Enes Kanter sees political stardom — after NBA and WWE

Enes Kanter sees political stardom — after NBA and WWE
© Scott Wong

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. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“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 LankfordJames Paul LankfordMcConnell works to lock down GOP votes for coronavirus bill Charities scramble to plug revenue holes during pandemic Warren calls for Postal Service board members to fire DeJoy or resign MORE (R-Okla.) and Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardRepublicans call on DOJ to investigate Netflix over 'Cuties' film Hispanic Caucus campaign arm endorses slate of non-Hispanic candidates Gabbard says she 'was not invited to participate in any way' in Democratic convention MORE. He’s exchanged New Years greetings with President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Third judge orders Postal Service to halt delivery cuts MORE’s personal attorney, Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiTrump says Christie, Giuliani assisting debate prep The Hill's Campaign Report: GOP set to ask SCOTUS to limit mail-in voting CIA found Putin 'probably directing' campaign against Biden: report MORE, through direct messages on Twitter.

After a recent game against the Washington Wizards, he posed for pictures with Sens. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyGOP online donor platform offering supporters 'Notorious A.C.B.' shirts Democratic senator calls for 'more flexible' medical supply chain to counter pandemics The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Don't expect a government check anytime soon MORE (D-Conn.) and Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzDemocrats blast Trump after report reveals he avoided income taxes for 10 years: 'Disgusting' Democrats turn focus to health care for Supreme Court fight Democratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' MORE (D-Hawaii).

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 MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyManchin opposes adding justices to the court A game theorist's advice to President Trump on filling the Supreme Court seat Watchdog confirms State Dept. canceled award for journalist who criticized Trump MORE (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 WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline Democratic senators ask inspector general to investigate IRS use of location tracking service MORE (D-Ore.); New York Knicks – Sen. Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats blast Trump after report reveals he avoided income taxes for 10 years: 'Disgusting' Biden refuses to say whether he would support expanding Supreme Court Schumer says Trump tweet shows court pick meant to kill off ObamaCare MORE (D-N.Y.); and the Oklahoma City Thunder – Sen. Lankford. 

ADVERTISEMENT

He’s also corresponded with nearly all the presidential candidates, posing for photos with Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Democrats blast Trump after report reveals he avoided income taxes for 10 years: 'Disgusting' Overnight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds MORE (D-Mass.), messaging the “very cool” entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangThe shape of guaranteed income Biden's latest small business outreach is just ... awful Doctor who allegedly assaulted Evelyn Yang arrested on federal charges MORE and giving Joe BidenJoe BidenNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Biden campaign sells 'I paid more income taxes than Trump' stickers Trump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose MORE 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 WickerRoger Frederick WickerThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Republicans lawmakers rebuke Trump on election Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Key Democrat opposes GOP Section 230 subpoena for Facebook, Twitter, Google MORE (R-Miss.), Sen. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanDemocrats step up hardball tactics as Supreme Court fight heats up Congress needs to prioritize government digital service delivery Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic MORE (D-N.H.) and Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellHouse to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power Swalwell calls for creation of presidential crimes commission to investigate Trump when he leaves office 'This already exists': Democrats seize on potential Trump executive order on preexisting conditions MORE (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 OmarIlhan OmarOmar urges Democrats to focus on nonvoters over 'disaffected Trump voters' Omar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Trump attacks Omar for criticizing US: 'How did you do where you came from?' MORE (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. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“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.

ADVERTISEMENT

“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.”