I used to like Hedo Türkoğlu. At small forward, he was an integral part of the late-2000s Orlando Magic juggernauts that rolled through the Eastern Conference. Orlando’s strategy was based on a young Dwight Howard posting up or kicking out to a bevy of three-point shooters. As one of the sweet-shooting role players, Türkoğlu averaged 15.8 points per game on 38.5% shooting from three. Before his time with the Magic, Türkoğlu was a spark plug off the bench for the early-2000s Sacramento Kings. During this time, the Kings were famous for popularizing the idea of pace and space in an era dominated by giants in the post like Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan. Their free-flowing offense made them the most exciting team in the NBA at that time, and many of their concepts are still used today, including off-ball screens and quick cuts to the basket. Türkoğlu, a quirky, energetic European who fit in perfectly with Sacramento’s other misfits, was the perfect sixth man for the Kings.
I used to dislike Enes Kanter. As the third overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Kanter was selected ahead of All-Pros Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, and Jimmy Butler. Some commonalities between these three players are that they work hard, hone their skills, and (with the possible exception of Thompson) play with a fury on defense. However, the perception is that Kanter does not do these things. He is a tremendously talented big man with a natural affinity for scoring and stretching the floor. Still, he’s been criticized for his lack of effort defensively, particularly for his rim protection on that side of the ball. This creates the notion that Kanter does not use his talent adequately and may not live up to the potential that the Utah Jazz believed they saw in him when they selected him third overall.
What a difference two weeks makes.
Gone is the journeyman shooter we knew and loved, replaced by a public relations man tasked with putting lipstick on the face of one of the world’s most ruthless dictators. Türkoğlu is now the head of the Turkish Basketball Federation and a senior advisor to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has waged war against Kanter and countless other dissenters to his regime. In addition to arresting people on unfounded charges of terrorism, Turkey has actively sought to suppress freedom of expression, censoring sites such as Wikipedia and Twitter. Journalists have been falsely imprisoned at an alarmingly high rate, and freedom of the press doesn’t exist, as Erdoğan views any opposition as a threat to his grip on power. Naturally, as a part of this regime, Türkoğlu must publicly lend his full support towards Erdoğan, no matter what he may actually think.
On the other hand, Kanter has been more than outspoken about his views on Erdoğan, referring to the Turkish leader as “the Hitler of our century” on multiple occasions. He has also thrown his support behind Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania after Erdoğan blamed him for a coup in 2016. This has led to a very real danger for Kanter and his family. Kanter’s father, Mehmet, was dismissed from his university position following Kanter’s comments and was later forced to disown his son. Ultimately, it didn’t matter to Erdoğan, as Kanter’s father was sentenced to 15 years in prison in the summer of 2018.
Kanter himself has faced legitimate threats from Erdoğan’s government. In 2017, Kanter escaped Turkish agents in Indonesia while working at a basketball camp for his foundation. He was detained in Romania for several hours and Turkish authorities had already cancelled his passport, making him a stateless man. Eventually, he was able to return to the United States, but not without a Turkish arrest warrant and a four-year prison sentence.
The Romanian experience and the episode with his father proved to Kanter that his worst fears about Erdoğan were right. It also helps to explain Kanter’s decision to forego the Knicks’ trip to London, where they were defeated by the Washington Wizards 101-100. From a basketball standpoint, Kanter’s scoring definitely could’ve made the difference. However, he skipped the trip, citing his fear of being killed in a foreign country with Turkish spies looking for him. In the press conference, Kanter referred to Erdoğan as a “freaking lunatic,” prompting a response from Türkoğlu.
Türkoğlu’s full response can be viewed in English here. The gist of the statement claims that Kanter cannot travel due to visa issues, and that he is delusional in sullying Erdoğan and Turkey’s good name as part of a political smear campaign. What’s interesting is that Türkoğlu posted the same statement in Turkish and German, making it clear that these words are being forced out of his mouth by Erdoğan. Kanter himself acknowledged as much, saying that Türkoğlu does not know German and Erdoğan is making him say it as a respected NBA player and the head of the Turkish Basketball Federation. He rebuked Türkoğlu’s comment, tweeting a picture of his travel document and definitively showing that no visa issue prevented him from traveling to London.
In the same tweet, Kanter referred to Türkoğlu as Erdoğan’s lap dog, and told him to “keep wagging [his] tail.” This is a sad departure from their relationship in 2011 when Kanter referred to Türkoğlu as a big brother while they played together on the Turkish national team. In fact, the title of this article, bir zamanlar kardeştiler, is Turkish for “once brothers.” “Once brothers” is also the title of an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary detailing the falling out between Croatian guard Dražen Petrović and Serbian center Vlade Divac as the Yugoslav Wars played out. I see many similarities between the two stories. Petrović and other Croatian basketball players faced enormous political pressure from their home country to not associate with Divac and other Serbian players. It seems as though Türkoğlu has been put in the same position, unable to speak his mind about Kanter and forced to side with Erdoğan. The Petrović-Divac story has a sad ending as the former died in a car accident and the latter was never able to make up with him. We can only hope that Türkoğlu and Kanter’s story has a happier ending, and that Türkoğlu will one day be able to tell the truth about Erdoğan, Kanter, and Turkish basketball as a whole.
In the meantime, Kanter is using every platform to convey his message and bring attention to the human rights abuses committed in Turkey. We commend athletes such as Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James for combatting social issues in the United States, and they fully deserve our recognition. Kanter is taking on an autocracy more menacing than any big man he’s ever faced. Though he may not protect the rim well, he fights every day to protect the fundamental rights of his people, and it is high time we recognize his contributions abroad.