'In Turkey, Thousands Are Jailed for Their Views': This NBA Star Showed the World Who Erdogan Really Is

Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter tells Haaretz how he lives under constant threat for his long-distance fight for freedom in Turkey

Elad Zeevi
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Enes Kanter. 'Nike said they love you, they want to give you a contract, but because of the stuff that happened in Turkey, they’re scared.'
Enes Kanter. 'Nike said they love you, they want to give you a contract, but because of the stuff that happened in Turkey, they’re scared.'Credit: Michael Dwyer / AP
Elad Zeevi

For some people in the United States, the three letters FBI make their hair stand on end. For NBA center Enes Kanter, it’s an entry among his phone contacts.

“There are so many death threats on social media that I have to contact the FBI almost every week just to tell them ‘hey, I’m doing fine, don’t worry about it, guys,’ because they’re worried about my life," Kanter, the third pick in the 2011 NBA draft, told Haaretz in an interview.

“And wherever I go – supermarket, restaurants or mall – I have to let one of my teammates or friends know, so if something happens, they know where I’m at. It’s very tough," adds Kanter, who is 28.

“A couple times a week, I go downstairs, and outside my building there’s a police car waiting for me. If something happens, they’re there. It’s tough to live this way, but I know that what I’m doing is bigger than myself. There are so many people out there who are affected by this craziness, so I have to do this for them.”

The craziness he has been fighting for more than five years has a name and a face. It’s that of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Boston Celtics star, who was stripped of his Turkish citizenship in 2017, was already living in the United States when he started tweeting about the injustice in Turkey.

NBA player Enes Kanter posing in New York, January 16, 2019
Enes Kanter. 'Wherever I go – supermarket, restaurants or mall – I have to let one of my teammates or friends know.'Credit: Gabriela Bhaska / Reuters

“It all started back in 2013. There was a big corruption scandal in Turkey. Some congressmen that were close to Erdogan were involved in it. He started to put people in jail and to close media outlets because they were talking about that,” Kanter says.

“He started to shut down schools and universities, and I tweeted about it. Because I played in the NBA, it became viral – in the USA and Turkey. After that I started to pay more attention to what’s going on in my country.”

Kanter was already an NBA player, so people in his country started paying more attention to his online posts. The 6’10” center (208 centimeters), who became one of the most vocal supporters of Fethullah Gulen – the spiritual leader of a movement that opposes Erdogan – was branded an enemy of the state and is now paying a heavy price.

“My dad was a genetics professor and got fired,” Kanter says. “My sister went to medical school for six years and she still can’t find a job. My little brother, who plays basketball, literally got kicked off every team in Turkey because he has the same last name as me.”

Kanter last saw his family in 2015, on his last visit to Turkey. Since then, he has observed from afar how the people closest to him are forced to disown him, including a letter his father published in the newspaper Sabah. “We disown him and demand that he change his family name,” his father, Mehmet, wrote; the son says it felt like a stab in the heart.

“I remember going to practice that day. It was one of the most awkward days in my life,” Kanter says.

“But the Turkish government didn’t believe that. They sent police and raided the whole house. They took every electronic device away – phones, computers, laptops – because they wanted to see if I had contacted my family. Luckily, I didn’t have any contact with them, but they still took my dad to jail.”

Mehmet Kanter was in and out of prison for years, accused of being a member of a terrorist organization. Only two weeks ago was he finally exonerated and released from prison.

“Just because we put so much pressure from here in America on Turkey, they had to let him go,” Kanter says, adding that he’s pleased in part “because we literally fight the Turkish government every year.

“My dad was in and out of jail. I was so happy for him, but people text me ‘congratulations, now you can relax’…. I told all my friends: My fight isn’t over; it’s just getting started. My dad is only one person, and there are thousands who are still in jail. I have to fight for them.”

The shoes of Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter as he sits on the bench before the start of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks, Feb. 2020, in Boston.
The shoes of Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter as he sits on the bench before the start of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks, Feb. 2020, in Boston.Credit: Mary Schwalm / AP

Nike's cold feet

Kanter constantly must explain this last part. “Every time I talk to my teammates or have a conversation with my coaches, the first thing they tell me is, ‘Are you crazy? You’re an NBA player. Make your millions, keep your mouth shut and just live a happy life.’

“But they don’t understand that my story and my family is only one [example]. If you look at Turkey right now, there are thousands and thousands in jail. There are 17,000 innocent women in jail and 800 babies in jail right now waiting for help. If you see the reports, these women are being raped and tortured.

“Just because of their political views they are in jail. And because of COVID-19, they let rapists and murderers out of jail, but kept the judges and lawyers. If the virus spreads in jail, those people are going to die. That’s why we try to help those people as much as we can.”

Kanter himself is the occasional online troll; “it’s always fun to laugh a little at rivals or make people smile,” he says. In Turkey it’s no longer possible to access his Twitter account or read about his NBA exploits, unless it’s something negative. But when he has something to say he makes sure his followers know.

“There is no freedom of expression in Turkey today, but nowadays everybody is on social media,” he says. “They don’t really read newspapers anymore. Everybody goes to Twitter, Instagram. Because I have an ideal platform, I’m trying to spread good news and speak the truth.”

Kanter notes that his agent works for one of the biggest firms in the industry in the United States. “I told them, ‘How come I don’t have a shoe deal? Every player has a shoe deal or endorsement,’” Kanter says.

“My agent said this: ‘We’re talking with every shoe company. Recently we had a conversation with Nike; they said they love you, they want to give you a contract, but because of the stuff that happened in Turkey, they’re scared. They know that if they give you a contract, they’re going to go against a whole country, and the Turkish government may shut down every Nike store in Turkey.’”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking in Ankara, June 9, 2020.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking in Ankara, June 9, 2020.Credit: Adem Altan / AFP

Kanter isn’t the only athlete or former athlete who has paid a price for speaking out against the Turkish regime. He says that about twice a week he talks to his good friend Hakan Sukur, probably Turkey’s greatest soccer player ever, who has also spoken out against Erdogan.

“Just because of his political views they put his dad in jail. Right now, he has lost everything. He was a millionaire, and now he’s an Uber driver in California. He sold books on Amazon,” Kanter says. In January, Sukur told Germany’s Welt am Sonntag newspaper that “Erdogan took everything.”

“People know our story because I’m playing in the NBA and he was a very successful soccer player, but there are thousands of people who are in a much worse situation,” Kanter says.

“But don’t get me wrong, I love my country and the people. My problem is with the Erdogan regime. But, for example, take [former Turkish NBA player] Hedo Turkoglu. He was my friend, but because of what happened, he was in every newspaper and trashed my name. I know what I’m doing is right because I want freedom and democracy in my country.”

Celebrity pulpit

The quest for justice in Turkey has linked Kanter to the protests sweeping the United States over the past six weeks. The fact that so many celebrities have spoken up this time encourages him that change is possible.

“If you’re an athlete, rapper, actor, singer – you have a platform to use to bring good in this world. You need to use it to speak the truth. Because there are so many kids out there who idolize us, we should inspire them,” he says.

“I feel that, after what happened with George Floyd, you see more athletes, actors, singers – people who have platforms – speaking about what’s going on. It makes me so happy because I know what it’s like to fight for freedom and justice. This was one of the biggest reasons I went to the peaceful protest here in Boston, because I wanted to be with my city and ask for justice.”

Kanter still can’t leave the United States; he could be arrested by Interpol at Turkey's request if he left.

“Quarantine is not good … it’s been boring in the last three months. I literally gained around 8 kilograms [18 pounds], so I’m trying to lose that weight. My mom always told me, ‘Son, you better teach yourself how to cook, ‘cause you’re gonna need it someday,’” he says.

“Now I know what she meant. So I’m trying to teach myself how to cook, trying to make some sandwiches, do some grill. It’s been fun. I think my weight will come down slowly when we start playing basketball again. I’m excited about Orlando.”

Despite the coronavirus, the NBA season is due to resume in Orlando on July 30.

Enes Kanter playing with the Boston Celtics, who signed him in July 2019.
Enes Kanter playing with the Boston Celtics, who signed him in July 2019. Credit: Nick Wass / AP

“I’m very excited to come back to play; I think we all miss basketball and sports,” Kanter says. “I think the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver are doing an amazing job of making sure the players are safe. So I think Orlando is going to be fun. It’s a huge sacrifice for the players to play, because of COVID-19, but the NBA does an amazing job of taking care of everything.”

On Twitter recently, Kanter showed his half a million followers a clip of himself taking a coronavirus test.

“NBA players will need to do a COVID-19 test once every two days. It hurts, because they’re putting that long stick up your nose and it goes all the way to your brain, it’s like very painful, but I guess for keeping everybody safe we have to do this. I guess I’ll take it for the sake of playing basketball.”

The Celtics have stayed in touch via Zoom, with celebrities like Celtics legend Paul Pierce and actor/producer Mark Wahlberg giving motivational talks.

“It’s been good because you still want to feel that chemistry with your teammates. It’s been fun. I believe we can beat every team on every floor. We have really good players and I believe we have a really good chance to win an NBA championship,” Kanter says.

“But we just have to get in shape, go out there and play the game. The fans are what the NBA is all about. They’re always there for you. Without the fans it’s going to be very weird, but right now I think we’ll all take anything. We are literally just dying to go out there and play basketball.”

For Kanter, if everything works out, in a few years he’ll be ready for another kind of game. He recently confessed that after he hangs up his sneakers, he’ll try professional wrestling. Looking into the camera and making threats won’t be difficult after his stint playing with Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook. And he’s used to wrestling under the boards.

“Right now, I’m playing basketball, so I’ll take an NBA championship,” he says, meaning he’ll take that honor over a World Wrestling Entertainment trophy. “But after my career, I’m definitely trying to get that WWE championship.”

Enes Kanter, right, with then-NBA Commissioner David Stern after being selected by the Utah Jazz in the NBA draft, June 23, 2011.
Enes Kanter, right, with then-NBA Commissioner David Stern after being selected by the Utah Jazz in the NBA draft, June 23, 2011.Credit: Bill Kostroun / Associated Press

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