Fearing for his life, Turkish player skips NBA game in London

Kanter’s fears were understandable and his decision was supported by teammates and the NBA.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Turkish NBA player Enes Kanter watches his team, the New York Knicks, play the Washington Wizards at the O2 Arena in London on television, January 17. (Reuters)
Safe distance. Turkish NBA player Enes Kanter watches his team, the New York Knicks, play the Washington Wizards at the O2 Arena in London on television, January 17. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - Like many Turkish people, Enes Kanter has been sharply critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Unlike other critics, however, Kanter is an international basketball star who plays for the New York Knicks in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and assails Erdogan publicly.

Kanter’s criticism of Erdogan and his fear of retaliation led the 26-year-old to take the extraordinary step of skipping a team trip for a January 17 game in London where the Knicks played the Washington Wizards.

“I easily could be kidnapped or killed by Turkish agents,” Kanter wrote in a January 15 column in the Washington Post explaining why he avoided travelling outside the United States. “Erdogan’s arms are long. He hunts down anyone who opposes him.”

Kanter’s fears were understandable — the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office drafted an international arrest warrant and an extradition request for Kanter, the Istanbul newspaper Daily Sabah reported — and his decision was supported by teammates and the NBA.

Kanter has openly supported Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric and Erdogan opponent who lives in self-exile in the United States. Turkish prosecutors claim Kanter has funded the Gulenist terror group in Turkey that is blamed for the July 2016 attempted coup on Erdogan. Kanter denies such charges.

Kanter grew up in Turkey and played basketball there, including a stint on the Turkish national team in 2008 before moving to the United States in 2009 to attend school. He joined the NBA in 2011, playing for the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder. He was traded to the New York Knicks in September 2017 and is the team’s third-leading scorer and leading rebounder this season. He is the Knicks’ highest-paid player, collecting a reported $18.6 million this season.

Kanter began criticising Erdogan after the 2016 coup attempt, prompting the Turkish government to cancel his passport and issue an arrest warrant for him for his supposed membership in the Gulenist group. Kanter remains a Turkish citizen and does not have a US passport, which makes leaving the United States risky for him.

“I am definitely a target and Erdogan wants me back in Turkey where he can silence me,” Kanter wrote in the Post.

When Kanter was in Indonesia in 2017 running a children’s basketball camp, he was pursued by Indonesian police after the Turkish government told them he was dangerous, Kanter wrote.

“Erdogan is a strongman and I knew there would be a backlash for the things I’ve said about him and the Turkish government but I didn’t know it would be like this. I receive many death threats,” Kanter wrote.

Although some teammates said they don’t understand why Kanter is speaking out they support him, Kanter wrote.

When Turkish prosecutors said in 2017 that they planned to charge Kanter for criticising Erdogan and would seek a 4-year prison sentence, Kanter told a New York newspaper: “Four years? That’s it? For all the trash I’ve been talking?”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued a statement January 17 in support of Kanter. “These are significant issues that he is dealing with,” Silver said. “There’s nothing more important to me, as the commissioner of the league, [than] the safety and security of our players and so we take very seriously the threats that he has received.”

Kanter’s situation reflects the increasingly international nature of the NBA, the world’s premier basketball league. When the current season started in October, 108 of the league’s 450 players were born outside the United States, including six from Turkey. The NBA has players from 43 countries including Egypt, Israel, Mali and Tunisia.

The NBA has worked to broaden its international appeal and started having regular-season games overseas in 1990. The league’s games in London began 2011, selling out the 20,000-seat O2 Arena.

The game that Kanter skipped was riveting. The Washington Wizards overcome a huge deficit in the final minutes and beat the Knicks, 101-100.