The death threats had begun pouring in by the hundreds, the New York Knicks Turkish-born center, Enes Kanter, told me. As an outspoken critic of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Kanter has received a never-ending stream of threatening (and often anonymous) social-media messages, usually a few per week, over the past three years. But this amount of hostility was another matter altogether.
The reason for the recent spike was clear: On January 4, following a rare win in an otherwise bleak rebuilding Knicks season, Kanter had called Erdoğan a “freaking lunatic” whose operatives across the globe made traveling to London for a game against the Washington Wizards on January 17 an impossibility. “There’s a chance that I can get killed out there,” he claimed.
Tensions were further inflamed on Monday when Hedo Türkoğlu, a former NBA player who has since ascended to the presidency of the Turkish Basketball Federation, lashed out at Kanter. In a tweeted statement, Türkoğlu accused him of “trying to get the limelight,” dismissing the entirety of Kanter’s fears as a “political smear campaign” and alleging that “visa issues” were the real reason for Kanter’s non-participation.
Because he’s Enes Kanter, he couldn’t—and wouldn’t—let it slide. Türkoğlu was little more than a “lapdog,” Kanter told reporters, who has benefited financially in return for serving as the mouthpiece for a repressive regime. (The Turkish Basketball Federation did not respond to an emailed request for comment.) Kanter also tweeted a photo of his passport to rebut Türkoğlu’s assertion that he was any way misleading anyone about his ability to venture abroad:
Reached by phone, Kanter told me the choice to stay in New York was made in conjunction with the Knicks, who’d informed him that while in London, he’d have to live as if he were under house arrest.
Promotional appearances during the trip, visits to tourist-y hotspots, or an evening on the town with his fellow Knicks were all out of the question. “All you can do is just go to practice, come back to the hotel. Go to games, come back to your hotel,” Kanter said, describing the limited itinerary. Instead, he was told in no uncertain terms: “You are not going to leave your room.”
It would have made for a more stringent version of the precautions Kanter has to take while in the United States. Namely: Any time Kanter leaves his apartment, he’s always accompanied by someone—a friend or a group of friends, if possible.
But in the end, missing a single name was not worth the potential risk. “Erdoğan's long arm is everywhere,” Kanter said. Reached for comment, NBA spokesman Mike Bass declined to provide any further information, citing safety concerns. “The NBA has played hundreds of games outside of the U.S. and this is a very unique and unprecedented situation,” he said. A spokesperson for the Knicks also declined to comment on the team’s security protocols, as did the UK Home office, per the BBC.
Knicks owner James Dolan, though, said he understood the rationale behind Kanter’s decision not to leave North America for the first time since his passport was seized by the Turkish government in 2017: “I was him, I’d be concerned, too. I don’t blame him at all. I’m totally OK with it.”
Beyond letting down his teammates, what disappointed Kanter more than anything was he’d planned to hang out with Daniel Radcliffe. A huge fan of the Harry Potter movies, after meeting the actor in New York, they’d gotten along swimmingly and Kanter invited him to attend the Knicks-Wizards game. “He’s a very cool dude,” Kanter said. Now, that small morsel of fun had been taken away from him, too.
Even though we were on opposite coasts, I couldn’t help but feel like something was, well, off. Kanter still spoke in strident terms about the injustices of the Turkish government, and said his occasionally trollish tweets would continue. But at times, his voice was tinged with a different and definitely not Kanter-ian tone—brief notes of regret or weariness, even, kept flickering through. For example, Kanter said he didn’t bear a grudge against Türkoğlu and understood, to a degree, that his comments could easily have been coerced. He fondly recalled the recent past, when Türkoğlu and he would grab a meal together and were “really good friends” playing together on the national team.
“It’s very sad,” he said. “I respect the guy a lot, I respect his game.” Hopefully, some day, when Erdoğan is driven from power, they’ll be able to reunite. In that instant, he came across as nostalgic or wistful in a way that differed from how he’d previously talked about his longing to return home.
Or when he said that he planned to put on his Knicks jersey while watching the Wizards game in London on TV, munching on popcorn, and hoping against hope that his team might prevail. While he insists that his activist efforts are far more important than his chosen career, at the same time, “I want to be known for my game. But like I said, the Turkish government…”
I couldn’t help but picture a 6-foot-11 guy alone in his apartment, dressed for work and yet a continent away from being able to perform his job. He couldn’t even walk out the door without hastily assembling a phalanx of friends.
Maybe it’s nothing more than the distancing quality of a phone conversation as opposed to the friendly sit-down Kanter and I had last summer in a lounge at his Manhattan pad. But Mike Vorkunov of the Athletic saw something similar in the locker room following the team’s 30th loss of the season in Portland, describing the normally garrulous, exuberant Kanter as “subdued” and, at least momentarily, coming across as if he didn’t want to (once again) recite the litany of injustices perpetrated by an authoritarian government.
It would require Herculean doses of optimism and joy for someone not to be haunted by doubt or straight-up exhausted at times, given what Kanter and his family have been put through. For three years, the Turkish regime has moved heaven and earth to silence its wayward star, thanks to Kanter’s devout support for the exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen and his stated membership in the Hizmet movement. In 2017, he was detained by Turkish officials at an airport in Romania, his passport snatched. For a few hours, there was a non-zero chance he’d be sent back to Turkey where he’d be subjected to the whims of a Kafka-esque judicial system. Luckily the U.S. State Department and the NBA intervened and he managed to secure his freedom.
Shortly thereafter, Kanter was charged with being an active member of an “armed terrorist organisation,” potentially subject to four years in prison if he ever goes back home. On Twitter, Kanter offered his own inimitable response: “You can’t catch me. Don’t waste your breath. I will come on my own will anyway, to spit on your ugly, hateful faces.” Unable to silence their expat dissident, the regime then went after Kanter’s family, initially detaining and then releasing his father, Mehmet Kanter—a former university professor who was then forced to publicly disown his son. Last year, his father was again arrested. Like his son, Mehmet was deemed a terrorist and faces a lengthy prison sentence if convicted.
The only glimpse Kanter has gotten of his parents’ faces in the last three years has come from his brother, Kerem, who plays pro ball in France and texts him photos. It’s taken a toll on them as well. Looking at the pictures, he can’t help but think, “Man they’re getting old,” he said.
After months of delays and setbacks, Kanter believes his father’s trial will finally begin on March 7. (The trial was originally set for July 15, two years after the failed coup that allowed Erdoğan to consolidate his power and jail untold thousands of dissidents.) What’s more, Mehmet’s potential sentence may have increased from ten to 15 years, for reasons Kanter cannot ascertain.
In the interim, Mehmet has been living at home but he too never can be sure of what troubles he might encounter just by walking out the door, or running an errand like going to the market. Mehmet has been routinely harassed on the street, and his fellow Turks have spat in his face, Kanter said. Though they’ve never been detained, his mother and his sister are also under constant surveillance, never knowing if the next time they say goodbye to a loved one might be their last.
And yes, Kanter’s less-than-buoyant mood on Tuesday afternoon could also easily be chalked up to the grind of a 14-day Knicks road trip or the less-than-sterling season he’s having. Nor has it helped that new Knicks head coach David Fizdale has juggled Kanter’s place in the rotation and benched him for unproven first- and second-year players. On Wednesday, rumors that he might be traded began bubbling to the surface.
A meeting with Knicks general manager Scott Perry last week provided some measure of satisfaction about his role. If nothing else, the tête-à-tête got Kanter to stop publicly grousing and stick to press-friendly talking points about his desire to win and make the playoffs.
Later on Tuesday, I sent Kanter a text message, asking if all this was weighing him down. Whether I’d just been wrong or relying on a text allowed him to hand-wave away my concerns, I don’t know. Either way, it was good to see his usual brand of all-caps bravura.
“I never get tired of speaking the truth and defending democracy, Human Rights and Freedom!!!” Kanter wrote. “It has been a historical fact that these type of tyrants became leaders when people became submissive and silent, so I will never stop criticizing—this is the least i can do to defend democracy.”
I wished him luck against the Warriors that night—the Knicks were beaten, badly—and Kanter replied with this: “💪”
It was good to see. Despite the threats, the grim, unknowable future his country faces, and a burden that won’t be lifted any time soon, Kanter will keep fighting, one emoji at a time.