While the NBA Finals dazzle us all, there’s another story playing out in pro basketball, a sinister tale revolving around Turkish center Enes Kanter. 

Kanter’s Oklahoma City team was eliminated from the playoffs long ago. But what’s happening with him right now is dark. It’s troubling. 

And it’s something we should all be paying attention to, no matter how seductive it is to simply tune out the real world while we slip into the sweet embrace of these hotly anticipated NBA Finals. 

Like LeBron James’ powerful comments this week, Kanter’s story shows there’s really no way of “sticking to sports,” as the saying goes, no way of separating these games from a political world that lately seems set to a raging boil. 

It all starts with Kanter’s Twitter account. Here’s a post he made Friday morning, just hours after Game 1 of the NBA Finals had concluded. 

A few weeks prior, Kanter tweeted out a video that shocked the world and was retweeted more than 12,000 times. 

Kanter said he was in Romania, being guarded by police, that his Turkish passport had been canceled, and that Turkish authorities wanted to arrest him. He got away, but narrowly. 

‘He may get tortured simply for being my family member.’

Kanter speaks to reporters after being detained in Romania.

Image: AP/REX/Shutterstock

Kanter was raised in Turkey before moving to the U.S. to play basketball as a teenager and then entering the NBA Draft in 2011. He’s a Turkish citizen, and an outspoken critic of the country’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Kanter is a vocal supporter of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish preacher currently living in Pennsylvania. After a failed coup attempt last July, Erdogan blamed Gülen and his backers. But Erdogan also used the failed coup attempt to do something else: consolidate power. 

Here’s what happened next, via Amnesty International:

An attempted coup prompted a massive government crackdown on civil servants and civil society. Those accused of links to the Fethullah Gülen movement were the main target. Over 40,000 people were remanded in pre-trial detention during six months of emergency rule. There was evidence of torture of detainees in the wake of the coup attempt. Nearly 90,000 civil servants were dismissed; hundreds of media outlets and NGOs were closed down and journalists, activists and MPs were detained. Violations of human rights by security forces continued with impunity, especially in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country, where urban populations were held under 24-hour curfew. Up to half a million people were displaced in the country. 

This is what Kanter is caught up in, all for his political beliefs. This, he says, is why Erdogan tried to get him arrested in Romania while the NBA player was traveling the world to run basketball camps. This, Kanter says, is why his father was arrested.

“My father is arrested because of my outspoken criticism of the ruling party,” Kanter wrote on his website Friday. “He may get tortured for simply being my family member.”

Erdogan is practicing authoritarianism and repression — and earning praise from Donald Trump while doing so. 

Why you should care, random American NBA fan watching the Finals at home. 

Erdogan and Trump at the White House in May.

Erdogan and Trump at the White House in May.

In April, Erdogan was victorious in a controversial referendum, one that election observers called unfair, one that granted Erdogan still more powers, and one that further reduced the democratic voice of Turkish citizens. 

Within hours, Erdogan received a congratulatory call from President Donald Trump, who has also expressed admiration for other authoritarian leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte. 

Erdogan, for example, has jailed journalists. Trump reportedly advocated the same to former FBI head James Comey. When Erdogan visited Washington recently, his bodyguards beat up American citizens protesting him outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence — a shocking act of violence that still hasn’t drawn any White House rebuke. 

Critics of Trump worry that he aspires to authoritarian rule along the lines of how Erdogan, Putin, and Duterte run their countries. Is this just liberal hysteria? 

Look around you. Look what’s happening with restrictive voting laws. Look at the Trump administration’s blatant disregard for facts. Look at Trump’s efforts to delegitimize independent media with cries of “fake news.” 

Now consider the title of the piece Kanter wrote for The Players’ Tribune after his passport ordeal: 

“They Can Take Away Your Country, Just Like That.” 

Is that a headline? Or is that a warning? 

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