Shoot a 3-pointer, go to jail.
If Turkey’s spoiled-sport president gets his way, he will soon be locking up Enes Kanter, a Turkish-American 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, it is his offensive speech calling President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, 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 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 U.S. Attorney General nominee William Barr recently told the Senate that he “can conceive” of instances where journalists might be arrested.
In Turkey, however, Erdoğan’s goons make it a daily practice to intimidate individuals and their families, confiscate their property and, of course, throw them in prison.
Erdoğan’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 U.S.-residing thorn in Erdoğan’s side. The aging dissident cleric, Fetullah Gülen, living remotely on a Pennsylvania farm, sends out regular messages to resist Erdoğan’s leadership and tactics. Gülen is a former political ally who eventually figured out Erdoğan’s long-term plan to usurp all power and destroy all perceived personal foes. Erdoğan is making good on the threat and the practice, putting more journalists in jail than any other country and even frog-walking an American cleric held as a prison pawn in Turkey to (unsuccessfully) exchange for Gülen.
Gen. Michael Flynn, President Trump’s short-lived national security adviser, was aiding and abetting this process for a long time, even helping plan a Gülen kidnapping and rendition from the United States. The Flynn-Flan man took Erdoğan’s money, slowly moved the Turkish president’s agenda forward, but then got caught doing dirty deeds for Russia before turning state’s witness. That put a damper on any Gülen extradition. And it strengthened Kanter’s voice.
Thin-skinned Erdoğan 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, Erdoğan cancelled 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 Erdoğan won’t mow down Kurds, Kanter hopes to take down Erdoğan.
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, however, 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), inspires Greece (Giannis Atentokoumpo), supports Argentine children (Manu Ginobli) and added to Spain’s athletic recognition (Pau Gasol).
My recent Bollywood night courtside visit to a Sacramento Kings v. 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 Ranadivé, 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 of the walk to his corner bakery. Divac was so popular, visible and accessible that he was regularly rumored as 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 Erdoğan fears. Unfortunately for Turkish minorities, there are no Kurdish basketball stars.
Erdoğan is a relatively tall man, but small enough and mean enough to sic his security staff on a few protesters during his short Washington, D.C., visit in 2017. And he doesn’t stop at disturbing his opposition in our nation’s capital. He is one of a handful of world leaders who goes toe-to-toe with Trump’s administration, infiltrating it and co-opting it where he can, bullying it everywhere else.
Gülen, once an Erdoğan 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-Erdoğan messenger. It appears that Erdoğan has already made that calculation. Which is why Kanter won’t travel for the Wizards game to London, a city 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 Erdoğan.
Markos Kounalakis is a McClatchy foreign affairs columnist and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.