Turkey's Most Wanted Men: The President, The Player & Turkey's Future
The thing about sports is that you never truly know how it’ll all shake out. Often though, the writing is on the wall.
In 1972, the son of a Turkish Coast Guard Captain was beginning his second season with the semi-pro soccer team Camialti. The young man possessed a hard-nosed instinct for the ball and a mental tenacity which allowed him to hold court with men more talented than himself. Soccer wasn’t the man’s only passion. He also volunteered politically, rallying others to his beliefs in a future lead by the guiding principles of his religion. As his days of soccer ahead started to dwindle, he put the same energy and focus he showed on the pitch into the political theatre. Tayyip Erdogan would go to found his own political party, become the mayor of Istanbul and eventually rise all the way to the presidency.
In 1992, a baby boy was handed to a Turkish medical student and his wife living in Switzerland. They soon moved back to Turkey where their son, like all sons, would grow.
But this one kept growing and would continue to grow. As his stature soared, he found a passion which fit his hard-nosed mentality. The boy fell in love with basketball. He would turn down contracts to play pro ball in Greece and his native Turkey. He instead moved to the United States for high school. After graduating, the young man committed to the University of Kentucky, but the NCAA ruled that his payment for a handful of senior levels games while playing as a literal child in Turkey was enough to rob him of his hallowed amateur status. The NCAA declared him permanently ineligible. This stumble did nothing to stop the young man’s dreams. In 2011, Enes Kanter was drafted 3rd overall by the Utah Jazz. He would play for the team until being traded during the 2014-15 season.
In 2016, the Oklahoma City Thunder was one of the best teams in basketball. Enes Kanter spent his first full season with the team putting up several career highs and helping the Thunder advance to the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder clashed furiously with the Golden State Warriors and the series went a full seven games. OKC would lose in a heart breaker, ending their championship dreams. The Cleveland Cavaliers would end up winning the NBA Finals, shocking a Warriors team which came into the Finals as heavy favorites. Cleveland held their first major championship parade in 50 years on June 22nd as the Enes Kanter & the Thunder could only watch & think about what might have been if not for their late Game 7 defeat. Twenty-two days later a military coup would take place in Kanter’s homeland.
The nation of Turkey has been led by Tayyip Erdogan since 2014. And since 2014, Turkey has slowly slid from democracy as Erdogan’s ruling party has chipped away at the secular nature of Turkey’s government while embracing religiously motivated rule. Erdogan had a strong base of support but many in Turkey could see where the path he was blazing would lead. Since 1970, there had been four successful coup attempts in the country, deposing leaders who exploited their power for the good of their own interests over the interests of a secular Turkey. After each attempt, the country was eventually handed back to the people, and democracy would be given another chance in the gateway to the east. In 2016, factions of the military tried to reset democracy for the fifth time. Erdogan, with the help of an iPhone and his base, which took to the streets at his beckoning, was able to hold onto power. Since then, the erosion of democratic security has only accelerated.
As President Erdogan started to look inward at the network which facilitated the coup attempt, he publicly focused the blame on Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic scholar and open adversary of Erdogan’s policies who lives in Pennsylvania. The Turkish government accused Gulen of inciting the coup attempt and even went as far as asking the United States government to allow him to extradited by Turkey so he could stand trial. The events of 2016 were the final straw for the Erdogan administration. They would now do everything within their reach to keep a stranglehold on the country. The ensuing purge for the government was as swift and shocking as the coup attempt had been. The only difference was it was successful.
In the year following the failed coup, over 110,000 people were detained by law enforcement, with nearly 50,000 of those people being formally arrested on suspicion of involvement. It is widely believed thousands of these people were ripped from their families not on account of being traitors but of being opposing voters and party members.
Nearly 10,000 police officers were arrested. Over 2,500 judges and prosecutors, the backbone to anything resembling a fair and functional judicial system, were arrested. Around the same number of journalists were arrested and nearly 200 media outlets were forced to shut down. This crackdown seemed to be the final straw for Kanter, a longtime Erdogan critic, who would no longer sit on the sidelines while his country descended into chaos.
In March of that year, Kanter spoke out on social media about the government’s response after 36 people died drawing the ire of the government. Then the coup attempt came. Kanter continued to speak out harshly against the Erdogan government, comparing Erdogan to Hitler multiple times. Kanter also publically supported the alleged mastermind of the plot, Gulen, a man Kanter had counted as a personal mentor and father figure during his years in America. Being one of the biggest names in Turkish sports with millions of social media followers across the globe, Kanter’s disdain for the Erdogan didn’t sit well with an administration which had nearly been thrown in the trash heap of history. In the Turkish government’s view, Kanter was beginning to become a problem. And just as they did with the aftermath of the coup, Turkey dealt with it unsparingly.
Pressure started to build up against Kanter’s family. His father lost his teaching job, his mother could not leave the house due to the threats and public abuse flung at her. In the meantime, Kanter stayed away from Turkey. He wouldn’t even call home, for fear of their family’s phone line being tapped. He didn’t want to get them into any more trouble than they were in. In 2017 Mehmet Kanter, Enes’ father would be arrested and jailed for a week. He would also publicly rebuke his son’s stances on the Turkish government.
In that same year, Turkey would revoke Enes Kanter’s passport. Kanter was Indonesia at the time, working with a basketball camp. His manager knocked on his door to tell him Turkey had labeled him as “dangerous” and the Indonesian authorities were looking for him. They immediately left the country and flew to Singapore. From there Kanter flew to Romania. It was during his flight that Turkey officially revoked his password, stranding him in a Romanian airport. While Kanter was guarded by two police officers, the US State Department and NBSPA negotiated with the Romanian government to have Kanter continue to travel west towards safety instead of south, towards jail. Several hours later, Kanter landed in London instead of Istanbul.
Since then barely a day goes by without Kanter receiving a death threat. International travel outside North America is a non starter. Kanter missed a regular-season NBA game with the Knicks in 2018 in London, citing security concerns. In January, it was reported by a Turkish news outlet (one of the ones not dissolved for “bias”) that an international arrest warrant had been put out for Kanter. The 6’11’’ Center was accused of being part of a terrorist organization. As luck would have it, Kanter was later traded to the Portland Trailblazers who happened to have their own London game scheduled. He did not travel with the team due to the risk the arrest threat posed.
Enes Kanter now finds himself again on the losing end of the Western Conference Finals. The odds were never in Portland’s favor. The team was swept by a Golden State Warriors team who had waltzed through the Western Conference playoffs. If they would have advanced, Portland would have squared off against the Toronto Raptors in the NBA finals. During the Golden State series, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden was working with the Canadian Prime Minister to ensure that Kanter would have been allowed to travel to Canada safely to participate in what would have been the biggest moment of his professional career. The international diplomacy was for naught, however. Kanter again watched someone else’s parade and wondered what if.
Tayyip Erdogan now finds himself as the president of a nation in turmoil. Turkey has had recent clashes with Kurds in neighboring Syria and Iraq. Their relationship with America and Europe grows more erratic by the day. The odds aren’t in democracy’s favor. A new round of elections was recently held. On March 31st, the opposition party was able to narrowly win the mayoral office in Istanbul, Erdogan’s former haunt. The victory was disputed personally by the President and on May 6th, Turkey’s electoral board canceled the outcome of the election. A run-off election was scheduled for the summer. On June 25th, the opposition won the run-off. It was now time for Erdogan to watch and wonder what if.