As far as the least likely NBA beef of the season goes, raise your hand if you had Enes Kanter and Hedo Turkoglu waging a war of words on opposite sides of the Turkish president’s authoritarian rule.
Days after Kanter declared he would not be traveling with the New York Knicks to London for his team’s game against the Washington Wizards on Jan. 17 because he fears Turkey president Recep Tayyip Erdogan will have him killed, Turkoglu — a retired NBA player turned senior adviser to Erdogan — described Kanter’s comments as little more than an attention-seeking “political smear campaign.”
Kanter informed reporters on Friday night of his intention to miss the game in London:
“I talked to the front office and they said I’m not going because of that freaking lunatic, the Turkish president. 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 so I’m just going to stay here, just practice. It’s pretty sad because it affects my career, my basketball. Because I want to be out there but just because of that one lunatic guy, that one maniac, I can’t go out there and do my job. It’s pretty sad.”
Asked to clarify, Kanter added, “They have a lot of spies there. I can be killed easily.”
A Knicks spokesman told multiple media outlets on Friday that Kanter would not be traveling to London because of “a visa issue” — something Turkoglu noted in his statement, which was posted in Turkish, German and English on Twitter — but the Knicks center took issue with that explanation:
This is my travel document:
It’s NOT a visa issue!!!
— Enes Kanter (@Enes_Kanter) January 7, 2019
Asked specifically about Turkoglu’s comments on Monday, Kanter told reporters, “It’s probably not him, it’s probably the president Erdogan making him say that, because if you look at his Twitter, it’s German, English and Turksih, so he put in three languages and he doesn’t even know German.
“Probably they’re making him do it. He’s kind of like their puppy dog.”
Enes Kanter responded today to Hedo Turkoglu accusing him of conducting a "political smear campaign" against Turkey. Kanter insisted that he is not traveling with the Knicks to London bc of safety concerns, not visa issues. Some of his comments from today to give more context: pic.twitter.com/r6COPrJd2H
— Mike Vorkunov (@MikeVorkunov) January 7, 2019
Kanter has long been a critic of Erdogan, publicly denouncing the Turkish president as “a dictator” and “the Hitler of our century,” among other sentiments. He has pledged support to Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric and political adversary to Erdogan under self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Kanter’s support for Gulen has elicited death threats, and his family disowned him two years ago as a result.
Erdogan has accused Gulen of ordering a failed 2016 coup attempt. Some political opponents believe Erdogan “allowed the coup to unfold, or even encouraged it, in order to justify the subsequent crackdown,” according to The New York Times, and Kanter has gone so far as to accuse Erdogan of orchestrating the coup. They point to Erdogan’s rise to what The New York Times called “an almost untrammeled grip on power” in Turkey, where the president has ordered the detainment of tens of thousands of political adversaries and Gulen supporters, calling for the return of the death penalty.
This all came to a head in May 2017, when Kanter’s Turkish passport was canceled and he was detained in a Romanian airport before U.S. government officials intervened. Kanter had just fled Indonesia under the cover of night, fearful that Erdogan had sent spies to a charity basketball event.
I'm being held at Romanian airport by Police!! pic.twitter.com/uYZMBqKx54
— Enes Kanter (@Enes_Kanter) May 20, 2017
A week later, the Turkish government issued a warrant for Kanter’s arrest, calling him a “fugitive” who belongs to “an armed terrorist organization.” And by December 2017, Turkey was seeking a four-year prison sentence for the 26-year-old NBA veteran because of comments critical towards Erdogan on Twitter. To which Kanter responded in Turkish on his social media account of choice: “You can’t catch me. Don’t waste your breath. I will come on my own will anyway, to spit on your ugly, hateful faces.”
Equally concerning as Kanter’s fear for his life is Turkoglu’s proximity to Erdogan.
We might ask Turkoglu, if Kanter is merely “trying to get the limelight with irrational justifications and political remarks,” why then has the Turkish government issued a warrant for Kanter’s arrest over a Twitter post and sentenced his father to 15 years in jail for phone calls he made to Gulen supporters?
As for what Turkoglu called Kanter’s “efforts to attribute importance to himself by covering up the contradictions in his sports career,” the biggest contradiction I can see here is that the Turkish Basketball Federation — for which Turkoglu serves as president — left Kanter off the roster in 2015, despite his status as the country’s most successful active NBA player. It was around that time that Kanter began expressing his political views more publicly, which seems like a pretty big coincidence.
On the one hand, you have an NBA player whose life has been threatened, who has been detained, whose father has been jailed and who seems to fear the Turkish government will take his life. And on the other hand, you have an NBA player who made unfounded accusations in a Twitter message that reads like you might expect from a member of a government accused of human rights violations.
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