Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden recently wrote a letter signed by more than 50 senators urging the Biden administration to push Turkey on its human rights record.


Wyden, a Democrat, has been vocal in his criticism of the Turkish government for several years. In that time, he has also become close to Enes Kanter, the Turkish-born star of the Portland Trail Blazers.

Wyden and Kanter are a bit of an odd couple. They’re separated by more than a generation, by religion, and by the countries where they grew up. But they’ve forged a common bond over shared interests: basketball, politics and an outspokenness about human rights abuses by the Turkish government.

Kanter’s father has been targeted by Turkish authorities for years on accusations of being part of a terror group. He was eventually acquitted of terrorism charges and released this past summer. Kanter says playing basketball actually provides him with time to think about something less heavy than the pressures his family faces back home.

Portland Trail Blazers center Enes Kanter (11) prepares to pass the ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021.

Portland Trail Blazers center Enes Kanter (11) prepares to pass the ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Michael Ainsworth / AP

“Basketball is my escape,” Kanter said, “Whenever the practice is over the conversation begins again: ‘What can I do to help those people over there?’”


Wyden says one of the things he admires the most about Kanter is his willingness to use his platform to help others.

“We couldn’t have gotten 50 United States senators of both political parties on a letter urging the Biden administration to press the Turkish government for human rights reforms without my friend Enes Kanter,” Wyden said. " “I mean, you can hardly get 54 United States senators … to agree to buy a Seven-Up.”

Wyden went to the University of California, Santa Barbara on a basketball scholarship, and had dreams of playing in the NBA himself before he turned to politics.

“The cold reality sunk in early in my sophomore season,” he said “I was playing just a few minutes, and I just looked up and I said, ‘My God, I’m 6 foot four inches tall, and I make up for it by being really slow.’”

Kanter says seeing Wyden at work has inspired him to think about a career in politics after basketball.

“It was so amazing to see how much people can change and how much impact politicians can have in people’s lives,” he said.

Wyden has some advice for Kanter if he chooses that path: Keep listening.

Kanter has some advice for Wyden too, in case he decides to play basketball again: “It’s never too late, you know? I mean, with Senator Wyden’s dedication, his discipline and his love for the people, hey, like I said again, it’s never too late.”

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