Shoot a three-pointer, go to jail.
If Turkey’s spoilsport president gets his way, he will soon be locking up Enes Kanter, a Turkish star center for the New York Knicks.
The reason for a just-requested Interpol “Red Notice” arrest warrant is not Kanter’s aggressive defensive style, but rather his offensive speech, calling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, among other things, the “Hitler of our century.” Erdogan returned the favor and labeled Kanter “a terrorist.”
Unlike in the United States, where public figures can’t be libeled, criticism of the Turkish president is illegal. I can write that President Donald Trump is a boob and feel pretty secure that the black helicopters won’t descend on my home. Well, maybe not totally secure as the US attorney general nominee William Barr recently told the Senate that he “can conceive” of instances where journalists might be arrested.
In Turkey, however, Erdogan’s goons make it a daily practice to intimidate individuals and their families, confiscate their property and, of course, throw them in prison.
Erdogan’s crimes are too big to prosecute while Kanter’s should be too absurd to pursue. But they’re not.
Kanter is not the only US-residing thorn in Erdogan’s side. The aging dissident cleric Fetullah Gulen, living remotely on a Pennsylvania farm, sends out regular messages to resist Erdogan’s leadership and tactics. Gulen is a former political ally who eventually figured out Erdogan’s long-term plan to usurp all power and destroy all perceived personal foes. Erdogan is making good on the threat and the practice, putting more journalists in jail than any other country and even offering to hand over an American pastor detained in Turkey in return for Gulen’s extradition.
General Michael Flynn, President Trump’s short-lived national security adviser, aided and abetted this process for a long time, even helping plan a Gulen kidnapping and rendition from the United States. The Flynn-flam man took Erdogan’s money, slowly moved the Turkish president’s agenda forward, but then got caught doing dirty deeds for Russia before turning state witness. That put a damper on any Gulen extradition. And it strengthened Kanter’s voice.
Thin-skinned Erdogan won’t abide a challenge from anyone with a fan base, audience or political power, whether athlete, journalist or president of the United States. Just last week, Erdogan canceled his meeting in Turkey with John Bolton to discuss protection for American-allied Kurds abandoned by Trump’s Syria withdrawal. While Bolton wants a regional anti-Iran coalition and guarantees Erdogan won’t mow down Kurds, Kanter hopes to take down Erdogan.
The NBA’s soft power and global brand equity is so great that it can awaken fear even in a steely national leader. Imagine if there were a contemporary Yao Ming-level player who captured the imagination of his countrymen, but was critical of China’s Communist Party or President Xi Jinping. That it would not be easy for Beijing to ignore. The NBA’s global stage is that big.
International players usually stay away from politics, though, with their celebrity instead being used as a point of national pride or for philanthropic deeds. NBA star power has helped improve healthcare in Africa (Dikembe Mutombo), inspired Greece (Giannis Antetokounmpo), supports Argentinean children (Manu Ginobili) and added to Spain’s athletic recognition (Pau Gasol).
My recent Bollywood Night courtside visit to a Sacramento Kings vs Golden State Warriors game made obvious the growingly global nature of the game. Players and coaches come from everywhere. The hardcourt featured a Kings crown underscored by both Chinese and Hindi character logos. The owner, Vivek Ranadive, a native of India, sat a few seats down. The team’s general manager, Vlade Divac, is from Serbia.
A few years back, I visited Divac at his modest Belgrade apartment in a city where he has hero status. Outside, we got stopped every few steps during our walk to his corner bakery. Divac was so popular, visible and accessible that he was regularly rumored to be a potential Serbian presidential candidate. Such is the power of celebrity and the reach of the new NBA. That is the type of power that Erdogan fears. Unfortunately for Turkey’s Kurdish minority, there are no Kurdish basketball stars.
Erdogan is a relatively tall man, but small enough and mean enough to sic his security staff on a few protesters during his short visit to Washington, DC in 2017. And he doesn’t stop at disturbing his opposition in the US capital. He is one of a handful of world leaders willing to go toe-to-toe with Trump’s administration, infiltrating it and co-opting it where he can, bullying it everywhere else.
Gulen, once an Erdogan ally, is getting old, and his political movement is hobbled back in Turkey. But someone will be his successor, and Kanter can certainly be his high-profile anti-Erdogan messenger. It appears that Erdogan has already made that calculation. Which is why Kanter didn’t travel for the Knicks game against the Wizards in England, a country where foreign autocrats have proven they can brazenly poison dissidents.
Kanter believes he is targeted for assassination. “I think I can get killed there,” he has said. If he survives the threats and the season – and even a Senator Marco Rubio-desired trade to the Miami Heat – Kanter will continue to be outspoken and slam-dunk on Erdogan.
Markos Kounalakis is a McClatchy foreign affairs columnist and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.