Kanter caught up in Turkish struggle
It's a hectic time for Enes Kanter, and only a portion of that has to do with his duties as backup center with the Trail Blazers.
The Turkish native's battle with his country's government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has amped up into a story that has caught the attention of media, politicians and citizens around the globe.
Two years ago, Kanter — then playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder — referred to Erdogan as a "freaking lunatic" and the "Hitler of our century." At the time, Kanter was a legal Turkish citizen. Shortly thereafter, Turkey's government canceled his passport and charged him with crimes related to alleged involvement in an "armed terrorist organization."
Since then, as Turkey has attempted to bring him home to face charges, life has been a swirl of emotions for Kanter, who has done a stockpile of interviews with national print and electronic reporters following the story.
On Sunday, ESPN's "E:60" TV show featured Kanter's plight, with reporter Jeremy Schaap flying to Turkey and interviewing Erdogan accomplice Hedo Turkoglu, a former NBA player, on the subject.
On Tuesday, in an address on the Senate floor carried live by C-SPAN, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to tell his Turkish counterparts their attempts at retribution against Kanter are unacceptable for a U.S. ally.
"Nobody should have to go to bed at night worrying about one of these totalitarians, or the government caving in to the autocrats," Wyden told the Portland Tribune moments after the speech.
In an interview with the Tribune prior to the Blazers' 122-110 win at New Orleans Friday night, Kanter said things will just be that way for a while, and he's not backing away from the turmoil.
"It's not about me," he said. "It's about a lot of people in Turkey who are oppressed by Erdogan. I have to continue speaking out on the behalf of people who don't have a voice, who have no human rights in their own country."
The 6-11 Kanter, in his eighth NBA season, came to Portland in February after being waived by New York, which was in rebuilding (and tanking for the draft) mode.
Kanter, 26, was born in Switzerland to Turkish parents, Mehmet and Gulsum Kanter, but spent most of his formative years in Turkey. Mehmet is a genetics professor in Istanbul. Enes is the oldest of four children, with brothers Kerem and Ahmad and sister Betul. Karem, 23, played collegiately at Wisconsin-Green Bay and is currently playing pro ball in Lithuania. Ahmad is playing high school ball in Atlanta. Betul is with her parents in Turkey.
Enes last saw his parents in 2015. He last spoke with his father by telephone in 2016 before a failed coup attempt of the Turkish government that resulted in much bloodshed. More than 300 people were killed and more than 2,100 injured.
"Erdogan unleashed a massive surge, firing more than 100,000 public-sector workers and imprisoning more than 50,000 people," Kanter wrote in a January op-ed article in the Washington Post. "These people are not criminals. They include judges, academics and journalists. Erdogan thinks free speech is dangerous, and he accuses critics of being terrorists.
"Anyone who speaks out against him is a target. I am definitely a target. And Erdogan wants me back in Turkey, where he can silence me."
Shortly after Kanter made the "lunatic" and "Hitler" remarks, he was detained overseas when Turkey canceled his passport and issued a warrant for his arrest. The Turkish government raided his parents' house in Istanbul, looking for evidence in cell phones, computers or other means of communication with Enes. Since then, Enes has been careful not to communicate with them.
"Too dangerous for them," he says. "If I were in contact, they'd put them in jail."
Kanter's father subsequently issued a handwritten letter to the Turkish media denouncing his son, something Enes believes he was forced to do.
Enes has been accused of using "ByLock," an encrypted messaging app, to organize what Turkish authorities termed treasonous and seditious acts. He supports cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom he considers a mentor. Gulen was once a respected figure in Turkey but has been living in exile in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, since 1999. The U.S. has rejected Turkey's requests to extradite him.
Erdogan has accused Gulen of organizing the failed coup attempt in 2016. Kanter, who was visiting Gulen at his home on the night of the uprising, says there is no truth to it.
The Turkish government demanded INTERPOL — the International Criminal Police Organization, which facilitates worldwide police cooperation — issue a "red notice" for Kanter, meaning he would be subject to arrest outside the U.S. He is protected in this country by his possession of a "green card," which makes him a permanent U.S. resident, though not a citizen.
Kanter chose not to accompany the Knicks to London in January and skipped the Blazers' game in Toronto on March 1 for fear of apprehension.
Enes says his father was recently jailed for seven days for no other reason than Enes is his son. The senior Kanter was scheduled to go to trial on Thursday — one report was that he was facing up to 15 years in prison — but it got postponed for the second time.
"The next trial is two, three months down the road," Enes tells the Tribune. "They know they have nothing to charge him with. He didn't do anything wrong. He's just my dad.
"If you are going to trial in Turkey, you cannot leave the country or get a passport. So he won't be able to leave the country until then. If he doesn't leave, my mom and sister won't leave, either. And (government officials) don't want them to leave."
Does the family want to leave Turkey?
"The government knows he is innocent," Enes says. "If they don't put him in jail, why would they want to stay in the country like that?"
Turkoglu, 39, played 15 seasons in the NBA from 2001-15 for six teams. Ironically, he nearly became a Blazer. In the summer of 2009, Turkoglu agreed in principle to a free-agent contract with Portland. Then he changed his mind, opting to sign a five-year, $53 million contract with Toronto — about $3 million more than his deal with the Blazers was worth.
"He simply decided Toronto was a better fit," said his agent, Lon Babby. Word was that his wife liked Toronto better because it was more of a cosmopolitan city.
Turkoglu and Kanter — then only 18 — were members of the 2011 Turkey national team. Asked if Turkoglu was then a hero of his, Kanter says, "Of course he was. He was one of the best players in Turkey. As a young player, he was one of the guys I looked up to. We were friends. It's crazy the way it has turned out."
After his retirement, Turkoglu returned to Turkey and now serves as a senior advisor to Erdogan as well as head of the Turkish Basketball Federation. He and Kanter are no longer friendly. In January, Enes called Turkoglu a "lap dog" for Erdogan.
Turkoglu has called Gulen the ringleader of a terrorist organization and said Kanter was conducting a "political smear campaign" on the Erdogan regime. To Schaap, he said Kanter has been "openly supporting a terrorist leader."
"It's just sad, because he looked like he didn't want to do that (interview)," Kanter says now. "I felt like somebody pushed him to do it. He said the same things he had said in all the conversations on the situation. It's like a broken record. It's clear he doesn't have a lot of knowledge about it."
But Kanter felt the "E:60" show served a purpose.
"(ESPN employees) had been able to hear one side of the story," he says. "They went all the way to Turkey and listened to the other side of the story. I'm glad they talked with the people over there and got Hedo (on video). It showed I have nothing to hide."
Wyden played two seasons of basketball at UC Santa Barbara, and he represents the state in which Kanter now plays his basketball. But those two "hooks" aren't the reasons why Oregon's senior senator took up for the Blazers center.
"I'm on the (Senate) intelligence committee," Wyden says. "I have long felt that right at the center of American values is taking on these authoritarians.
"Here we have an outstanding young man, a real role model. (Kanter) has one of the world's all-time authoritarians trying to silence him and trotting out that he's a terrorist. They offer no proof."
On the Senate floor, Wyden told his colleagues Kanter is "facing danger. His family is now facing those same dangers."
"President Erdogan has labeled Enes a terrorist," Wyden said. "Erdogan and his cronies are too thin-skinned to tolerate Enes Kanter's eloquence and inspirational dissent. ... Following strategies right out of the dictator's playbook, Erdogan has responded like a coward to Mr. Kanter's criticism, trying to silence him by threatening his family. ... For the crime of voicing his opinion on the future of Turkey, a nation that is supposedly an American ally, he is labeled a terrorist. Now, without being able to contact them, Enes has to live in constant fear of what is going to happen to his loved ones back home.
"Mr. Erdogan, the world is watching how you treat Enes Kanter's father this week and in the weeks ahead. And how you treat Mr. Kanter, both when he is on American soil and when Enes travels abroad. The U.S. cannot and must not stand idly by while Enes and his family are subjects to this autocratic torment."
Wyden says he felt urgency in addressing the Senate because of the impending trial of Kanter's father.
"Especially after Enes said he was worried about his dad, I wanted to send a message on C-SPAN, which gets picked up practically everywhere in the world," Wyden says.
Wyden had tweeted support of Kanter's case a week earlier, and Kanter immediately sent thanks via Instagram. The two were expected to meet for the first time Monday when Wyden brought his son, William, to the Blazers' game against Indiana at Moda Center.
"I want to be able to show my son that this is part of what we do," Wyden said last week. "America is all about freedom and not stifling somebody's speech."
Wyden has been heavily involved in pursuing answers from Turkey about the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamil Khashoggi in October at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.
"We're still trying to get a decent explanation of what knowledge their administration has about the death of Mr. Khashoggi," Wyden says, adding, "what I've tried to prove during my time (in politics) is that political change comes from the bottom up. The more grassroots pressure we can generate, the more likelihood there is that we can keep freedom in a strong position."
Kanter says he isn't sure he can find the words in English to describe his feeling for Wyden's support.
"I was so happy he first said something about it on Twitter," Kanter says. "When he went to the Senate to talk about the issues — I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. It feels amazing to see the senator state your case and talk about democracy, the freedom of expression and the abuse of civil rights. Makes me feel I am part of something, like I have a family in Oregon now."
Kanter is currently a man without a country, though. He will be eligible in 2021 for U.S. citizenship after a five-year waiting period. For now, he is a target for death threats for Erdogan advocates.
"I get them probably once every two days," Kanter says. "They don't know my phone number. The only way is social media. I even reached out to FBI through my manager. We've talked with them about the death threats. But it was getting to be so many, they can't investigate them all."
Does Kanter worry about his safety while in the U.S.?
"Yes, I do," he says. "I even told the Blazers I worry about it. I don't think (the Turkish government is) going to do an assassination, but you never know. Maybe a crazy supporter, a lone wolf, could do anything."
When Kanter is with the Blazers, the team's security looks out for him. Elsewhere, he has special help.
"Wherever I go, whether it's grocery shopping at the supermarket or to dinner, I always have someone with me," he says. "During the offseason, I will always have someone around me."
Kanter intends to pursue a meeting with President Donald Trump over the Turkey situation.
"We're too busy right now with the team," he says, "but this summer, I'm going to try to get together with him."
In an important way, the Blazers are Kanter's escape from reality.
"If I bring any of this conversation to the court, it would be very selfish to me," he says. "I'm trying not to be a distraction. Every time I'm on the court, it's about me, my coaches, my teammates and the game of basketball. The games are my time to relax and go out there and play well and do something I love.
"But as soon as I leave the arena, all the things start coming back to me."