Boston Celtics Center Enes Kanter On How Being An Outspoken Human Rights Activist Keeps Him Focused On The Court

Boston Celtics Center Enes Kanter has become almost as famous off the court as he has been on since joining the team earlier this year. The former New York Knicks player has been outspoken with unwavering passion defending the basic human rights of the people in his native Turkey. Kanter has even started a campaign, You Are My Hope, to raise awareness of Turkey’s human rights record.

We caught up recently with the 6-foot-10-inch NBA player to chat about being an outspoken human rights activist, looking at a possible post-NBA career with WWE and his predictions for this season’s Celtics team.

You have been an outspoken critic of your native country’s President Recep Tayip Erdogan, which has garnered lots of media attention lately. What made you decide to speak out?

How could I not? Tens of thousands of innocent people are imprisoned for years; some of them are tortured or kept under poor conditions. The president is suffocating the country’s democracy, curbing freedoms, and violating even the most basic rights of people. I wouldn’t live with myself if I didn’t speak up. 

You have received death threats, had your passport revoked by Turkey and your father was even arrested. How do you ensure what’s going on in your personal life doesn’t impact your performance on the court?

To be frank, my work to advocate for rights in Turkey has actually helped me to be a better man and a better athlete. I am more driven and I play with more passion. Basketball is my escape and when I step on to the court, I forget what is happening outside of the game. I 100 percent focus on my game and give my full, undivided attention to get the best out of me and contribute to our win. 

Photo Credit: Enes Kanter Foundation

Will you continue to be outspoken on the Turkish government’s repression?

As long as people’s rights are suppressed, I will be out and front, calling out the Turkish government for gross abuses of rights and for undermining our hard-won freedoms. They have done whatever it takes to silence me, including intimidating and arresting family members, sending their goons on the streets of Boston to harass me and issuing an international arrest warrant. The more they put pressure, the more resolve I have to speak out even louder. And no, I am not going to stop. In fact, I started a campaign called You Are My Hope and I am hoping to collect a million signatures on to raise awareness about the dismal human rights record in Turkey. 

In your view, how would you describe the perfect leader for the people of Turkey?

I believe in institutional checks and balances more than a “perfect leader.” A good person can always be corrupted unless they are checked by another power, like the parliament or the judiciary. Once you have strong institutions that check an elected leader, they hold him or her into account, ensure that they don’t abuse their power and essentially make them a “perfect leader.” Especially in politics, when people say one thing to get elected and mean another, it is hard to understand who is “good” and who is “bad.” The best way is to install a mechanism that will assure checks and balances. That’s why American democracy has been so resilient for three centuries. 

When you were growing up, you wanted to be a soccer player. What sparked your interest in basketball?

They always made me a goalkeeper because I was tall [laughs]. It was boring for me and I said to myself, why not try basketball? I did and I am very grateful that I did. 

Is it true you are considering a post-NBA career as a wrestler?

That’s been my childhood dream, yes. I love WWE and I can’t wait to join after my basketball career. I have a great relationship with WWE, and I have amazing friends there who are currently wrestlers. I am already the youngest WWE 24/7 champion in its history, so it is not a bad introduction to the industry [laughs]. 

Best thing about moving to Boston from New York (besides playing in the best sports city in the world?) 

I am still very new in this city, and I am exploring new exciting things to do, and I absolutely love it. The fans and the community have been tremendously welcoming. I met with federal lawmakers from Massachusetts, the attorney general, university presidents, and several public figures. Their support for my cause and their welcoming attitude was priceless. It’s a very influential city. People used to come up to me and say ‘good game last night,’ but in Boston people are coming up to me and saying ‘good op-Ed’ or ‘read your article about Turkey; keep doing what you are doing.’ And that gives me so much hope. 

What does Boston do better than New York?

Nothing beats New England’s beauty in the fall, and hardly is there any city that is bustling with students like Boston. Apart from its glorious history and European-style city architecture, that is, I believe, is very unique to this city. 

To be fair, what does New York have over Boston?

Crazy taxi drivers, food smelling streets and New York bagels [laughs].

How do the fans compare?

I have the most amazing fans — there is no doubt about it. When I leave a city for another team, my fans keep supporting me wherever I am. I still have a lot of friends and fans in Oklahoma City, Portland and New York. And I am excited to see how vibrant and passionate fans here in Boston are. To be honest, they are the ones that keep me moving forward. Their unparalleled support is a source of inspiration and a motivation for me to do what I do, both on the court and outside. 

Predictions for this season’s Celtics team?

We are obviously always aiming for the best, and we are doing pretty good so far. My teammates and I are very committed to displaying our best work on the court and advance to the playoffs. We have amazing cohesion and understanding among team members, and we are playing better and better every week. Every game is the most important for us, and we make our best efforts to maximize points and winning the night. That’s what we have on our mind every time we step on to the court.