John Clay

Enes Kanter’s political fight much more serious than the ‘Free Enes’ days

Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter, ruled ineligible to play at Kentucky in 2010-11, has been disavowed by his family in Turkey for his political beliefs.
Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter, ruled ineligible to play at Kentucky in 2010-11, has been disavowed by his family in Turkey for his political beliefs. Associated Press

It seems like since he came to the United States from his native Turkey seven years ago, Enes Kanter has been embroiled in one political controversy or another.

Back in 2010, when he enrolled at UK to play basketball for John Calipari, Kanter found himself in the middle of a much-publicized eligibility fight with the NCAA, one Kanter and Calipari ultimately lost, and one that famously sparked the Big Blue Nation’s “Free Enes” movement, complete with signs, T-shirts and even street graffiti.

Now, however, here in the real world of international affairs, Kanter is in the middle of a much more serious political fight, one that has not only cost him a spot on his homeland’s national team but, just this week, the support of his own family, which has publicly disavowed him.

Kentucky fans are well aware of the basketball back story. After playing at a prep school in California, Kanter signed with UK but was ruled ineligible for accepting $33,000 in impermissible benefits while playing for a club team in Turkey.

A staunch Kanter defender, Calipari allowed the center to practice with the Cats, then made Kanter a student assistant when the NCAA ruled Kanter could no longer participate. When Kanter was taken with the No. 3 pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz, Calipari was there by his side.

In 2015, Utah dealt Kanter to Oklahoma City, where he signed a multi-year deal that paid him $16.4 million last season. This season, Kanter finished third in the NBA’s Sixth Man Award balloting. He averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds on a Thunder team that led Golden State 3-1 in the NBA’s Western Conference finals before losing out to the Warriors.

Though he lives in the United States, Kanter is a vocal supporter of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who left Turkey for self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania 17 years ago. Gulen has plenty of supporters in his home country, who have started what is called the Hizmet movement. In fact, current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed Gulen for inspiring the country’s failed coup on July 15 and labeled Hizmet “a terrorist organization.” Afterward, the Turkish government began rounding up Gulen supporters.

Kanter’s support has not set well with the pro-government forces back home. In fact, the talented center was left off the Turkish National Basketball Team that played in Eurobasket 2015. Coach Ergin Ataman claimed in the Daily Sabah, a pro-government newspaper, that he was unable to contact Kanter with an invitation to join the team. Kanter, who says he has received death threats, claimed that wasn’t true.

“The reasons presented do not reflect the truth,” Kanter wrote on Twitter last year. “The reason I was not included in the squad is the values I believe in and my political stance.”

It is one thing to be banned from a basketball team, however. It is another to be disowned by your family, as Kanter was this week.

The Daily Sabah published a letter purportedly written by Kanter’s father, Mehmet, which claimed that Enes had been “hypnotized” and asked forgiveness for his behavior.

“With a feeling of shame I apologize to our president for having such a son,” wrote Mehmet Kanter, adding that “I told Enes that we would disown him should he not change course. He did not care.”

Kanter reacted by issuing a statement on his Twitter account — which is banned in Turkey, by the way — saying, “Today I lost my mother, father, brother and sisters, my family and all my relatives. My own father asked me to change my surname. My mother, who has given me life, disowned me. My brothers and sisters with which we have grown together ignore me. My relatives don’t want to see me again.”

Still, Kanter insisted he would not back down from his support of Gulen, writing, “I would give my head for this case. . . . My love for Gulen is more than my love to my mom, father, brothers and sisters and other loves.”

Kanter signed the statement with Enes (Kanter) Gulen and changed one of his Twitter handles to include the name Gulen.

That’s a long way from “Free Enes.”