Center Enes Kanter recently informed the New York Knicks he will not be traveling with the team to London later this month to take on the Washington Wizards, and that his reasoning has nothing to do with injury or illness or an unwillingness to play.
Kanter, who spent much of his childhood in Turkey and whose parents are Turkish, is afraid that if he is in London for the regular season game, he could be killed by agents of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Sadly, I’m not going because of that freaking lunatic, the Turkish president,” Kanter told reporters in a locker room interview Friday night that went into much more than the 16 points and 15 rebounds he had posted in the Knicks’ win over the Los Angeles Lakers. “There’s a chance that I can get killed out there. So that’s why I talked to the front office. I’m not going.”
“It’s pretty sad that just all this stuff affects my career and basketball, because I want to be out there helping my team win. But just because of that one lunatic guy, one maniac or dictator, I can’t even go out there and just do my job. So it’s pretty sad.”
A reporter asked if Kanter really believes a trip to London would be life-threatening.
“Oh yeah, easy,” he replied. “They’ve got a lot of spies there. I can get killed very easy. That will be a very ugly situation.”
The Knicks’ official stance is that Kanter can’t travel because of a “visa issue,” according to ESPN.
Former NBA player Hedo Turkoglu on Monday pushed back against Kanter’s claims, saying 'we all know that he has not been able to travel to many countries due to visa issues since 2017."
“He is trying to get the limelight with irrational justifications and political remarks,” tweeted Turkoglu, who is a senior adviser to Erdogan.
Since he was drafted in 2011, the 6-foot-11 center has emerged as one of the loudest and tallest critics of Turkey’s president.
He has compared Erdogan to Hitler and expressed support for Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in the United States who has been blamed for a failed coup attempt in 2016.
Kanter says he believes the country has targeted his father because of the younger Kanter’s stance against the government, ESPN reported. He told reporters he receives several death threats a week. He avoids international travel, except for trips to Canada when the Knicks play the Toronto Raptors.
In May 2017, prosecutors in Turkey issued an arrest warrant accusing Kanter (he played for the Oklahoma City Thunder then) of being a member of “an armed terrorist organization,” according to AFP. Prosecutors claim he praised the organization on Twitter.
Kanter hit back at prosecutors on Twitter, sharing an image of an article about the arrest warrant and adding, in Turkish: “You cannot catch me. Hahaha. Don’t waste your energy. I am already going to come to [Turkey] to spit on all of your ugly, hate-filled faces.”
But he has also been sympathetic to the plight of other opponents of Erdogan who don’t have the benefit of his NBA salary or U.S. green card.
Following the overthrow attempt in 2016, as The Washington Post reported at the time, hundreds of Turks were killed, and thousands more were rounded up on suspicions of having links to the coup attempt. Kanter, among others, has alleged it was really a plot by Erdogan to enable him to strike at his political enemies and establish a more authoritarian rule over Turkey.
And Kanter believes Turkey’s government has come after him before on foreign soil.
In May 2017, he wrote in the Players Tribune about teaching a basketball camp in Indonesia when the Turkish government canceled his passport and tried to have him detained.
At 2:30 a.m. I woke up. Somebody was knocking on my door. It was my manager. He looked very serious.
“The police are looking for you,” he said. He had gotten a call from one of his local contacts. The Indonesian police had come to my basketball clinic earlier in the evening. Why? Because they received a call from the Turkish government saying I was “a dangerous man.”
Now they were looking for me. They wanted to “talk” to me.
If you’re from Turkey, you never think agents are just there to “talk.”
Minutes after the knock, Kanter and his manager were in a cab headed to the airport. They escaped on a 5:15 a.m. flight but were detained in Romania.
He was ultimately released with help from the Thunder, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and both of Oklahoma’s senators.
Back in the U.S., he held a news conference and later addressed the Turkish government’s claims that he was dangerous.
“I want you guys to think about what the Turkish government means when they say that I am a ‘dangerous’ man,” Kanter said in his essay. “I’ve never broken any laws. No speeding tickets, nothing. But I’m dangerous? Why?”
“I speak my mind about things that I believe in,” he wrote. “I always have. I share my thoughts on Twitter and Facebook about the terrible things that are being done to people in Turkey. I want the whole world to know about the human-rights abuses that are going on there.
“To the Erdogan government, this makes me a dangerous man.”