Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter is the NBA’s latest political wunderkind, a basketball player as comfortable talking policy with conservative lawmakers and Democratic presidential candidates as he is blocking shots and garnering rebounds.
Standing almost seven feet tall, the Swiss-born Turkish athlete has built himself an impressive contact list of high-profile U.S. politicians and D.C. insiders as he navigates his role as an outspoken critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and a defender of human rights.
The 27-year-old Kanter is on track to become a U.S. citizen in June 2021, and the deeper he wades into politics and policy a future career in Washington is seeming more real and within his grasp, he said.
“I’ve been talking to a lot of congressmen, congresswomen, presidential candidates. So I’m like, you know what, why not just become one?” Kanter said in an hour-long interview with The Hill in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel before his game in Washington.
Kanter regularly texts with Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard. He’s exchanged New Years greetings with President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, through direct messages on Twitter.
— Enes Kanter (@EnesKanter) January 7, 2020
Kanter’s sees leveraging his contacts in Washington as the best way forward to counter Erdoğan — a leader he calls a “dictator” and the “Hitler of our century.”
There’s the contingent from New England, Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass) and Murphy, and friendships he’s developed over the course of his nine-year NBA career playing for the Portland Trailblazers – Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.); New York Knicks – Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.); and the Oklahoma City Thunder – Sen. Lankford.
He’s also corresponded with nearly all the presidential candidates, posing for photos with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), messaging the “very cool” entrepreneur Andrew Yang and giving Joe Biden his #11 Celtics jersey.
Kanter’s foray into global politics occurred in 2013, when he took aim at then-prime minister Erdoğan for his connection to a mass corruption scandal that revealed involvement of the Turkish government funneling billions of dollars to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.
The Erdoğan government has gone so far as to brand Kanter an enemy and terrorist for his support of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, who is in exile in Pennsylvania and was accused in 2016 of orchestrating a failed coup attempt in Turkey.
The Turkish government revoked Kanter’s passport in 2017 and submitted his name to international authorities through a red notice to Interpol calling for his extradition.
Kanter has since found a welcome audience on Capitol Hill where Congress has struggled to punish Turkey for a number of offenses, including its purchase of Russian weapons system in violation of U.S. sanctions and Erdoğan’s incursion into northeastern Syria against Kurdish forces allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.
In November, Kanter made the last-minute decision to travel to Washington to highlight Erdoğan’s human-rights abuses the day before the Turkish president was set to visit President Trump in the Oval Office. He had a Celtics practice in Boston that day, so he had to appeal to his new coach, Brad Stevens.
“I talked to Coach Brad, he’s like, ‘You go,’” said Kanter, sporting black Celtics warmups. “And not just Coach Brad. I talked to the GM, Danny Ainge. I talked to Mike Zarren, his assistant GM, and they all said, ‘You’re good to go.’ It just made me really happy that they care about what’s going on off the court.”
At the Capitol that day, Kanter stood with Sens. Markey and Wyden to roll out legislation condemning Turkey for targeting and jailing political opponents, journalists and minority groups.
He later walked the halls of the Senate and House, huddling with a dozen others, including Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). A prolific presence on social media, Kanter quickly uploaded photos to Twitter and Instagram to share with his hundreds of thousands of followers.
Kanter did not directly criticize Trump during The Hill interview, but called the president’s decision to host Erdoğan at the White House “very sad.”
Whether “you love the guy, you hate the guy, he’s the president of the United States,” Kanter said. “And when … you’re the president meeting with, I will say, dictators like Erdoğan, that definitely frustrates me; it makes me really sad.”
One lawmaker Kanter has not made inroads with: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a fellow Muslim American who is part of the freshman foursome known as “The Squad.” Kanter has criticized Omar’s 2017 meeting with Erdoğan, tweeting last fall that she appeared to be on “#DictatorErdoğan’s payroll.”
The NBA star described a cold encounter he had with Omar in an elevator in the Capitol that day, saying she acted like she wanted nothing to do with him. Omar spokesman Jeremy Slevin called Kanter’s characterization of the elevator ride “inaccurate.”
“Rep. Omar recognized him in the elevator, introduced herself, and asked him if he was coming in to meet with her. It was a cordial interaction,” Slevin said in an email, adding that she would be willing to meet with the basketball player.
Kanter acknowledges he’s working to understand the nuances of foreign policy — and the language needed to express it.
He said he’s never raised Gabbard’s 2017 meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, for which she was widely condemned and mocked as enabling a mass-murdering dictator, in his contacts with the Hawaii lawmaker.
Asked his opinion on Congress passing a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide – widely seen as a rebuke of Turkey for its October incursion into northeastern Syria – Kanter concedes that “it happened” but is hesitant to use the word genocide.
The Turkish government claims a lack of historical consensus to deny calling the systematic killing of over 1.5 million Armenians in the early 20th century an act of genocide, and pushes back against foreign governments that recognize it.
“A lot of my friends are saying it did happen, but I need to educate myself more about it to talk about that issue,” Kanter said. “It’s tough, because I’m not a historian. I have no idea what happened. I’m a basketball player… when I educate myself, I can have a better conversation about it.”
On the topic of human-rights abuses in China, where a Houston Rockets executive faced backlash from Beijing for voicing support for Hong Kong protesters, Kanter deferred to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who released a statement backing players, coaches and executives who speak out on political issues.
“The NBA protects the freedom of speech,” Kanter said.
Kanter said he has “no regrets” for speaking out on human rights, though there has been a personal cost to him and his loved ones. His family was forced to issue a public statement disowning Kanter because of his ties to Gülen. And Kanter’s father, a professor, has been targeted as part of an anti-Gülen crackdown; he lost his job and has been in and out of jail.
Kanter’s Twitter account is banned in Turkey, he said, and his games are blocked from being shown on Turkish television. He laments a missed opportunity to inspire a new generation of basketball players.
Kanter calls his athletic career an “escape” from the pressures of his advocacy work and is unlikely to leave the league anytime soon. Still seeking a championship ring, Kanter predicted the Celtics will defeat the Milwaukee Bucks to win the East, then face either the Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers for the NBA title.
“Celtics and Lakers. Ooooooooh. That will bring lots of attention,” he said.
When a Hill reporter told Kanter he’s a Warriors fan, Kanter replied with a smile: “I hate the Golden State Warriors,” the team that’s twice blocked him from reaching the NBA Finals.
“Four years ago with Oklahoma City, we were up 3-1 and they came back and beat us 4-3,” he recalled, “and last year [on the Trailblazers], they swept us 4-0.”
Before any formal jump into the political arena, the athlete has another ring he wants to throw his hat into – as a professional wrestler with the WWE.
“Post-NBA, this is gonna sound weird but I actually want to join the WWE, become a wrestler,” said Kanter, who last year won a WWE 24/7 Championship belt wrestling in Madison Square Garden. “I just love WWE.”