 points and 11.0 rebounds a game.
He was born in Switzerland, where his father was studying, but was raised in Turkey.
After excelling for the Turkish national team, he enrolled as a freshman at the University of Kentucky in 2010 but was ruled ineligible to play by the N.C.A.A. because of impermissible benefits he received from a Turkish professional team.
In the 2011 N.B.A. draft, he was selected third over all by Utah and then traded to Oklahoma City in 2015 before the Knicks acquired him in 2017 in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. He will be a free agent this summer after the final year of his $18.6 million contract.
In contrast to the gravity of his outspokenness on human rights issues, Kanter is usually regarded as a goofball among his teammates.
After games and practices, he is quick with one-liners. He said he dreams of becoming a W.W.E. wrestler, and he regularly receives thousands of likes and retweets for his jokes on Twitter.
The lighter side, he said, is a coping mechanism.
As soon as he finished practice two days before Christmas, Kanter returned to the court dressed as an elf, complete with pointy ears, a long green tunic and a brown beard. His red sack was full of random gag gifts, which he handed out to teammates.
“It’s very tough,” Kanter said. “I can’t show frustration or being sad or mad. I put my game mask on and focus on the game and being as good as I can be. But I receive death threats. It’s sad that I have to balance this.”