During a visit to his native Turkey in 2015, Enes Kanter huddled his family for a conversation about some blowback he worried they'd soon endure given Kanter's growingly outspoken nature towards Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Kanter worried his family would endure harassment and possibly death threats if Kanter continued to use his NBA platform to speak out against the Turkish government.
His family pledged their support but Kanter had a bad feeling about what was ahead.
"The next day, I remember, I left our apartment, put my bags in a cab, and I turned around and I saw my mom. She was waving. And I'm like, ‘This is the last time I’m seeing my mom,’” said Kanter. "Get in the car, and we left, I’m like, 'I don’t think I’m going to see my mom again. … I got on the plane, we take off, and I’m like, ’This is the last time I’ve seen Turkey,’ because I knew where this was going.’"
Kanter’s premonition was correct. Two years later, the Turkish government revoked his passport, labeled him a terrorist, and issued an Interpol red notice that makes it impossible for him to travel outside the United States without fear of arrest.
On Tuesday, Kanter traveled to Toronto after the Canadian government ensured he could travel safely in their country when the Boston Celtics visit the Raptors on Wednesday afternoon as part of the NBA’s Christmas slate.
Kanter is thrilled not to be stuck back in Boston on the holiday when his mind would otherwise wander to those he was not near — including his teammates, but especially his family. Still the whole process only hammers home the headaches he now endures with hopes of promoting democracy in a homeland he might never set foot in again.
"A terrorist,” said Kanter, scoffing at what he’s been labeled by the Turkish government. "It’s pretty funny. I actually said it, the only thing I terrorize is the basketball rim.”
Kanter said his troubles started in 2013 when he first became vocal about the issues in his homeland. Said Kanter, “There is no freedom — of speech, religion, expression. There’s no democracy.”
The Interpol red notice means that Kanter cannot travel safely outside the United States, where he currently has a green card, without fear of arrest and return to Turkey. In the slow crawl to him becoming an official U.S. citizen in June 2021, he’s avoided any NBA activities outside the states, which nearly became an issue last season when his Portland Trail Blazers made it to the Western Conference finals and a potential Finals matchup with Toronto loomed.
But that started the ball rolling towards gaining Canada’s help in ensuring his safety if he were to travel there for a game. With the help from the Celtics, Kanter got that assurance this week and joined the team for their trip north of the border on Tuesday.
Kanter did not speak to the assembled media Tuesday and the team was tight-lipped on his situation. Mike Zarren, assistant general manager and team counsel, gave a single-sentence statement after Boston’s morning workout noting, "The Celtics don’t generally have any comment on any individual player’s immigration or personal security matters but we’re happy Enes is coming with us to Toronto.”
The Celtics need Kanter. Together with starting center Daniel Theis, he’s tag-teamed most of the big-man minutes for Boston recently with younger bigs Robert Williams (hip bruise) and Vincent Poirier (broken finger) sidelined by injury.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens acknowledged Kanter’s situation but admitted his safety was the priority in all this.
"I think we need Enes, and Enes is a big part of our team but, at the same time, obviously, for his sake and for his peace of mind, that he feels comfortable going.”
An example of why traveling abroad is so dangerous for Kanter. It was on a trip to Romania in May 2017 that he learned his passport had been revoked. A customs agent told Kanter he couldn’t enter the country.
"I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is ridiculous.’ It was very dangerous because I’m not an American citizen yet,” said Kanter. "Romania, and the Romanian government, couldn’t send me back here safely because I’m a Turkish citizen. As soon as we landed there, I was like, ‘We've got to get out of this country, we have to get back to America as soon as possible.’”
Kanter arranged for a flight to New York via London. But when he touched down in London, police entered the aircraft.
“The captain announced it: Nobody gets up,” said Kanter. “The plane doors open, police with these big machine guns walks in. I’m like, ‘If this police is here for me, it’s over. It is over. I’m not coming back to America ever again.’ They were going right, left, they were trying to search, trying to find somebody, but it was not us.”
Kanter missed his flight to New York and had to stay in the terminal overnight before making the harrowing connection home, thanks in part to a friendly Homeland Security agent.
There is no guarantee all will go smoothly in Canada, but Kanter seemed confident in the days before traveling. He’s simply happy to be with his teammates on the holiday.
“Basketball is my escape. Whenever I step on the court, it’s all about going out there and having fun, winning, fans, basketball, Tacko [Fall], Frenchie [Vincent Poirier]. It’s all about having fun.
“As soon as you step off the court, the war starts.”
Learn more about Kanter’s situation by listening to this week’s episode of the Enes Kanter Show.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Raptors, which tips off Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike and Scal have the call at 12 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.