'I'd Still Do What I'm Doing Right Now': Enes Kanter Won't Back Down

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2018

New York Knicks center Enes Kanter (00) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

One day, toward the end of 2017, Enes Kanter posed a question to a friend.

"When," he asked, "do you think I'll be free to go home?"

Kanter, 25, was born in Zurich but moved to Turkey as a boy. Turkey is where he grew up, where his friends and family live. It was and always will be his home, even if he's been living in the United States since 2010 and Turkey's current government considers him to be an enemy of the state. 

The friend looked at him, a bit miffed. "At least 10 years," he said. The response surprised Kanter. He thought maybe the friend misunderstood him. He pointed out that he wasn't talking about moving back to Turkey, instead just walking the country's streets. But the friend's answer remained the same. Kanter, he said, would not be welcome in Turkey as long as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president and a man fond of circumventing term limits, sat in his throne.

This wasn't the first time a confidant had reminded Kanter that his actions—namely, his decision to use social media and his NBA platform to criticize and taunt Turkey's authoritarian leader—carried consequences. But something about "10 years" struck Kanter in a way previous warnings had not.

"I didn't know it was going to be that," Kanter says. "But then I thought about it: If I know that I cannot ever go back to Turkey, that I can never see my family again, I'd still do what I'm doing right now."

It's a cold January afternoon, and Kanter is putting a bunch of fifth-graders through a basketball clinic. He has divided them into four layup lines—two on each end of the floor—and each team is racing to make 10 shots. Losers do pushups. After they finish, Kanter comes over and asks the winning team whether they're satisfied with the punishment, and, of course—these being middle school kids—they say they're not.

Kanter commands the losing teams to again hit the floor. 

Kanter is here—the gym inside P.S. 188 Kingsbury School in Bayside, Queens—because he tilted an election. Fine, he helped tilt an election. Apparently, his activism isn't limited to fighting ghoulish Turkish policies. In the fall, a 10-year-old student named Ihsan Yumak reached out to Kanter. The two had met over the summer at a basketball camp Kanter was running. They'd bonded over their shared Turkish heritage, and Yumak wanted to know if the 6'11" New York Knick could help him with his campaign for class president.

Kanter took a picture of himself holding a "Vote for Ihsan Yumak" paper, which Yumak plastered all over the school's walls. He also tried to sway Yumak's classmates with, well, a bribe: a promise, via video, to visit P.S. 188 if Yumak won, which of course he did—unlimited chocolate milk might be the only campaign pledge that can trump the prospect of meeting a Knicks player for middle schoolers. So despite that the team's plane landed in Dallas at 2 a.m. earlier that morning, he's spending a rare January off day teaching dozens of kids what part of the backboard to aim for during layups.

But there's a deeper reason behind Kanter's presence here, behind his steadfast support of a 10-year-old campaigning to be class president, and it's not just because Kanter is as giving with his time as any professional athlete. "For a little Turkish kid, trying to be president at a school here in America is important," he tells a small group of reporters present for the clinic.

It's about agency and the ability to witness a Turkish kid embracing a freedom that so many of Kanter's friends and family no longer have. As he expresses later during a private moment, "If you can change something powerful, you can change everything."

In June, Turkish officers raided the home of Kanter's father, Mehmet. They confiscated the family's computers and cellphones and punched holes in Mehmet's and his wife's passports. They then placed Mehmet, a university professor, under arrest and kept him locked up for five days.

Enes hasn't spoken to his father since.

"If they would see one message from me to him," he says, "they'd throw him in jail."

Why? It goes back to the night of July 15, when a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces tried seizing control of the country, a battle that left 290 people killed and thousands more injured. 

At 6:30 the following morning, Erdogan stood inside Istanbul's Ataturk Airport to declare the attempted coup thwarted. Later that day, he told the world who, in his view, was to blame for the previous night's bloodshed. 

"I call on the United States and President Barack Obama," Erdogan said while addressing a crowd outside his Istanbul home. "... Either arrest Fethullah Gulen or return him to Turkey." 

This is where Kanter comes in. Fethullah Gulen, who denied Erdogan's accusation, is a preacher and leader of a movement that Kanter (like hundreds of thousands of other Turks, if not more) has devoted his life to. The movement, according to its followers, preaches a more progressive Islam. Critics refer to him as a "wolf in sheep's clothing." In 1999, he was charged with plotting to overthrow the state after telling his supporters in a sermon to "move in the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers." He said his words were taken out of context, and he fled to the United States, where he still lives today.

Turkey, in the years since, has evolved into an authoritarian state, with Erdogan taking special aim at all individuals and institutions connected to Gulen. Over 64,000 Turkish citizens—including 319 journalists—have been arrested since the attempted coup, according to numbers from the website TurkeyPurge.com. Kanter knows these numbers, citing them from memory. He estimates that "like a thousand" of his friends and family members are in that group, "just for being in the movement, just because they're thought to be bad people because they don't think the same way Erdogan thinks." 

Kanter, never one for holding back, whether he's attacking Jared Dudley's weight or a head of state, has used his Twitter account and the microphone that comes along with an NBA career to repeatedly make this point. In return, he's received death threats. His dad was arrested. The broadcasting of his NBA games has even been blocked in Turkey.  

But the worst came in May. It was early in the morning, around 2:30, when Kanter was woken by a loud knock on his hotel door. He was in Indonesia, running a basketball clinic, when his manager received a tip that the country's secret service was looking for him. The Turkish authorities had told Indonesian officials that Kanter was a dangerous man.

The group threw their belongings into suitcases and caught the first flight they could out of the country. They touched down in Singapore early in the morning, grabbed another flight to Frankfurt, Germany, and another one to Bucharest, Romania, where they hoped to book one final flight back to the United States. There, though, they learned that Turkish officials had canceled Kanter's passport. He spent four hours detained in the airport while the U.S government worked on clearing his travel. 

A week later, after Kanter had safely returned to the U.S., The Daily Sabah, a Turkish newspaper that many experts view as a mouthpiece for the government, reported the Turkish government had issued an arrest warrant for Kanter. His crime: being a member of a terrorist organization.

He grew up around the Hizmet movement, but Kanter never envisioned himself becoming one its spokesmen. Basketball was always his priority, taking him from Turkey to the powerhouse program that is the University of Kentucky and, eventually, to the NBA. It wasn't until the end of his second year in the league (in 2013), when a dislocated left shoulder forced him to miss the season's final 10 games, that he was able to take a step back and contemplate how else he could contribute to the world around him.

"I was like, 'OK, I need to change my life a little bit,'" he says. "After that things just clicked."

He began praying more frequently and eating strictly halal. He also did his best to apply to his life what he believed to be Gulen's message and began holding basketball clinics around the world. Soon after, he was invited to meet Gulen at his compound in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. He visits every couple of weeks, even during the season, often asking Gulen for advice. Sometimes, Kanter says, Gulen asks him about the Knicks.

He still receives death threats, though not as many as he once did. But as he puts it: "They're still death threats, man. You never know." Sitting in the P.S. 188 gym, Yumak at his side and listening in, he laughs. He does this more than you'd expect a man who's wanted by an autocrat. This, of course, is one of his gifts. 

"I have no regrets," he says. "That's why I love New York. I'm trying to be the voice of all these innocent people and there's no bigger stage that I can have to say more stuff about Turkey to show people what's really going on there."

It's one of the reasons he'd love to remain with the Knicks. Kanter has an $18.6 million player option on his deal this summer, but his preference is to sign a long-term deal. He's enjoying one of the best seasons of his career (averaging 14.4 points and 10.7 rebounds in 26.1 minutes per game), and Knicks management loves what it has seen. But a lot can happen between now and the summer, and so Kanter knows all he can do is worry about the things in his control. 

He rises from a folding chair and strolls out of the gym and down the school's hallway, posing for about a dozen pictures before he can make it to the door. He doesn't mind, though, and the Yumak family, which is hosting Kanter for dinner, is in no rush. There's snow on the ground when the group finally exits, remnants from a storm earlier that week. Kanter, laughing, packs a snowball and takes aim at his young Turkish friend. 


Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here, and sign up for his newsletter here.