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. 

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“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 LankfordFormer Sen. Tom Coburn dies at 72 Burr requests ethics investigation into stock sale, denies wrongdoing Senior GOP senators object to direct payments at caucus meeting MORE (R-Okla.) and Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard20 House Dems call on Trump to issue two-week, nationwide shelter-in-place order The Hill's Morning Report — ,000,000,000,000: GOP unveils historic US rescue effort Gillibrand endorses Biden for president MORE. He’s exchanged New Years greetings with President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Esper: Military personnel could help treat coronavirus patients 'if push comes to shove' Schumer calls for military official to act as medical equipment czar MORE’s personal attorney, Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiHillicon Valley: FCC chief proposes 0M telehealth program | Twitter takes down posts promoting anti-malaria drugs for coronavirus| Whole Foods workers plan Tuesday strike 12 things to know today about coronavirus Twitter takes down posts promoting anti-malaria treatment for coronavirus MORE, through direct messages on Twitter.

After a recent game against the Washington Wizards, he posed for pictures with Sens. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Coronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner MORE (D-Conn.) and Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzLawmakers, labor leaders ramp up calls to use Defense Production Act Trump faces mounting pressure to unleash Defense Production Act Rand Paul's coronavirus diagnosis sends shockwaves through Senate 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 MarkeyDemocratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers Overnight Energy: Critics blast EPA move as 'license to pollute' during pandemic | Trump expected to roll back Obama mileage standards| Group plans to sue over rollback of water law Hillicon Valley: Twitter says Chinese official's virus disinformation doesn't violate rules | Hackers target WHO | Senators urge agencies to stop coronavirus robocalls 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 WydenWhoopi Goldberg presses Sanders: 'Why are you still in the race?' Unprecedented health crisis called for historic expansion of unemployment insurance Coronavirus crisis scrambles 2020 political calculus MORE (D-Ore.); New York Knicks – Sen. Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell launches ad touting role in passing coronavirus relief Joe Biden can't lead the charge from his home in Delaware Texas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill MORE (D-N.Y.); and the Oklahoma City Thunder – Sen. Lankford. 

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He’s also corresponded with nearly all the presidential candidates, posing for photos with Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenHillicon Valley: T-Mobile, Sprint complete merger | Warren pushes food delivery apps to classify workers as full employees | Lawsuit accuses Zoom of improperly sharing user data Warren calls on food delivery apps to classify workers as full employees Biden confirms he's considering Whitmer for VP MORE (D-Mass.), messaging the “very cool” entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangAndrew Yang to launch issues-based podcast Majority of young Americans support universal basic income, public healthcare: poll Granting cash payments is a conservative principle MORE and giving Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Overnight Health Care: Trump resists pressure for nationwide stay-at-home order | Trump open to speaking to Biden about virus response | Fauci gets security detail | Outbreak creates emergency in nursing homes 16 things to know today about coronavirus outbreak 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 WickerBottom Line Stimulus empowers Treasury to rescue airlines with billion in direct assistance White House, Senate reach deal on trillion stimulus package MORE (R-Miss.), Sen. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanMnuchin says Social Security recipients will automatically get coronavirus checks Lawmakers press IRS to get coronavirus checks to seniors Who should be the Democratic vice presidential candidate? MORE (D-N.H.) and Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellKey House chairman cautions against remote voting, suggests other options amid coronavirus outbreak House Democrats plead with key committee chairman to allow remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic Congress tiptoes toward remote voting 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 OmarTexas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill Undocumented aliens should stay away as COVID-19 rages in the US The Southern Poverty Law Center and yesterday's wars 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. 

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“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.

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“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.”