Turkish basketball player Enes Kanter is not afraid to say what he thinks, especially about his own country. Photo: AFP/Al Bello/Getty Images

When it comes to basketball, there’s no need to make America great again. They’re pretty damn great already, thanks, and soon both China and Japan will be able to get up close and personal with that greatness.

The US men’s basketball team will roll into Shanghai this summer looking to defend their FIBA Basketball World Cup gold medal while simultaneously redefining the genre of prohibitive favorites. 

One year later they will dribble into Tokyo to defend their Olympic gold medal as an equally mind-numbing favorite. Nothing short of an apocalypse will stop them from gold in Asia this summer or next and while there are a number of nations who also now feature NBA players, the US is simply too deep. 

But hey, silver still shines and all of these wonderfully talented teams vying for second are full of faces basketball fans easily recognize. Teams like Turkey, with five current NBA players, are one of those deadly shooting Euro teams capable of beating most nations, outside of the US, on any given day. 

Conquering heroes

In 2010, the Turks lost to the Americans in the World Cup final but were still celebrated as conquering heroes at home for capturing silver. Along with Poland and Japan, Turkey will be competing in the same group as the US and when they play each other on September 3 in Shanghai, they will be the only team in the opening rounds who makes the US blink at least momentarily. 

It’s a fairly weak group and Turkey should easily advance as the second place finisher, should being the operative word because these things are always more difficult when your most talented player is not on the roster. 

Enes Kanter is the best Turkish basketball player in the world, but he will not be anywhere near China this year, or next. Kanter, the highest drafted Turkish player ever at number three overall by the Utah Jazz in 2011, has one overriding issue – he just won’t shut up. 

Looking the other way

No doubt if he came to China for the World Cup, he would bemoan the host country’s persecution of the Uighurs, the Turkic Muslims who inhabit Xinjiang province. Every player on the Turkish team knows of the brutal crackdown, they just won’t say anything. 

And every player on the Turkish team knows even more profoundly of the brutal crackdown on human rights and any form of dissension back home under the rule of President for life Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

But just bounce the ball, boys, and look the other way, which they do. All except for Kanter. He has called Erdogan “a lunatic, a maniac and a dictator,” and subsequently been branded a terrorist by the Turkish government, who have issued an international warrant for his arrest.  

It has been almost four years since Kanter has visited Turkey and it sounds like it will be a while before he returns. “The last time I visited, the government destroyed my brothers’ school and threw my dentist and his wife in prison,” he told Time magazine. 

While Kanter is unyielding in his resolve and undaunted in his government attacks, he does have a job he needs to tend to and right now that job is getting the Portland Trail Blazers through to the Western conference finals. 

Currently down 3-2 to the Denver Nuggets, the Blazers have not been to the conference finals in 20 years and will need a Herculean effort to advance. Kanter came to the Blazers in a March trade from the New York Knicks hoping to give them depth at the big man spot behind center Jusuf Nurkic. 

But when Nurkic went down, Kanters’ role was elevated with positive results, although you would never know it in Turkey. After a solid game two effort with 15 points and nine rebounds in a victory over the Nuggets, his performance was deleted from the NBA Turkey twitter site. 

Naturally, Kanter was not pleased and aimed his wrath directly at Erdogan.

“Whoever runs the official account, NBA Turkey, lives in Turkey,” said Kanter. “Look how sad this is. They can’t even put my name out there because they are scared.”

Not only are they scared, they are now unemployed after the NBA moved swiftly to fire the vendor who runs their Twitter account in Turkey in a public show of support for Kanter. 

But it is certainly better to be unemployed than to be dead and no one understands better than Kanter that the Twitter vendor was merely taking orders from above. He can’t be surprised by the possible repercussions – just look at the plight of his brother and his dentist. 

Herein lies the crux of Kanter’s crusade. The Turkish government has revoked his passport, so he is now living in a stateless limbo. He won’t leave the US and refused to travel with the Knicks earlier in the year to play in London for fear of assassination attempts from Turkish agents. 

While he is waiting for approval of his US citizenship, he is in lockdown mode and if the Trail Blazers happen to play the Toronto Raptors in the NBA finals, he may not be able to travel to Canada for the games. It’s a longshot, but who knows in sport. Still, like most refugees in the US, he will take no chances. 

But unlike almost all refugees, he is making just under US$18 million a year in salary to cushion the blow. Kanter does not, however, see it as living in a gilded cage. He wants to use his high profile as a voice of freedom and is a vociferous tweeter and social advocate.   

For now, he is coping with the grueling physical and mental demands of the playoffs. Not only is he playing extended minutes with a brutally painful separated shoulder, he is also in the midst of a 30-day fast for Ramadan. Of course, Enes Kanter would be the first to tell you that all of this is the easy part.   

Tim Noonan is a writer based in Bangkok and Toyko, covering sports and culture. Follow him on twitter @T_NoonanEast

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