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Although he had been a member of the Boston Celtics earlier this year, veteran center Enes Kanter Freedom was not wearing the team’s signature green uniform as the National Basketball Association playoffs began in April.
Traded to the Houston Rockets in February, Kanter (a native of Turkey, he added “Freedom” to his name after becoming an American citizen last year) was unceremoniously waived by his new team, which he believes was retaliation for speaking out about human rights abuses in China.
Now he has turned his focus entirely to activism, speaking out against Beijing’s alleged crimes, in particular the communist regime’s treatment of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority, which has been called genocidal. He has also lambasted American companies that use Uyghur forced labor to make their goods, even as they espouse progressive views at home.
And he sees the alarming images of the coronavirus lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere as vindication of his view that China’s power elite does not care about ordinary people.
“[It’s] reassuring to see the world is finally opening their eyes to the human rights violations,” Kanter Freedom told Yahoo News. “I’ve been saying this is what the communist rulers in Beijing are really doing, but the world is only now starting to shed a small amount of light on the issues at hand.”
His one-man crusade against China started last fall, when he showed up to the Celtics’ season opener against the New York Knicks in custom-made sneakers sure to provoke Beijing with their message: “Free Tibet.” After the game, Kanter Freedom took to social media, lambasting Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “brutal dictator” for his unwillingness to grant more freedom to Tibet.
Chinese broadcaster Tencent, which had signed a $1.5 billion deal with the league, responded quickly by announcing it would not show Celtics games during the 2021-22 season.
Four days later, Kanter Freedom took to the court against the Charlotte Hornets with a new message emblazoned on his size 16 sneakers: “Made with slave labor,” it said in large black letters, identifying “Hypocrite Nike” as the culprit. Red paint simulated splashes of blood.
Nike is one of nearly 100 Western companies alleged to have used Uyghur slave labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (the corporation denies the charge). The athletic gear company has a $1 billion licensing deal with the NBA, whose China operations are worth an estimated $5 billion, with more NBA fans there (500 million) than people, fans or not, in the United States.
In other words, Kanter Freedom was attacking a nexus of politics, commerce, sports and human rights. And he kept doing it, figuring that the same league that had supported his criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would similarly endorse his anti-China protests.
Instead, he said he found NBA Commissioner Adam Silver elusive and unsupportive, more concerned with profit than with adhering to the moral positions the league purportedly embraced.
The league denies Kanter Freedom’s accusations. “We have always supported and will continue to support every member of the NBA family, including Enes Freedom, expressing their personal views on social and political issues,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass told Yahoo News.
Kanter Freedom continued his footwear provocations throughout the fall.
“No Beijing 2022,” one pair of sneakers read, protesting the Winter Olympics about to be held there.
“Taiwan belongs to the Taiwanese people.”
His criticism came amid a less-than-stellar performance on the court. Kanter Freedom was having a middling season, his body starting to show the wear of a decade of professional basketball.
In February, Boston traded Kanter Freedom to Houston, which promptly waived him, leading to speculation that he would never play basketball in the United States again. Although he maintains that his lack of a new contract is political, others insist that comparisons to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is unable to find a job after deciding to kneel for the national anthem, are not accurate.
“I don’t think he won’t get a job because of anything he’s said or done,” one NBA team executive said. “I think he just doesn’t guard, and the game is changing. He plays a lot older than he really is.”
For the first time since 2014, Kanter Freedom was not playing in the postseason. He has, instead, become an increasingly political figure, expanding his activism to a number of causes. He was recently in New York, attending a book party for American financier and Vladimir Putin foe Bill Browder. As the Celtics faced the New York Nets in the playoffs’ first round, he was in Washington, D.C., for the White House Correspondents’ Association gala, at one point posing for a photograph with White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Instead of trying to shut down Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets — the Celtics’ first-round playoff draw — he met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Blinken’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo, as well as with CIA Director William Burns. Encouraged by Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, he pleaded with the billionaire to buy the NBA as well.
The Nets would have presented Kanter Freedom with an especially compelling target. Team owner Joseph Tsai is close to China’s political ruling class and has been deemed “the NBA’s unofficial spokesman for China’s government.” Last year, Kanter Freedom called him a puppet of Beijing. This year, he had to watch Tsai’s squad suffer a 4-0 sweep at the hands of Boston on television.
If the Celtics do win it all, and custom holds, he will get a championship ring. But it may not matter all that much, given how distant his NBA career suddenly seems. “Activism is, like, the No. 1 thing for me right now,” he says. “There are bigger things than basketball.”