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Enes Kanter shows America how to be free

SALT LAKE CITY — The truest show of American patriotism didn’t come from tiki-torch-bearing demonstrators, or from counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend.

It didn’t even come from a U.S. citizen, though he hopes to be.

Enes Kanter knows it’s not a perfect country, having lived here for eight years, but he also knows he’s free to say what he feels. The phrase “just happy to be here” aptly describes him, but not in the usual sense. He’s not only happy to be in the NBA, but in America.

As torch-bearing white nationalists marched in Virginia, the former Jazz forward tweeted a picture of the Statue of Liberty, with this caption: “America only needs one torch. It’s bigger and brighter than yours.”

No politician, speechwriter or pundit could have said it better.

This from a man who has had death threats in both America and his native Turkey. There is a warrant for his arrest in Turkey, where his father was detained by authorities. Kanter contends it has all come about because he opposes current Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But Kanter isn’t hiding; he’s thriving. He has long been known among Utahns as outspoken and outgoing. Early in his career, his social media efforts were far less sophisticated. He once tweeted from a Salt Lake restaurant that he was “looking for a blonde to eat dinner with me at my table. Does anyone wanna join me?”

It was slightly sad — a lonely 20-year-old in a strange city.

After 3 1/2 years with the Jazz, he demanded and got a trade that sent him to Oklahoma City. He called the Jazz organization “unprofessional” and noted how much better things were with his new team. That sent Jazz fans into a lather. They’ve booed him like a despot ever since.

Actually, Kanter has been fighting what he considers a real-life despot. The Thunder big man calls Erdogan “the Hitler of our century” and says friends and relatives have been jailed. Kanter’s father — who disowned him for his beliefs — was nevertheless spit on at a supermarket.

In May, Kanter’s passport was canceled by the Turkish government as he was traveling through Romania, en route to the U.S. Then came the warrant. His crime, according to the Turkish government, was belonging to a “terror group.” He says his anti-Erdogan views were the cause of the warrant.

So Kanter has taken to the American mainstream and social media with a vengeance, saying he wants to become a U.S. citizen ASAP. Right now he is a man without a country, but not without a platform. He talks about human rights and retweets Pope Francis’ calls for peace and unity.

But Kanter isn’t just a talker. He served dinner at a New Hampshire soup kitchen. At inner-city basketball camps, he treats the kids like they are his friends. He even tried his hand (unsuccessfully) at reporting. During free agency, he tweeted a photo of a locker with Rudy Gay’s name next to Russell Westbrook’s, only to discover Gay signed with San Antonio.

In between the political and basketball tweets, Kanter preaches world peace. “The most important thing in life is we need to leave our differences on the table and trying to find what we have in common,” he writes. He posted a picture of the American flag on July 4 with the comment, “Land of the free, home of the brave. Thanks, America.”

He has stated numerous times he wants to have American citizenship as soon as possible. In June he released video of himself at Niagara Falls, calling it “an amazing creation of God.”

Kanter isn’t naïve about this country’s problems, but he now calls it home. Last weekend he reminded America why it’s still special. His negativity toward the Jazz in 2014 was impulsive. But it came from a player who leads with his heart. He didn’t always play his hardest defensively as a Jazz player. That’s forgivable for a man giving his best to stand up for freedom in two countries. In all countries, really.

Kanter has seen so many changes in his native land, he may never return. His calls for peace have struck a sweet tone in an era of incivility. He has grown up a lot since those early years in Utah. Jazz fans should do the same and cheer him loudly the next chance they get.