Enes Kanter was in bed for just a couple hours when he was awoken by a knock on his hotel room door. "We have to leave right now," his manager, looking alarmed, said. It was May 2017 and Kanter was in Indonesia running a basketball camp for kids. But word had gotten to Kanter's manager that the country's secret service was searching for Kanter to send him back to Turkey, his native country, where the Knicks center would be forced to answer to charges of being a member of a terrorist organization.
Insulting Turkey's authoritarian regime.
Ten months earlier, a faction within Turkey's Armed Forces had attempted to wrestle control away from the country's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey's capital, Istanbul, and various surrounding cities were transformed into a war zone, with bullets littering the streets and fighter jets buzzing in the sky. The fighting left 290 dead and thousands more injured. It also handed Erdogan, who had spent years consolidating power, the opportunity to unleash the worst of his autocratic impulses.
In the nearly two years since, Erdogan's government has imprisoned more than 78,000 Turkish citizens—including hundreds of journalists, professors and members of the opposition party. Criticizing Erdogan has become a crime.
Kanter knows all this.
He knows the numbers—he estimates that "a thousand" of his family and friends have been detained, including his father, who in June, due to his association with Enes, spent five days in jail.
He knows he endangers himself every time he tweets an anti-Erdogan message—between trolly shots at LeBron—to his 470,000 Twitter followers.
He knows he endangers himself every time he uses the power of the New York media to throw a punch.
And it's because he knows all this that he refuses to submit.
Kanter made it out of Indonesia safe that morning, though not before being detained in a Bucharest airport after Turkish officials had canceled his passport. He's spent the last year attacking Erdogan (he's called him "the Hitler of our century"), using the voice that comes along with being the wise man in the middle at Madison Square Garden to fight for those who have been left without one.
He's far from the first athlete to become an advocate for human rights. But with all due respect to Colin Kaepernick, perhaps not since Muhammad Ali have we seen so prominent of a professional athlete risk his literal freedom for a cause: Turkish prosecutors have announced they are seeking four years of imprisonment for Kanter and that he will be tried absentia. In June, Enes learned that his father, Dr. Mehmet Kanter, had been sentenced to 15 years in prison by the Turkish government, an example, Enes believes, of Erdogan punching back.
Still, Kanter continues to fight. He continues to tweet the latest examples of democracy vanishing from his native land. He does this because he knows that some things in life are greater than basketball. He does this because he knows that freedom is always worth fighting for. He thinks that if a big man like himself doesn't fight the good fight, from down here in the trenches of Madison Square Garden to out there in the international town square of Twitter, then why would anyone else?
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