NBA star says he was dumped for China criticism

Former No. 3 draft pick tells Congress his support for Uyghurs and Tibetans threatened the NBA’s profits.
Alex Willemyns for RFA
2023.07.11
Washington
NBA star says he was dumped for China criticism Former NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom addresses the Congressional-Executive Commission on China on Tuesday, July 11, 2023, in Washington, D.C.
Screenshot from Congressional-Executive Commission on China YouTube channel

Former NBA No. 3 draft pick Enes Kanter Freedom told Congress on Tuesday that he was blacklisted from the league after he wore shoes with messages highlighting Beijing’s persecution of Tibetans and Uyghurs, prompting his team’s games to be banned in China.

The NBA’s Chinese subsidiary is worth about US$5 billion, according to analysis from ESPN. The league has also proven especially protective of the market, rebuking a team executive who in 2019 tweeted “Stand with Hong Kong” and triggered a ban on NBA broadcasts in China. 

Speaking at a hearing on U.S. corporate complicity in Chinese rights abuses, Freedom – who grew up in Turkey before being picked at No. 3 in the 2011 NBA draft – noted he never faced issues across a 748-game career while speaking against the Turkish government’s rights abuses, and had been even encouraged to do so.

But it changed, he said, when his focus turned to China after a chance meeting with a young fan at a basketball camp a few years ago.

ENG_CHN_EnesKanter_07112023.3.jpg
Then-Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter Freedom plays in a game Dec. 2, 2021, in Boston. (Charles Krupa/AP)

“His parents called me out in front of everybody, and said, ‘How can you call yourself a human rights activist when your Muslim brothers and sisters are getting tortured and raped every day in concentration camps in China?’” said Freedom, who became a U.S. citizen in 2021. 

“I was like, ‘I promise I'm gonna get back to you,’” he said.

Free Tibet and Free Uyghurs

After learning more about the persecution of Uyghurs, which the U.S. government has labeled a genocide, and the plight of the Tibetans, Freedom said he noticed other NBA players were writing out political messages like “Black Lives Matter” on their playing shoes.

He said he decided to do the same, writing out “Free Tibet” on his shoes before a Boston Celtics clash with the New York Knicks.

Though he was not allowed to play in the shoes by team managers – who he said threatened to ban him – he remained courtside for the first half before heading into the locker room to check phone messages.

One from his manager stood out in particular.

“He said every Celtics game is banned in China. It literally took them 24 minutes – first quarter 12 minutes, second quarter 12 minutes – to ban every Celtics game on television,” Freedom told the hearing.

He subsequently agreed not to wear the shoes again.

“They were pressuring me and my manager so much, I was like, ‘You know what, I promise: I'm never going to wear ‘Free Tibet’ shoes ever again,’” Freedom said. “The next game, I wore ‘Free Uyghurs’ shoes.”

“One of my teammates walked up to me and said, ‘You know this is your last game in the NBA, right? You're never gonna get any contract after this,'” he said, adding the comment was prophetic. “February came, I got released [by the Celtics], and it was over for me.”

ENG_CHN_EnesKanter_07112023.2.JPG
Then-Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter Freedom wears shoes with “Free Uyghurs” printed on them before a game against the Toronto Raptors in Boston, Oct 22, 2021. (Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)

The 32-year-old, 208-centimeter (6-foot-10-inch) center has not played since. 

Other NBA players, meanwhile, have sought to avoid any criticism of Beijing, with Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James – the league’s all-time leading scorer – infamously pledging to not talk about China.

“I won't talk about it again,” James told ESPN during the 2019 Hong Kong protests. “I'd be cheating my teammates by continuing to harp on something that won't benefit us. We're trying to win a championship.”

Malign influence

NBA officials have denied any links between Freedom’s dumping from the Celtics and the league’s vast business interests in China.

“We spoke directly about his activities this season,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told The New York Times last year, “and I made it absolutely clear to him that it was completely within his right to speak out on issues that he was passionate about.”

But Freedom has questioned the sudden evaporation of suitors after he spoke out against Beijing. Prior to joining the Celtics in 2021, he played for the Utah Jazz – who drafted him – as well as the Oklahoma City Thunder, New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers. 

In his testimony, he noted he was picked to play in every Celtics game in the 2021/22 season prior to wearing the shoes, and reiterated past criticism that the NBA was two-faced about his criticism of China.

“If they were really supporting me,” he said of the NBA and Silver in an interview with CNN in 2021, “they would have put something out there. They would have put out some kind of statement.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey and chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, argued it was clear why Freedom is no longer in the NBA.

He noted that the star was no slouch, and remains the 61st highest ranked all-time player in terms of the catch-all player efficiency rating statistic, “a metric that basketball fans will absolutely recognize.”

“His commitment to speaking truth to power has led him to becoming ousted from the NBA,” Smith said, “but rather than buckling under or yielding, Mr. Freedom continued to stand tall and firm.” 

The New Jersey representative slammed “the NBA’s willingness to acquiesce to the dictates of the Chinese Communist Party.” 

It is a prime example, he said, of how Beijing “has leveraged its economic clout to demand political ideological compliance across American corporations, Hollywood and academic institutions.”

Edited by Malcolm Foster.

POST A COMMENT

Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.