The NBA playoffs have been swept up in diplomatic drama, with US senator Ron Wyden expressing concern for the safety of Portland Trail Blazers player Enes Kanter if his team play the Toronto Raptors in the NBA finals.
Kanter is a fierce critic of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, calling him the “Hitler of our Century”. The Turkish authorities in turn have accused Kanter of having links with an armed group behind a failed coup in the country in 2016. Last year, Kanter missed a trip to London with his then team the New York Knicks, saying he feared he could be “killed by Turkish spies”.
Portland face NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors, in a seven-game series starting on Tuesday night. The winner will face the Milwaukee Bucks or the Toronto Raptors in the NBA finals, which start at the of May.
Wyden, a senator from Oregon, wrote to Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday, asking for “safe passage” for Kanter. “I ask your government to facilitate Mr Kanter’s safe passage to and from Canada should the Portland Trail Blazers play the Toronto Raptors in Toronto, Canada, in the upcoming NBA finals,” the letter reads. “I also urge your government to state publicly that it will not comply with any Interpol red notice meant to interfere with Mr Kanter’s livelihood and to intimidate him and his family back in Turkey.” In January Turkey requested an Interpol red notice for Kanter’s extradition and arrest on terrorism charges.
Kanter, who supports the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen who Turkey blames for being behind the 2016 coup, denies being a terrorist. “The only thing I terrorise is the rim,” he wrote on Twitter earlier this year.
On Tuesday, Kanter told ESPN in a text message that his criticism of Erdoğan has made him a target. “Even if Senator Wyden and PM Trudeau does their best, Dictator Erdoğan will try using/abusing all his powers to manipulate red notice system through Interpol,” Kanter wrote. “As you know, I am a law abiding citizen both in Turkey and here in the US. I never broke a single law in my life, didn’t even have a parking ticket, but Turkish government cancels my passport … WHY? it’s simply because I’m an outspoken critic of Dictator Erdoğan. So, Erdoğan might push all his chances through Interpol, which I believe he tries abusing it.
Turkish sports broadcaster S Sport say they will not show any games featuring Kanter. “I can say clearly that we will not be broadcasting the Warriors-Blazers series,” S Sport commentator Omer Sarac told Reuters. “Furthermore, if Portland makes it to the Finals, [that] will not be broadcast either … This situation is not about us, but it is what it is.”
Although the Trail Blazers have enjoyed a superb season, they are underdogs to beat the Warriors and make the finals. Golden State have dominated the NBA for the last few seasons and have won the title in three of the last four years.