Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Kanter finds himself beset with scorn on two fronts: professionally, for being a Twitter savage of sorts, and politically, as a human rights advocate.
“Is this a dream? Is this really happening?”
Enes Kanter is a big man with a big mouth and a voice so loud that even quotations as short and simple as this one carry the weight of marble. Today, everyone’s a public figure living and dying by the tongue–and your audience is the microphone by proxy. That’s never been a problem for Kanter, though. If there’s one thing that we can take from all this, it’s that he’s not afraid of the attention. In fact, he’s here for it.
“Is this a dream? Is this really happening?”
In his own words, Kanter thought it was too good to be true. In late September of 2017, just before the beginning of NBA training camps, Enes Kanter was traded to the New York Knicks alongside Doug McDermott and a second-round pick. After a stint in both Utah and Oklahoma City, he admitted that playing for a large market team intrigued him. A swap with Carmelo Anthony was the perfect opportunity for Kanter to sate his curiosity since there’s no bigger market than the Big Apple. A trade might just be a couple of phone calls for a team executive, but for a player, it’s a painstaking process. There’s the initial shock, the patented “Thank You” note to the fans, and then of course the physical move. It would be a lot for anyone. However, for Kanter, the summer of 2017 was pivotal for more than one reason.
It began like a normal trip: Kanter, much like other NBA players, runs basketball clinics during the offseason. As an international player, it’s not out of the ordinary for him to reach out beyond the borders of the U.S., especially with the NBA expanding its reach. However, his philanthropic endeavor quickly turned sour. What started as a youth basketball camp quickly turned into an international thriller, beginning with a frantic escape from Indonesia, and ending with Kanter taking a picture with Romanian police on his birthday. But the fun ended there.
In Romania, Kanter learned about his international status—he had been branded a terrorist by the Turkish government and had his passport revoked. Over the course of a couple days, he’d gone from notable Turkish citizen to asylum seeker.
After his return to the U.S., and defiant statements aimed at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kanter shared another four word statement: “I got no country.”
Troublemaker. Loudmouth. Persona non grata.
Enes Kanter takes the cake when it comes to descriptors. Whether people care to hear him or not, he’s constantly voicing his opinion. Politics and sports were inseparable in the early 20th century, culminating in the simultaneous activism and celebrity of Muhammad Ali. However, the tail end of the millennium saw this tradition largely disappear. Given the current political climate, the powerful combination is back. The era of athletes voicing political opinions has been renewed by Colin Kaepernick, with professional basketball undergoing a political rebirth in its own rite.
Social media, combining with celebrity and activism, puts NBA players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul at the forefront domestically. But what does it mean for an international journeyman like Enes Kanter?
Although success mostly eluded the 2017–18 Knickerbockers, it never stopped the Turkish center from dominating. He began the season averaging a double-double and never looked back. He and Kristaps Porzingis weren’t perfect fits, especially under head coach Jeff Hornacek, but they still played the part of a formidable frontcourt in a weak Eastern Conference. Kanter’s 14 points and 10 rebounds on 59 percent shooting got the job done. Among NBA players appearing in at least 50 games last season, he ranked fourth in rebound percentage and first in field goal percentage among players that had at least 10 field-goal attempts per game. He has the defensive prowess of a street lamp, but boy is he efficient around the basket. Kanter was a refreshing departure from the ineffective players the Knicks had been stuck with for so long, and for reasons that extend beyond the statistics.
When rookie Frank Ntilikina faced up against LeBron James, Kanter vehemently defended the rookie guard. LeBron die-hards are in a league of their own when it comes to fanaticism in sports. They’d gladly lay down their life for him, so airing out a King James detractor as vocal as Kanter is their forte. As far I can tell, he didn’t even blush. With the exception of the strange feud with Lance Stephenson, few people have the guts to go at King James, but Stefan Bondy’s tweet during the conundrum sums up Kanter’s position perfectly: he’s a wanted man who publicly denounces the President of Turkey. Why would he be afraid of LeBron James?
Enes Kanter has cryptically claimed that if he were to return to Turkey he’d be censured with extreme prejudice. Although he hasn’t spoken to his family in nearly two years, they’ve been barred from leaving the country. Despite the adversity, he’s been an open book, publicly espousing his thoughts and feelings on social media.
Historically, speaking truth to power always comes at a cost. Kanter’s openness is reminiscent of Muhammad Ali’s protest of the U.S. government’s involvement in Vietnam. Muslim athletes in American sports have been a central part of activism since Ali’s rise to prominence, but Kanter is in a unique situation as a foreign national seeking refuge in the United States during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Juxtaposed with the 2017–18 NBA season was the judicial journey of several executive orders issued by Trump. Although Turkey was not on the list of countries that the Trump Administration’s “Muslim Ban” had selected to denigrate, the name alone is enough to remind people who the regime has targeted as its enemies. Turkey, the northern neighbor of Syria, automatically registers its citizens religion as Muslim, meaning the population is 99 percent Muslim, as estimated by the CIA. With that in mind, if the Trump administration chose to expand the Muslim Ban, it wouldn’t be surprising if Turkey was among the countries Trump wishes to add to the list, leaving Kanter’s status in question.
As hard-fought as the judicial fights may be, it didn’t stop Kanter from beefing with the Phoenix Suns in the second quarter of the season. When it comes to the mouthiest fans, the Knicks are definitely up there. So when your center picks fights and can roast with the best of them (in the NBA), it holds a special place in your heart.
Making a tweet go platinum for all the right reasons is a sure-fire way to garner fans, but all entertainers eventually overstay their welcome. Towards the end of the season, Kanter’s opt-in situation came to the top of the Knicks housekeeping list, and, for the most part, Knicks fans wanted him gone.
The legitimate basketball reasons aren’t hard to grasp. With a new head coach in David Fizdale, the Knicks are looking toward the future of basketball. Kanter isn’t a perfect fit for that type of forward thinking. Over the course of less than ten years the role of the traditional big man has morphed drastically, and while Kanter excels at what he does, his strengths clash with the high-octane offense and no-nonsense defense that most people would like to see from the Knicks.
This also leads into the team’s salary cap situation. It’s reasonable to suspect if Kanter opted out the Knicks would have tried their hand at a low-risk free agency gamble, but with him opting into the $18.6 million player option they’re still handcuffed fiscally.
He had fun with it up until the deadline, posting memes about opting in or opting out on social media. Through and through, he’s a joker. However, the decision hung over the Knicks past the draft, throwing exasperated fans into an aggravated frenzy. Even before formally announcing his decision, his mentions on Twitter were less than pleasant.
His reveal was a miss for the audience, and the usual ire fandoms ooze when they don’t get their way was fairly potent.
If his social media profiles are any indication, Kanter is largely unfazed by mad tweets (from non-NBA players). Yet even the messages he decides to respond to pale in comparison to the anger at his political stance.
“I don’t just get hate mail. I get three or four death threats every week. With death threats—you just never know…after a while I was getting so many, I decided I wasn’t going to bother and waste my time anymore,” he acknowledged in an interview.
He said himself that he has no country. Forced into exile by President Erdogan, Kanter’s story is reminiscent of so many immigrants in New York: a persecuted individual seeking asylum in the U.S. And while his celebrity grants him benefits that the vast majority of asylum seekers lack, it still may not insulate him from what life in the U.S. is like; if the case of Sterling Brown teaches us anything, it’s that celebrity does not dismantle injustice.
Kanter may see the United States as his saving grace, but the U.S. has painfully obvious political failings of their own. Some of them are so severe that they may eventually endanger the 26-year-old solely living on a green card. The U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement—founded in 2003—has hastily turned from a lesser-known federal agency to a deportation force. 2016 saw a spike in hate crimes against Muslims that had a higher total count than in 2001, the year of the last drastic spike, according to Pew Research. With his political opposition being humanitarian in nature and citing control of the media as one of the primary sources of Erdogan’s power, it appears that he’s traded in one devil for another.
NBA players have been known for speaking out in support of social justice, especially more recently. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, another Muslim NBA alum, has become a respected social commentator after his on-court career. Influential basketball entities like the Golden State Warriors’ head coach Steve Kerr and LeBron James have explicitly expressed antipathy for the Trump administration that possesses qualities similar to Erdogan’s regime. The Turk in exile may not have plainly called out Trump yet, but for someone as outspoken as Kanter is, it may only be a matter of time. That said, his comrades’ advocacy may be essential when the time comes. Because the Trump administration’s reaction to an asylum seeker, a Muslim, an athlete who’s supposed to shut up and dribble criticizing the dominant U.S. regime could be visceral. Furthermore, MSG chairman James Dolan’s staunch support for Trump opens another can of worms. Dolan’s power as one of the owners in contrast to that of NBA players showcases the dichotomous nature of politics in sports as those “running the show” and those doing the labor often have acutely opposing views.
Though the situation is not as dire as the NFL’s, it’s important to mention Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a Muslim and ex-NBA player. Abdul-Rauf was a rising star who protested during the national anthem in the 1990s, accusing the United States as a tyrannical oppressive power. He was subsequently benched and ultimately blackballed by the NBA. Note that this was a collusive choice in management, implemented on multiple levels. People forget that the NBA is similar to a joint venture: a collection of businesses, franchises, coming together for a singular goal, and in the case of Abdul-Rauf, it was to stop him even after both parties came to an agreement. Although only nine of 30 teams have retained the same ownership since 1996, the NBA’s exiling of Abdul-Rauf and subsequent refusal to acknowledge his situation is a red mark on its history.
It’s unclear what role public protest will take in the NBA next season, but recent developments give Kanter all the more reason to speak out. In June, his father Mehmet Kanter was charged with the crime of being a member of a terror group. Enes believes it’s merely the Erdogan regime trying to get under his skin. His reaction was a far cry from the pestering he sends to NBA players. In a video message, he expressed renewed resolve in light of his father’s persecution, doubling down on his stance against Erdogan and asking for prayers for the innocent and his suffering family
This guy won’t shut up about anything, especially human indignities. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Kanter finds himself beset with scorn on two fronts: professionally, for being a Twitter savage of sorts, and politically, as a human rights advocate. It’s just in his DNA. He can’t help it. There’s no shock that a big guy who has no problem being over the top is developing ties to the professional wrestling world. Without a doubt, Kanter would thrive as the bad guy on TV while fighting injustice after the show like a superhero and their alter-ego. He’s said he’d consider entering into his second favorite sport one he’s done with basketball. As interesting of a character as he is, don’t rule it out.
The life and personality of Enes Kanter puts a new spin on the trope of being an international man of mystery. He’s blunt about his feelings and views, ranging from who’s the better NBA team in New York to a legitimate political feud with ghastly consequences. The man speaks his mind whenever and however, and the only real mystery is the future. We worry about his NBA career—although he’s a highly skilled player, he’s a dinosaur in today’s pace-and-space action. But his thoughts presumably are concentrated on Turkey, where Erdogan was recently re-elected to another five year term with expanded power.
Kanter has a knack for rubbing people the wrong way, whether it’s the king of Ohio or the nearly all-powerful President Erdogan. However, like he’s shown so many times before, four words can concisely sum up his feelings on disdain for him and his emphatically loud opinions: he’s used to it.