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Honorable Mention

The Celtics’ Enes Kanter stands tall for human rights

The center is an outspoken, sometimes lone voice for liberty in his native Turkey and beyond.

From writing op-ed columns to messages on his sneakers, Celtics center Enes Kanter has been a voice of conscience in promoting freedom, no matter the cost.
From writing op-ed columns to messages on his sneakers, Celtics center Enes Kanter has been a voice of conscience in promoting freedom, no matter the cost.Adam Hunger/Associated Press

THE THING ABOUT COMPLICITY is that it always starts small.

You see something that’s not right, but after doing an instant cost-benefit analysis in your head, you conclude it’s not worth saying anything. The next time you see something, even if it’s more troubling, you’re less likely to act. Failing the first moral test made you more compromised and risk-averse, and the wrongdoer more emboldened.

In October, a mild tweet by the Houston Rockets general manager in support of the pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong produced fierce economic blowback from the Chinese government. Instead of defending the GM, free speech, and democracy, most in the National Basketball Association stayed silent. Meanwhile, top league officials and some of its biggest stars rose in defense of Beijing in what appeared to be a naked play to preserve the NBA’s access to the lucrative market for basketball in China.

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In contrast, Celtics center Enes Kanter publicly cataloged the enormous personal price he has paid in recent years for speaking out for democracy and human rights, and then reminded everyone, “Freedom is not free.”

His is a voice of conscience, irrespective of cost, against efforts to curb human rights in his home country of Turkey as well as many other places. “To some people, it’s money over principles,” Kanter says. “To me, it’s principles over money.” And for him, the biggest toll has nothing to do with cash.

What makes him so dangerous to the powerful interests he stands up to is his imperviousness to the threats that work on most people. What can they take from him when he has already surrendered so much?

Many of Kanter's friends in the NBA have advised him to cool his activism, he says, “but this is about so much more than basketball.”
Many of Kanter's friends in the NBA have advised him to cool his activism, he says, “but this is about so much more than basketball.”Diana Levine for the Boston Globe

IN THE SUMMER OF 2015, near the end of a visit to Turkey to see his family, Kanter sat his parents down. He warned them that, in the future, Turkish authorities might harass or threaten them because of his actions. His father didn’t seem to take his warning seriously. His mother looked distraught, as if dreading that her firstborn son was about to tell her he was involved in drugs or some other illegal activity. He assured her he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was just speaking his mind in criticizing the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “If you’re not doing anything bad,” Kanter recalls his mother saying, “we are with you 100 percent. We’ve got your back.”

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The next morning, as he left for the airport, his mother stood on the balcony waving to him. He couldn’t help but think: I wonder if I’ll see her again. He hasn’t.

No one is more surprised than Kanter that he has become such an outspoken political activist. Growing up, he was all about basketball. That continued when he came to the United States in 2009 to play for a prep school. The graceful 6-foot-10 journeyman NBA player has had stops in Utah, Oklahoma City, New York, and Portland, Oregon, before signing with the Celtics this past summer.

His politicization began in 2013, when he took to Twitter to allege corruption in the Erdoğan government. A dozen years earlier Erdoğan had become Turkey’s prime minister with lots of promise — a moderate Muslim who could unite the country’s secular and religious communities to create a humming economy in the Middle East. Over the years, however, Erdoğan, who became president in 2014, consolidated much more power and brooked much less dissent.

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The situation rapidly deteriorated in 2016, after a coup to dislodge Erdoğan failed, and he and his security forces unleashed a ferocious response, imprisoning thousands of journalists, academics, and members of the military. Erdoğan blamed the coup on one of his former allies, Fethullah Gülen, an elderly, controversial cleric who has been holed up in his Pennsylvania compound for two decades. Kanter began attending schools run by the cleric’s organization in the second grade, and grew up to be a strong supporter of Gülen’s. He tells me he was with the cleric at his compound on the night of the coup, and all the man did all night was pray.

After the coup, Kanter’s worst fears came to pass. His parents issued a statement disowning their son. He suspected that Turkish authorities had put enormous pressure on his parents. Still, it stung. He kept thinking of his mother’s promise to him. “What happened to ‘we’ve got your back’?”

In 2017, the Turkish government revoked Kanter’s passport and, he alleges, attempted to grab him when he was in Indonesia, prompting a white-knuckle three-day dash through Singapore, Romania, and England, before landing back in the States, wearing underwear he had to wash in a London hotel sink. He also accuses the government and its backers of interfering with the free basketball clinics he runs through his foundation.

Earlier this fall, as he was leaving Friday prayer service at a Cambridge mosque, he was harassed by several Turkish people who called him a traitor. Flabbergasted that they would do this outside a house of God, he whipped out his phone to record the jeering and posted it on social media.

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The Turkish consul general in Boston, Ceylan Özen Erişen, says the opposition Kanter has encountered from Turkish-Americans is the result of his fealty to the cleric they accuse of being the failed coup’s mastermind. “Enes Kanter is trying to present himself as the voice of the Turkish people,” she tells me. “He is the voice of Fethullah Gülen and that’s it.”

Kanter calls that a distraction to what should be the main focus: the Erdoğan government’s antidemocratic actions. After all, Human Rights Watch calls Turkey the world leader in jailing journalists.

Kanter hasn’t attempted to talk to his parents, for fear of making their lives more complicated. When he learned that his sister got married last year, “I couldn’t even call to congratulate her.” He knows his parents would prefer that he keep quiet. He led a charmed life. Had he continued to focus on basketball, he would be a beloved star in Turkey, rather than a reviled one. The 27-year-old might, by now, be married with kids, free to travel back and forth to his homeland.

Instead, he effectively has no family. He has no passport (he is in the United States on a green card). He can’t even go on dates because he wouldn’t want to put someone else in danger. He asked his representatives why he didn’t have an endorsement contract and says he was told the sneaker companies are too fearful of seeing their stores shuttered in Turkey. “So,” he says, “I guess I’ll have to order my shoes online.”

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Kanter's politicization began in 2013, when he took to Twitter to allege corruption in the government of his native Turkey.
Kanter's politicization began in 2013, when he took to Twitter to allege corruption in the government of his native Turkey. Diana Levine for the Boston Globe

IF THE STRONG-ARM TACTICS were intended to quiet Kanter, they backfired. He has become only more outspoken, calling out human rights abuses around the globe. He has also demanded transparency and reckoning for past abuses, such as the Armenian genocide.

This past year, he spent a good deal of time lobbying lawmakers, notably US Senator Ed Markey, who filed a Senate bill in November “to assist those subject to politically motivated charges in Turkey.” Also in 2019, he penned several powerful op-ed pieces, including one for the Globe.

Kanter says he loves playing for the Celtics. Many of his friends in the NBA have advised him to cool his activism so it doesn’t interfere with his career, he says, “but this is about so much more than basketball.”

He also loves the international feel and intellectual energy of Boston. “Everywhere else I’ve played, people come up to you and say ‘Good game last night!’ ” he says. “In Boston, they come up to you and say, ‘Good op-ed yesterday!’ ”

This story has been updated to correct Enes Kanter’s residency status in the US.



Neil Swidey is the Globe Magazine's staff writer. E-mail him at neil.swidey@globe.com or follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.