• Sports
  • Basketball

‘This Is Much Bigger Than Basketball.’ NBA’s Enes Kanter Opens Up About Being Wanted by Turkey

8 minute read

New York Knicks center Enes Kanter is the only NBA player who, in the eyes of the government of his home country, is an international fugitive.

Prosecutors from Turkey have sought a warrant for Kanter’s arrest, and are seeking his extradition from the United States. Kanter’s a vocal critic of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan; he supports Fethullah Gulen, the cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania, whom the Turkish government believes was behind an attempted 2016 coup to overthrow Erdogan. Turkey has accused Kanter of being part of terrorist group, and revoked his passport in 2017.

Right before going to his suburban New York apartment to watch his teammates take on the Washington Wizards in London Thursday — Kanter skipped the game, which the Wizards won 101-100, because he feared assassination while overseas— the 26-year-old talked to TIME about fear, death threats, and messages for both his enemies and family back home.

[The conversation has been condensed and slightly edited for clarity]

Do you feel like a fugitive right now?

It’s weird. I put out on Twitter that the only thing I terrorize is the rim. People know me, my teammates know me, everybody knows me. That’s why when the government puts a statement out there and says, ‘Oh, he’s a terrorist,’ my teammates laugh actually. They literally laugh. All my friends were laughing. They’re like ‘What is this? This is ridiculous. If they call you a terrorist, they’re crazy.’

Are you scared?

They put my name on Interpol on the red notice. So if I step outside of America, my life will be in danger. But I feel safe in America.

So you can walk around freely here? You’re not in hiding?

Our team security said, even if you go to a supermarket, have someone with you. So everywhere I go — grocery shopping, practice, go to games, go to plays — I always have someone with me because you never know, a lone wolf, one of the crazy Erdogan supporters will do something. The only place I go alone is the bathroom. Just the bathroom.

If you get extradited, what do you think will happen to you?

Ooof. It will be very ugly, man. I don’t know if they can kill me, because there will be so much pressure on him. But there have been lots of reports out there that they torture people in jails. So they will definitely torture me very, very bad.

What kind of torture would you expect?

Ugh. I have no idea. But I know that after that torture, I will not be able to play basketball again.

What’s your main criticism of Erdogan?

Erdogan is an authoritarian leader who jails journalists and the opposition. He’s an anti-American leader who keeps American citizens as hostages, like Mr. Brunson, the pastor. Erdogan violates human rights. About 17,000 innocent women, and around 700 babies have been kept in jail with no due process. So he uses his power to abuse human rights. If you look at it right now, Turkey is the number one country in the world for putting the most journalists into jail, after the coup attempt. That shows there’s no freedom of speech in Turkey. Don’t get me wrong, I love my country, I love my flag, I love my people. Turkey could be the bridge between modern Islam and the West. But now that all this stuff is happening in Turkey, that’s impossible.

What’s your message to Erdogan?

I would just tell him to stop. Stop abusing innocent people. Stop abusing all journalists. Stop abusing women and babies. He’s killing the county. There is no democracy in the country right now. There is no freedom of speech. I cannot even invite my teammates to Turkey because they’re scared. Turkey was a peaceful county, Turkey was a lovely county. But because of all the things that are happening right now, I mean … look at my family. I cannot even bring my family to America, because they are not letting them leave the country.

Leave the innocent people alone. Not just my family. People know my story because I play in the NBA. There are thousands and thousands of stories out there way worse waiting to be heard. Please, please. Not just me and my family. Leave all the innocent people alone.

Another former NBA player, Hedo Turkoglu, is now a chief adviser to Erdogan. He’s criticized you on Twitter. What’s your message to him?

I called him a lapdog because he has to follow every comment that Erdogan gives him. We were really good friends back in 2011. We played on the same national team. All the stuff that’s going on right now, he cannot really talk freely because of his fear of President Erdogan. He’s losing so many fans, so many friends in America because of what he’s doing.

In an op-ed you wrote for the Washington Post, why did you cite Colin Kaepernick as an inspiration?

He basically sacrificed a lot of things to talk about issues. If you’re an athlete —not just an athlete, actors, singers — you need to talk about these kinds of issues, because you have that big platform. And millions and millions of fans are following you. So what he did was definitely amazing.

What is this costing you?

My family. [Eds note: Kanter’s father, mother, and sister remain in Turkey. His father faces criminal charges for connections to an alleged terrorist group]. That’s the most important thing. Because the last time I saw my family was 2015. Sometimes I even forget what they look like, you know? It’s so hard to communicate with them. Because Turkish police raided my house. They took electronics away, computers away. They wanted to see if I’m still in contact with my family or not. Any single text, they will all be in jail.

Does it disappoint you that Erdogan and President Trump seem to have a good relationship?

I don’t really know what’s happening behind the doors to be honest with you. They can tweet or they can say whatever they want, but I don’t really know what’s happening behind the curtains. That’s why I wish I could meet with Trump and talk about all these issues. Talk about all the abuses that Erdogan is doing to human rights.

Have you reached out to Trump?

I want to reach out to him. I don’t know how. If you put this out there, maybe he will read it and we’ll get a meeting with him.

Have you been getting more death threats in recent days?

I used to get death threats at least once or twice a week. Now, because of all this, the last three or four days, I’ve been probably getting hundreds and hundreds a day. I don’t count. Our Knicks security guy told me to take a screenshot of them, send them to us. It got to the point where there were so many of them. I’m like, ‘You know what, I’m not going to even bother doing it.’

Are you numb to them by now, or do they still cause concern?

I’m 6’11, around 245 pounds. But those are death threats man, you have to take them seriously. One of the crazy Erdogan supporters might come and do something and you cannot control it. The government cannot control a lone wolf. It’s scary.

Where are you going to watch the Knicks-Wizards game?

I’m actually going to watch it in my apartment. I’m going to put my jersey on. Because I want to feel like I’m still part of the team. I go there and look at their Instagram stories. I’m still in a group chat. When they say, ‘We’re going to the mall, we’re going to eat, who wants to go to dinner tonight,’ it’s breaking my heart..

What impact is your uncertain basketball status — your playing time is down as the Knicks try to develop younger players — having on all of this?

It is very stressful. Trade rumors, I don’t know whether or not I’m going to go, the team, the minutes, everything. But right now my first job is to take care of this. Because this is much bigger than basketball. Or my future in NBA.

Looking back on how this situation has escalated, would you have done anything differently?

I will just say this: I have a platform and I’m using this platform. And I’m trying to be the voice of all those innocent people who don’t have a voice. So don’t call me crazy. I don’t regret anything. I wish I could have done more.

Any message for your family back in Turkey?

Oh man. If I could say one thing to them, I would tell them, ‘I love you.’ And I would say ‘Mom, I miss your food.’

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com