Former Celtic who risked NBA career to speak out against China receives human rights award  

Enes Freedom Enes Freedom | Human Rights Foundation

It was during halftime — 24 minutes after the NBA game began — that Enes Kanter Freedom learned from his manager that every single Boston Celtics game was to be banned from broadcast in China for the rest of the 2021-22 season. 

Why? Because the 6’10” Freedom, the third player selected in the 2011 NBA draft, wore a pair of shoes expressing his solidarity with Tibetans, victims of human rights abuses in China. 

This was just one in a series of Freedom’s stands recognized by the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice this week when he was awarded its top honor on Dec. 7 at a celebration in Washington, D.C. 

Named after courageous congressman Tom Lantos, whose special devotion to human rights lives on in the foundation established in his name, the Lantos Human Rights Prize goes to an outspoken defender of human rights, a qualification that Freedom regularly and passionately fulfills.

The story of the shoes

From a young age, Freedom watched NBA basketball in his native Turkey, always obsessed with the shoes of the players. What color shoe? What brand? And what did the player do in them? 

This focal point would later become a launching pad for shedding light on abuses in China.  

“I wanted to put all the struggles, all the stories on the shoes — which are made with no slave labor involved — and I want to go out there and play basketball,” said Freedom, who commissioned drawings for shoes from artists around the world and ultimately landed on a pair that said, “Free Tibet.”

Tibet, like other areas of China with distinct religious and ethnic groups, has suffered under the pressure of sinicization by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Referred to by scholars as cultural genocide, the region has been forced to comply with CCP mandates of cultural unity. 

“I remember my first topic was ‘Free Tibet,’ and right before the game these two gentlemen from the [Boston] Celtics came to me and said, ‘Take your shoes off.’”

Freedom’s answer would test his knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, something he was studying in his citizenship classes at the time. According to the two men, Freedom was gaining “too much attention internationally,” something he registered as “obviously … from China.” 

He closed his eyes, recalled the 27 amendments, settled on the first in the Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of speech, and said “no.” 

Then the fallout began. China canceled all broadcasts of Celtics games for the entire year. Pressure from the NBA mounted, too.

Enes Kanter Freedom. Credit: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Enes Kanter Freedom. Credit: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“I didn’t even play that game,” Freedom recalled. “After the game, obviously they put so much pressure on me. The players association, NBPA, called me and said, ‘You can never wear those shoes again.’ They pressured me so much and I was like, ‘I promise you, I’m not gonna wear ‘Free Tibet’ shoes ever again.’”

Freedom wore a pair of “Free Uighur” shoes the next game. 

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“I never said I’m not gonna wear ‘Free Uighur’ shoes,” Freedom said. “I just said I’m not going to wear ‘Free Tibet’ ones.”

The backlash set in again — death threats, constant notifications, trolls — and this time it wasn’t televised NBA games that were banned, but, as he points out, Freedom himself. 

The 30-year-old former star has not played since February of last year and is now a free agent. He has reason to believe he will never play in the NBA again. 

“After the first game, one of the players came to me and said, ‘You know this is your last year in the NBA, right? Because you talk about China, you talk about Nike. You’re never going to get another contract, so just have fun with it. I hope you win a championship, but this is your last season,’”Freedom said.

“I can play another six years. I’m healthy. My body feels healthy. But right now, unfortunately, I talked to many people and there is not going to be an NBA for me because I believe that I’ve been blackballed … because they’re scared that any team that is gonna sign me is going to get a lot of backlash from the Chinese government,” he stated. 

The cost of courage

Freedom’s activism did not start with human rights abuses in China but with a corruption scandal within his native Turkey. What began as a conversation on Freedom’s high-profile Twitter account began to change the situation in Turkey. 

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“Even one simple tweet can affect so much,” recalled Freedom after this incident. It inspired him to start paying more attention to his country — and to grow more outspoken. His witness came with a cost.

“The things that I talked about [began] affecting me and my family,” Freedom said. “You know my dad was a scientist. He got fired from his job. My sister went to medical school for six years. She’s searching, not finding jobs.

“I think the saddest one was my little brother because he was playing basketball — he wanted to be like his big brother. He was getting kicked out of every team because he had the same last name and he asked me about it. 

“He was too young to understand.”

Pressure mounted when his father was jailed, even though the family repeatedly informed the Turkish government that they had no connection with Freedom, who was in the United States. 

Ultimately, his father published a letter online disowning his son on behalf of the family and begging him to change his last name. Years later, after he became a U.S. citizen, he chose the name Freedom.

His father was released from prison, but Freedom was banned from the country, placed on an Interpol list, and treated as an enemy of the state. 

Despite the heavy cost, Freedom continued to educate himself on causes such as the human rights abuses in China and speak out after he did so. 

Why the Uighurs?

In the summer of 2021, Freedom, who is Muslim, participated in a basketball camp for kids in New York. During a photo with one child, the parent questioned his credibility as a human rights activist. 

Freedom recalled the words to this day: “How can you call yourself a human right[s] activist when your Muslim brothers and sisters are given torture and rape[d] every day in a concentration camp in China?”

He spent the next day fulfilling a promise to get back to the parent after studying the topic. What he found shocked him so much that he asked his manager to find him a concentration camp survivor to speak with. Freedom wanted both to learn more and ask how he could help. 

“She told me about all the torture methods, gang rapes happening over there. She told me about the forced sterilization and abortion. She told me about the organ harvesting. And she told me about how many people actually are in there and also getting killed,” Freedom said. 

According to CNA, an estimated 1 million Uighurs are detained in concentration camps in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region located in Northwest China. 

But it was the survivor’s response to his offer of help that surprised him. Safe in America, she instead asked him to use his voice to help those in the concentration camps.  

“I don’t care what it costs,” he said to himself. “I need to stand up for these people.”

Aware that the NBA could be a platform for change through his experiences speaking out about Turkey, he felt interiorly convicted. 

“God gave me this platform to be the voice of all those innocent people out there who don’t have a voice, so I’m just gonna go out there, do whatever I can to bring awareness about what’s going on,” he said. 

He did it — through shoes — in his unique way and across his platforms. Now, as doors continue to close to the world of sports, he attempts to open others to freedom across the world. 

“Enough with [just] the condemning,” said Freedom, who struggles with the limitation of having only a voice. “We have to start taking some solid action because people are dying.”

“There’s a second genocide happening and we have to do something about it.” 

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