In some ways, Enes Kanter is a man without a home. Kanter hasn’t been to Turkey — the country where he spent much of his childhood — in more than two years. He hasn’t spoken with his parents, who live there, in more than a year.
The isolation is a result of Kanter’s vocal criticisms of the government in his home country.
Kanter is a supporter of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric based in the United States whom Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused of orchestrating last year’s failed coup attempt in Turkey.
According to The New York Times, Erdogan has jailed tens of thousands of people accused of plotting a failed coup. In response to those actions, Kanter has been one of the most vocal critics of Erdogan. The fallout from his stance has been severe. His father, Mehmet, wrote a public letter denouncing Kanter’s views and disowning him. Kanter was detained in Romania last spring because his Turkish passport was canceled, but he was able to return to the U.S. after American officials intervened.
Last month, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported that prosecutors were seeking more than four years in prison for Kanter on charges of insulting Erdogan on Twitter.
Kanter says now that nearly all of his conversations are centered on his political stance.
“It’s never like, ‘Hey, how are you doing buddy? Are you good? How’s our family,'” Kanter says with a laugh. “They want to ask questions ask about what’s happening. It’s never a normal conversation.”
At the moment, home for Kanter is New York. He lives in an apartment located just a short cab ride from Madison Square Garden, his new workplace following a late-September trade to the New York Knicks from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Now, after just 45 games with the franchise, Kanter already feels at home in his new city with what he calls his adopted family.
Kanter discussed his new life in New York, his outspoken critiques of the Turkish government and the fallout from those comments in a Q&A with ESPN.com.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What kind of reaction have you been getting from Turkish friends and family?
My friends and my friends’ families are in jail right now in Turkey. They want to do something, but if they talk about it, only two or three people are going to hear about it. That’s why [I use my platform to talk about it]. People, even my teammates, were saying, “Why are you doing this? Are you crazy? Why are you talking about all of this politics and stuff if your family is back in Turkey?” People don’t understand that, I understand they’re my family, but there are thousands of families in Turkey right now wrongly in jail. … When I talk to my teammates and I talk them one-on-one and say, “OK, this is what’s going on in Turkey. This is the reason I’m talking. This is the reason I’m speaking publicly on social media,” or whatever. And they say, “You’re right. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Q: What was life in Turkey like before this for you?
It was peaceful. I was there until I was 17 years old. People were saying whatever they wanted to say. Journalists were saying what they wanted to say. There was freedom of speech and people were happy. … That was the best time in my life. You’re with your family. It was just a normal family. We were playing basketball, we were playing soccer. It was home-cooked meals, just peaceful and happy times. Now, it’s pretty messed up.
Last time they came to my house in Turkey to take my dad away, they took all the electronics in my house. My little brother was telling me about this. They took laptops, they took the computers, they took the cell phones. They searched them to see if I was still contacting my family. If they found one word, like saying, “Hey mom” or “How are you doing today?” then they would say, “OK, they’re in contact with Enes, so let’s put them in jail.” My dad was in jail for seven days.
Q: Why do you think your father had to publicly state that he disowned you?
Before that, my dad got fired from his job. He was a genetics professor. My dad’s siblings got fired. People were saying some crazy stuff to him on the streets. My little brother was telling me that when he went to the supermarket, they spit in his face. They said, “What kind of son do you have? … So if they didn’t make that statement, not just my dad by my whole family would be in jail.
“They took laptops, they took the computers, they took the cell phones. They searched them to see if I was still contacting my family. If they found one word, like saying, ‘Hey mom’ or ‘How are you doing today?’ then they would say, ‘OK, they’re in contact with Enes, so let’s put them in jail.'”
Knicks C Enes Kanter
Q: How does this end? Do you believe you’ll be able to reunite with your parents?
Right now they don’t have a passport. I asked my brother, “Why aren’t they coming here?” He said they have a hole in their passport, so they can’t go anywhere. I’ve got two brothers here. My brother still sends a picture of my father saying, “Hey, this is what my dad looks like. He’s over 50 years old. This is what my mom looks like.” He sends me some pictures sometimes and I look at them and be like, “They got old, they got too old.” … I look at the pictures and I say, “OK, my dad grew a beard and gained weight.”
Of course I hope one day they will come to America because I don’t think I’ll be going to Turkey anytime soon. But I hope one day they’ll be coming to America and we can hang out again like the old days.
Q: Would you like to eventually return to Turkey?
That’s my home. When I say all of this stuff about Turkey, people don’t understand. They think I don’t like Turkey. I love Turkey. I love my people. I love Turkish food and everything. But my problem is with the government. I don’t have any problem with my country, I don’t have any problem with my flag or I don’t have any problem with my people. My problem is what’s going on, the regime in Turkey right now. So when it’s over I will definitely want to go back because it’s my home.
Q: What are your impressions of living in New York?
You still miss your own food. You still miss Turkish people, talking Turkish, you still miss your culture. That’s why New York is the best place to be because everywhere you go there’s Turkish people, your friends are here, you can go to eat Turkish food every day. In Utah we had none. OKC, we had one restaurant. … It just makes you feel warmer, it makes you feel more welcome.
Q: What was the general perception of the Knicks franchise before you arrived?
Before I came here, you were hearing it or were thinking, “Oh, it’s New York, they haven’t made the playoffs for the last whatever years. The organization is not good. They’re changing the GMs and all this other stuff. People are not good there.” … But after I came, I realized that this is the place that I want to be and to play for a long time. Because people in the organization are so warm and so welcoming.
“You play at Madison Square Garden, you see all the famous people. I’m really cool with Ben Stiller.”
Knicks C Enes Kanter, on why he loves playing in New York
Q: You say you want to be here for a long time. What led you to that?
I remember during the draft I went to see a lot of organizations. But after you play in New York, you don’t really want to go anywhere else. The people around are so cool. I remember maybe it was my second month here. I was thinking, “This place is so cool, I want to retire here.” I remember one of the media guys was asking me, “Is it too early to decide because you’ve been here for not even a half season? Why did you want to decide that you wanted to retire as a Knick?” I was like, “This is the place I want to be.” You play at Madison Square Garden, you see all the famous people. I’m really cool with Ben Stiller.
Q: You have been quite outspoken against some of the Knicks’ opponents, including LeBron James. How do your teammates react to that?
I think they love it; all the outspokenness, all the tweeting, all the trolling and stuff. They love it. … I respect [LeBron James] a lot, but on the court, it’s totally different. I will try to do anything to get in their mind, get under their skin, so we can win the game. Because if they’re down, we’ll win the game. That’s why I’m fighting them on the court, trying to talk trash, trolling them on social media. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Q: What is your relationship like with teammates, coaches and the Knicks’ front office?
They were really so close to me, I’m really close to them. I’m really close with [Knicks GM] Scott Perry’s family. This makes you feel like you’re at home. I remember one time they had a Turkish Day at the practice facility. They just want to make sure that I feel welcome here. And then one of the players turned to me and asked if I felt at home. I was like, “Yes. This is a cool place.”
It was supposed to be a surprise, but someone told me about it before. I remember we were about to go to a road game and after practice — even the front office guys — everyone was there. They decorated with some Turkish carpets and Turkish pillows. You could see it was so cultured. And then one of the guys said, “We were scared because we weren’t sure if you’d want a Turkish flag.” And I said, “Of course.” So they ordered food from [a Turkish restaurant] in Manhattan.
Q: What was your reaction to that gesture?
I don’t have a family here. I only have some friends that I hang out with. The [Knicks’ Turkish Day] makes you feel — I cannot describe with words — it’s priceless, for sure. Those are the guys, the only people I got. … I see them almost every day, I play with them. I go to war with them. Whenever they sit down with you, sharing the food and the culture, it’s amazing. They shouldn’t have to do that, but they just did it to make me feel more welcome here. It just feels priceless.