The Trials of NBA Star Enes Kanter, Erdogan’s Public Enemy No. 1: ‘I Got No Country’
He’s been branded a “terrorist” in his homeland and his father is awaiting trial on trumped-up charges, but the Turkish New York Knicks’ center refuses to keep quiet.
Two weeks ago, Enes Kanter, the Turkish-born New York Knicks center and a fierce critic of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, learned his father, Mehmet, had been indicted. He was charged with being a member of a terrorist group and is facing a recommended five- to ten-year prison sentence. The news was devastating for Kanter, but just because the state-controlled media in Turkey reported the story, it didn’t mean it was necessarily true.
As has been the case for the past three years, confirming what was happening to his father required a series of back-channel communiqués to Kanter’s various sources, all of which needed to be clouded in secrecy and a certain amount of tradecraft to ensure no digital fingerprints were left behind. Turkish authorities still have his family under surveillance and so any evidence of contact—direct or otherwise—with those still residing in Turkey could prove calamitous. Even an anodyne text message asking his mother “Are you okay?” could be used as evidence against his father in the upcoming trial, which is set to begin in less than two weeks, The Daily Beast can exclusively report.
The date was picked for a reason. July 15 marks the two-year anniversary of the failed military coup d’état, which made Kanter—a devout supporter of the exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen and one of Erdoğan’s most vocal, well-known critics—an enemy of the state. According to Kanter, to commemorate the occasion, Erdoğan is flexing his muscles and boasting, “Hey look, I’m putting an NBA player’s dad in jail.”
The charges are trumped up, the latest in an ongoing campaign by the government to retaliate, threaten, and ultimately silence him, Kanter says. In 2017, Kanter too was charged with “being a member of a terrorist organization,” all because he dared to tweet criticisms of Erdoğan’s repressive regime. (On multiple occasions, Kanter has compared Erdoğan to Adolf Hitler, both online and off. Given the brutal purges enacted in the aftermath of the failed coup, the roundup and arrests of hundreds of thousands of citizens, the seizure of private businesses totaling billions in net worth, and the arrests of scores of journalists, it’s difficult to see how he’s violating Godwin’s law.)
On Sunday, Kanter had just gotten back to New York from Atlanta where he was hosting a leg of his annual basketball camp. But whatever amount of travel fatigue and attendant worries might be sapping his energy, none of it shows.
And as long as he remains beyond the clutches of the regime, nothing is going to stop him from speaking out. At times, his fellow Knicks have asked why he continues to make himself such a high-profile target. His answer: the platform provided by his fame makes speaking out a responsibility, one he can’t possibly shirk. “I’m just trying to be a voice for all these innocent people [in Turkey],” he says.
Still, he knows that should he ever be returned to his homeland, like Mehmet, he’d be locked away, subject to possible torture.
“It’s over,” says Kanter. “You won’t hear from me ever again.”
For the last three years, Kanter has spent his summers residing in a colossal glass and steel luxury apartment megalopolis way over on the West Side of Manhattan. The building is stacked with every amenity a resident might require: a full basketball court, state-of-the-art gym, hot tub, steam room and a stylish outdoor pool, which as we speak, is hosting some kind of low-key shindig. On Sunday, we hunker down in the lounge next to a juice bar. Kanter folds his 6-foot-11 frame into a low plush gray leather chair, threatening to overwhelm it. We’re close enough to the fun times being had poolside that whenever one of the doors open, a blast of New York City’s sticky summer humidity cuts through the air conditioning like a hot knife, along with a pounding electronic beat.
Kanter is casually scrolling through his phone, checking how many death threats he might have received. They’ve been a near-constant presence in his life, largely sent via Instagram and Twitter, and arriving three to four times per week. He used to save screenshots of the threats, but eventually he realized it wasn’t worth the effort. Today, no new ones are to be found.
“Oh well,” he says with a shrug and a smile. “That’s a good thing.”
There’s a goofy sense of affability and puppy-dog eagerness to Kanter that almost never entirely fades away, even when he’s laying out the latest bewildering and terrifying episode in the literal Kafkaesque nightmare unfolding for his family. For example, though a lawyer has been hired on his father’s behalf, in some instances, especially when it comes to prominent cases, the attorney may only consult with the defendant but not actually aid in his defense. Often, a verdict is handed down regardless of whether or not the accused is even physically present in the courthouse.
You get the sense that unless he was face-to-face with a vengeful dictator, Kanter would squint and find a way to see a potential friend. He even manages to offer some nice words about James Dolan, the Knicks’ much-reviled owner and million-dollar Trump donor: “He’s a cool guy!” Kanter says.
Mention Erdoğan, though, and he leans forward and turns deadly serious. Kanter is able to rattle off statistics about the number of mothers and young children currently incarcerated and gawks in astonishment that Erdoğan allegedly sicced his private security guards on a group of nonviolent American demonstrators in our nation’s capital.
“Think about what [Erdoğan] did in Washington, in front of the whole world’s eyes,” Kanter says of an attack that sent nine individuals to the hospital. Most of the charges were dropped, possibly thanks to a nudge from the U.S. State Department. Now, “think about what he’s doing behind the curtains, in the jails, to all these innocent people.”
But when it comes to recounting the ample history of his own maddening battles with the regime, Kanter returns to his standard breezy patter. Like Stations of the Cross, he can recite them with ease. His troubles began in 2015, when he was surprisingly omitted from the roster of Turkey’s national team. Per Turkish media reports, his head coach cited a failure by Kanter to apologize for unnamed “past incidents” as the reason for his exclusion, and not his political beliefs. Given that Kanter had already made repeated trips to Gülen’s residence in Pennsylvania, the explanation defied the bounds of credulity. (Kanter continues to visit Gülen to this day, once every two to three weeks, and at one point he went with “Enes Gülen” as his Twitter handle.)
Following the failed 2016 coup, government officials tightened the screws. While traveling and doing work on behalf of his charitable foundation, Kanter had to flee imminent arrest in Indonesia, only to find himself held captive in Romania after his passport was rendered invalid by Turkish officials, stranding him in the Bucharest airport.
There was a non-zero chance that he’d be returned to Turkey, but Kanter took the opportunity to live-stream his predicament, posting a video to Twitter and squeezing in time to snap a gag selfie with his captors:
The U.S. State Department and the NBA worked feverishly to secure his release, getting him on a flight to London before finally returning to New York within 24 hours. Within a week, a warrant was issued, charging him with membership in a terrorist group. When he was informed of his potential sentence, he scoffed, “That’s it? Only four years? All the trash I’ve been talking?”
Shortly thereafter, Mehmet, a former university professor who had been expelled from public service, was arrested on the same set of charges as his son, though he was released five days later. Conversely, Kanter’s father has also been dragooned into serving as a mouthpiece for the regime. Similar to the public recitations of guilt at the height of the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China, Mehmet disowned Kanter in 2016, issuing a public apology for his very existence and claiming that Kanter had been “hypnotized” by Gülen. Kanter knows his father had no choice but to read the script he was given.
Last weekend, Erdoğan was re-elected to an additional five-year term, though the relatively narrow margin of victory didn’t dispel the notion that he placed a finger on the scales, or that the vote reflected the actual will of the people. Even if tainted, it locks in the near-unchecked authority bestowed upon Erdoğan by an April referendum that reworked the Turkish constitution. While Kanter hopes that a democratic solution eventually arrives and along with it a restoration of civil rights, Erdoğan’s stranglehold on the media gives him pause. “If you can control the media, you can control everything,” he says.
Speaking of media control, that too has been leveraged into a kind of retaliation—if a far more petty and trivial one. When Kanter was with the Oklahoma City Thunder from 2015 to 2017, their games were blacked out throughout Turkey. It remains intact now that he’s playing for the Knicks. “People were really pissed in Turkey,” says Kanter. “They were like, ‘Oh, we’re not going to watch Westbrook because of Enes?’”
On Friday, Kanter announced he would be returning to New York next season, opting in to the final year of his $18.6 million contract. Though reports surfaced saying he’d made his decision early that morning, Kanter continued to play it coy for a few hours, before posting some groaning, corny memes confirming what everyone already knew. They also could have been read like an attempt to straddle the political divide.
Or not. Asked what message, if any, he wanted to convey by standing behind a podium with a Photoshopped “Kanter Make Knicks Great Again” sign, followed hard upon by a video of him standing with the Clintons, Kanter said none existed. He’d met the Clintons at a Clinton Global Foundation event and was waiting for the right moment to share the clip. Which, of course. Prior to those tweets, he straight-up trolled all the fans and reporters who’d spent the previous week tugging at his sleeve about his contract.
Here’s how he dealt with that minor inconvenience: Late Thursday night, Kanter was riding in an Uber when he decided to throw up a deer emoji on Twitter, alluding to the rumors that the Milwaukee Bucks would be willing to offer him a multi-year contract if he did opt out. He deleted the tweet shortly thereafter, but not before it set off a minor frenzy. Kanter was pleased with the results of his handiwork. “My thing is, man, you only live once. You gotta have fun,” he says. “You can’t make everybody happy.”
More than anything, what Kanter misses most about home is his mom’s cooking. Despite the ample fine dining options available in New York, he just wants to tuck into a simple stew she prepares that is served with rice. “You can never beat your mom’s food,” he says tilting his head back, and, of course, grinning. Up until age 17, he was living at home, his mom still making his bed and cooking all his meals. “She was my everything.”
But again, picking a restaurant is often not a simple matter for Kanter. As he previously told The New Yorker, Kanter makes sure to get a scouting report from his friends beforehand, so as not to accidentally stroll into a pro-Erdoğan dining room. “They will love me or they will hate me,” he says. “They will either say, ‘Oh the whole food is free. Go ahead. Eat whatever you want!’ or they just say, ‘Get out.’”
As we get set to leave, Trump finally comes up. Kanter has two to three years left on his current green card, and then will begin working to obtain U.S. citizenship, anti-immigrant bent of the current administration notwithstanding.
“It’s a very strange time,” he says, and then, chuckling, “I don’t know if I want to be an American or not, but I got no country.”
That said, there is one tiny, positive aspect to America’s immigration policies, if a deeply cynical one: “Now Americans can understand me better,” when he talks about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Turkey.
“Before they were like, ‘Oo cool. Everything! The freedom! America! Now they’re putting babies in the jail.”