"If I'm in America, I'm safe": Knicks' Enes Kanter explains why he won't travel to London

By Christopher Brito

/ CBS News

Knicks' Enes Kanter on travel fears

New York Knicks center Enes Kanter, a native of Turkey and a harsh critic of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will be staying home when his team travels to London to play the Washington Wizards next week. The 6-foot-11-inch NBA veteran said last week he worried he would "get killed" or kidnapped by operatives of the Turkish government if he left the U.S.

In an interview with CBSN's "Red & Blue" Wednesday, Kanter discussed his international feud with the Turkish leader, and explained why he fears for his life over his support for a dissident cleric who Turkey considers a terrorist.

"If I'm in America, I'm safe. I feel very safe," Kanter said. "But if I step outside of America, it will be a very dangerous situation. I'm facing lots of arrest [warrants]."

He told CBSN he originally planned to travel with the team for the international NBA showcase, despite restrictions that would be imposed by team officials for his safety.

"[The team] said, 'Yes, you can go to London. But if you go to London, all you can do is go to practice, come back to your room. Go to the game, come back to your room. And you have to be with security 24/7. And you cannot leave your room, besides practices and the game,'" Kanter said. "And I was OK with that."

Kanter said he wanted to be with his team, but the Knicks front office eventually decided to err on the side of caution.

"They're like, 'You know what, it's not worth it. It might be very dangerous for you to just go there. It's not worth risking,'" he said. Kanter said he feared being kidnapped by Turkish spies and sent back to his home country.

"I'm not going to risk my life to go there, when Erdogan's long arms [are] everywhere," he said.

He said he felt safe in the U.S., but revealed the Knicks' security team urges him to avoid going anywhere alone, and encourages him to check in with them beforehand if he has to.

Kanter's feud with Erdogan goes back years. The Knicks center was critical of Erdogan following a bombing and failed coup attempt in the Turkish capital of Ankara in 2016, which Erdogan blamed on Fethullah Gulen, an influential Islamic cleric who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Months after the coup attempt, Erdogan told "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft he wanted the U.S. to extradite him to Turkey.

"This man is the leader of a terrorist organization that has bombed my parliament," Erdogan said. "We have extradited terrorists to the United States in the past, and we expect the same thing to be done by the United States."

Who is Fethullah Gulen?

Kanter is a supporter of Gulen and still talks to and visits him frequently. His relationship with the cleric has come with repercussions, including death threats and being cut off from his family. His Turkish passport was canceled while he was overseas in 2017, leaving him stranded in Romania. Mehmet Kanter, Enes' father, was indicted on charges of "membership in a terror group" in 2018 and faces a lengthy prison sentence if convicted.

"If [Erdogan] cannot put you in jail, then he will take your family away and put them in jail, and say, 'If you don't stop running against me, I'm going to keep your family in jail,'" Kanter said. "And that's what he tried to do to me. He tried to put my dad in jail. He thought I was going to stop talking, but that made me even talk about things more, so people can see."

The decision not to travel to London earned Kanter the scorn of Hedo Turkoglu, a former NBA player who now serves as an adviser to the Turkish president. Turkoglu blasted Kanter on Monday for launching a "smear campaign" against Turkey, claiming Kanter wasn't able to travel abroad in any event due to "visa issues." Turkoglu accused him of "trying to get the limelight with irrational justifications and political remarks."

Kanter told CBSN he once thought of Turkoglu as his "big brother" during their time playing together on the Turkish national basketball team. But those days are over — Kanter called him "Erdogan's lap dog" on Twitter in response to Turkoglu's comments.

"It's very sad to see. He [doesn't] want to speak the truth," Kanter told CBSN.

He also stressed that he has no visa issues and even showed CBSN a copy of a travel document allowing him to fly internationally. He's currently a green card holder and is on track to be a U.S. citizen in 2021, but that hasn't stopped some fans from offering to help expedite the process.

"I was getting tons of marriage proposals, saying, 'I'm an American citizen, if we get married, you can be a citizen too,'" he said. "I'm just going to wait two more years. When I stepped in America outside of the plane, I said, 'I came home.'"

First published on January 9, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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