Enes Kanter, the Portland Trail Blazers’ newly acquired big man, made national headlines last month when he did not travel with the New York Knicks to London for their game against the Washington Wizards. Normally, an NBA player not traveling with his team doesn’t get national media attention, but normally, an NBA player isn’t refusing to travel because he fears for his life.
Kanter, a Turkish citizen, has been a harsh critic of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyipp Erdogan and a vocal supporter of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania whom the Turkish government has accused of being behind a 2016 coup to overthrow Erdogan. Kanter’s outspoken views have led the Turkish government to revoke his passport and accuse him of terrorist affiliations.
Kanter learned of his government’s stance toward him in 2017 when he was detained and nearly extradited to Turkey while traveling. He described the situation in an opinion piece for the The Washington Post last month:
May 20, 2017, was one of the scariest days of my life. It was the day I realized I was being hunted by Erdogan. I was in Indonesia to run a children’s basketball camp for my charity. I was awakened in the middle of the night by knocking on my door. My manager said the Indonesian police were searching for me because the Turkish government had told them I was dangerous. We rushed to the airport and got on the next flight out of the country.
We flew from Indonesia to Singapore and then to Romania. At some point, after we left Singapore, the Turkish government canceled my passport. Police at the airport in Bucharest told me I wasn’t allowed to enter the country. I didn’t need anyone to tell me why this was happening. I was being detained because of what I had been saying about Erdogan. I was worried they were going to send me back to Turkey. I was concerned because I had to get back to the United States without a passport.
With the help of Oklahoma senators, Kanter, who was playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder at the time, was able to return to the United States. He learned the Turkish government was claiming he was a member of an “armed terrorist organization.”
Kanter has avenues open towards U.S. citizenship, along with a U.S. passport which would provide him protection. Until then he cannot risk traveling overseas. Before the Knicks’ scheduled game in London, Turkey issued an interpol red notice, a request to locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition.
Even if Kanter had already obtained U.S. citizenship he says he would not travel to London because of his fear of Erdogan’s ability to retaliate against him in Britain:
I easily could be kidnapped or killed by Turkish agents. Erdogan’s arms are long. He hunts down anyone who opposes him. In 2017, his security team — or thugs, as The Post’s editorial board described them — even beat up peaceful protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington.
Former NBA player and current adviser to Erdogan, Hedo Turkoglu, disputed Kanter’s concerns as “delusions” in a statement on Twitter. Turkoglu accused Kanter of a “political smear campaign” and argued that Kanter was not able to travel to London only because of “passport and visa issues.” Kanter, whose Twitter account has been blocked by the Turkish government, tweeted out a picture of his travel documents in response and called Turkoglu “Erdogan’s lap dog.”
In a recent interview with Time Magazine Kanter said that he feels safe in America despite getting “hundreds and hundreds” of daily death threats:
Our team security said, even if you go to a supermarket, have someone with you. So everywhere I go — grocery shopping, practice, go to games, go to plays — I always have someone with me because you never know, a lone wolf, one of the crazy Erdogan supporters will do something. The only place I go alone is the bathroom. Just the bathroom.
The Turkish government has targeted Kanter’s father, Mehmet Kanter, indicting him on terrorism charges. Kanter has not seen his family since 2015 and is not able to contact them as he said in his Time Magazine interview:
It’s so hard to communicate with them. Because Turkish police raided my house. They took electronics away, computers away. They wanted to see if I’m still in contact with my family or not. Any single text, they will all be in jail.
In spite of all the hardship he has faced, Kanter says he would not do anything differently:
I have a platform and I’m using this platform. And I’m trying to be the voice of all those innocent people who don’t have a voice. So don’t call me crazy. I don’t regret anything. I wish I could have done more.
If you want to know more about this story you can read:
- Kanter’s full editorial in The Washington Post
- The Time Magazine interview from January
- SB Nation’s write up of why Kanter didn’t travel to London
- Posting and Toasting’s article on the situation
- An editorial Kanter wrote for Time in September
- CNN’s “Fast Facts” article on Turkey’s president Erdogan
- CNN’s 2016 profile of Fethullah Gulen the Turkish cleric who Erdogan blames for the 2016 coup attempt.
- Robert Silverman’s extensive chronicle in The Daily Beast
Here is a January interview Kanter did on PBS NewsHour:
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