On January 17, the NBA will go international when the New York Knicks and Washington Wizards face off in a regular-season game in London, England.
But one key player will not be making the trip, because he fears for his life.
Enes Kanter, a center for the New York Knicks and native of Turkey, has been an outspoken critic of the government there — especially of hardline President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Kanter now feels that his life would be in danger if he were to travel overseas.
“Sadly, I’m not going because of that freaking lunatic, the Turkish president,” Kanter told ESPN on Friday. “There’s a chance that I can get killed out there. So that’s why I talked to the [Knicks’] front office. I’m not going.
FREEDOM IS NOT FREE pic.twitter.com/v3qHvHsibF
— Enes Kanter (@Enes_Kanter) January 5, 2019
“It’s pretty sad that just all this stuff affects my career and basketball, because I want to be out there helping my team win. But just because of that one lunatic guy, one maniac or dictator, I can’t even go out there and just do my job. So it’s pretty sad.”
Kanter is a strong supporter of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric that Erdogan’s government blames for a failed coup attempt in 2016.
His fears about his safety are not unwarranted. In 2017, when Kanter was traveling during the NBA offseason, the Turkish government revoked his passport and Kanter was detained at a Romanian airport. U.S. State Department officials had to intervene to get Kanter back to the United States.
Later that year, prosecutors for the Turkish government announced they were seeking a four-year prison sentence for Kanter because of his public insults directed towards the authoritarian leader.
Kanter’s father has been arrested by the Turkish government, and faces up to 10 years in prison, solely because of his son’s advocacy. In an article for Time last year, Kanter said that his criticism of Erdogan has had a negative impact on almost everyone in his life, and that he has not been able to go back to Turkey for almost four years.
Still, because of the human rights abuses committed by the Erdogan regime, Kanter has vowed to keep speaking up, no matter the personal risk.
“I’m getting death threats almost every day, still,” Kanter told CBS in 2017. “I believe when I leave this set, when I leave this room, I’m going to keep getting death threats, but you know what? I stand by what I believe.”