Celtics star hounded by Erdogan fans

This story has been updated to reflect that Bijan Rafiekian’s conviction was recently overturned.

Enes Kanter was just trying to pray, but supporters of Turkey’s authoritarian leader found him on a sidewalk in Cambridge and turned a visit to a mosque into something darker.  

The new center for the Boston Celtics was leaving the Islamic Society of Boston with fellow big man Tacko Fall last Friday when Kanter was accosted by a man taking cellphone video who followed the two to their ride. Kanter said that man and other “thugs” there who he said threatened him are supporters of President Recep Tayyip Edogan, who has led Turkey for more than 15 years and is now on the brink of war in Syria.

It was one of two incidents that day that thrust the National Basketball Association, and to a lesser extent its fans, into the menacing fray of international politics.

That same day, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted and then deleted a show of support for protesters in Hong Kong, who have spent months in the streets demonstrating to try to preserve some independence from China’s rule.

“Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” Morey wrote, unleashing a fury from that nation’s autocratic leaders. The league, the team’s owners, its star shooter James Harden, and the owner of the Brooklyn Nets all essentially sided with China, whose corporate interests abandoned the Rockets, according to Deadspin, which likened the ferocity of the blowback to Gamergate.

Kanter himself tweeted a vague sentiment, which NESN interpreted as support for Morey. Kanter wrote that the NBA has stood on the side of freedom and democracy during his ongoing clash with Erdogan and that has “made all the difference.”  

Sports fans have at times reacted angrily to political viewpoints seeping into the game.

A couple years ago, President Trump browbeat the owners of the National Football League into discouraging their players from kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against police brutality in the United States.

The cauldron of Middle East politics may be even more treacherous than the years-long uproar over police shootings.

Erdogan’s supporters, including government officials, brutally beat protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington in May 2017, and Kanter accused Turkish “goons” of frightening a mosque in New York into cancelling a free basketball clinic for youths last summer.

In addition to criticizing Erdogan’s rule, Kanter has run afoul of the government by aligning with the controversial cleric Fethullah Gülen. Erdogan blamed a failed violent coup attempt in 2016 on Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania.

It gets weirder.

Michael Flynn, Trump’s short-lived national security advisor, has been accused of proposing a kidnapping of Gülen, which he denies, and Flynn’s former business partner, Bijan Rafiekian, was convicted this summer of illegally lobbying for extradition of Gülen on behalf of Turkey. The jury’s verdict, however, was overturned by a judge who found the prosecution had not presented sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction.

Turkey is now on the brink of war with Kurds in Syria. Trump on Sunday night announced he would pull US troops out from the region to make way for Turkish forces, which many – including Senate Republicans – saw as an abandonment of the Kurds who had been crucial in defeating the Islamic State.

For Celtics fans, that may be all background noise, but questions remain of direct relevance to the team: Will Erdogan’s supporters continue to harass the star center, and who exactly are they? The Cambridge Police Department’s public log does not appear to document Friday’s incident, and from his video it didn’t appear that any of his antagonists attempted to physically hurt him, but in his tweet about it Kanter tagged the FBI and its Boston field office as well as the Boston Police.

In January, Turkey put out an international warrant for Kanter’s arrest, and Kanter has met with Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden to talk about how to enable him to travel abroad. When he was playing in Portland, Kanter had a panic button installed in his home that would summon federal officials, according to ESPN.

Will basketball fans pay any attention to the political cross-currents buffeting their sport? The season opener is in two weeks. 



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