Five years ago, to help promote the league’s booming popularity abroad, the NBA ramped up its Global Games program, in which teams head to world capitals like London and Mexico City to play regular season matchups that don’t mean anything, like the game on Thursday between the struggling Washington Wizards and the intentionally tanking New York Knicks. Back then, it was hard to see how the practice could be controversial, but it was also difficult to predict the international trend toward authoritarian government.
On Wednesday, reports emerged that Turkish authorities are seeking extradition for Knicks center Enes Kanter, accusing him of membership in what Istanbul considers a terrorist organization. The government of President Recep Erdogan is seeking an Interpol “red notice,” claiming that the Turkish basketball player sent funds to Fethullah Gülen, the exiled Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania, who authorities blame for a failed coup in 2016.
Kanter, a vocal critic of Erdogan, announced earlier this month that he would not travel with the Knicks for their game at London’s O2 arena, fearing extradition and execution. He told the New York Times that the Turkish president wants to arrest him because of his “platform to shed light on the human rights violations in Turkey,” and that he would be in danger traveling to London. When the extradition request was reported, Kanter turned to social media, claiming that “I don’t even have a parking ticket in the U.S.,” and that “the only thing I terrorize is the rim.” Corny, but true.
Since Erdogan was elected in 2014, Kanter has condemned the Turkish president for limiting democratic freedoms by extending his control over the military, courts, the media, and the internet. Kanter, whose avatar on Instagram is him lifting weights shirtless in a pool, has called Erdogan the “Hitler of our century.” In a recent Washington Post op-ed, he wrote that Erdogan “hunts down anyone who opposes him” and “accuses critics of being terrorists,” and called him “a dictator [that] is wrecking Turkey — people have been killed, thousands are unjustly imprisoned, and countless lives have been ruined.”
Erdogan is reportedly seeking to arrest the Knicks center for his close relationship with exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, a 77-year-old living in rural Pennsylvania. A former ally of Erdogan, Gülen is the leader of the Hizmet movement, which promotes education and interfaith dialogue; Kanter admires the leader so deeply that he informally changed his last name to Gülen after his family in Turkey disowned him for backing the cleric.
It’s a wild intersection of sports and politics — the Turkish answer to the Trump-LeBron relationship, but with extradition and mortal peril thrown in for good measure. And that’s before the White House connection. According to The Wall Street Journal, in December 2016, Michael Flynn and his son attended a meeting at the 21 Club in midtown Manhattan where representatives of the Turkish government allegedly discussed a plan to extradite Gülen on a private jet and send him to the prison island of Imrali. For their part in the exchange, the Flynns were to receive some $15 million from Turkey, an alleged deal that is being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The Knicks have demurred on the issue, claiming that their lead rebounder would not attend the London game because of a visa issue, to which Kanter responded by posting his travel documents. “They’ve got a lot of spies there,” Kanter said. “I think I can get killed there easy. It would be a very ugly situation.”
Within the basketball community, an intra-Turkish conflict is unfolding between Kanter and former journeyman forward Hedo Türkoğlu, who has held the title of “chief adviser” to Erdogan since 2016, and has called Kanter “a traitor.” Last week, he tweeted a statement opposing Kanter’s reason for skipping the game, claiming that Kanter cannot enter the U.K. because of visa issues, referring to a 2017 incident in which the center was detained in Romania after authorities seized his passport, allegedly citing his dissent of Erdogan as the reason.