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NBA Star Enes Kanter Freedom: 'What I'm Doing Is Bigger Than Basketball'

FILE - Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter Freedom looks toward the team's bench during the first half of an NBA basketball game Dec. 1, 2021, in Boston.

Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter Freedom, an 11-year National Basketball Association (NBA) veteran, is known for his activism both on and off the court. A devout Muslim, he's a prominent critic of the government of his native Turkey and the Chinese Communist Party. Turkey revoked his passport in 2017 and jailed his father, who was released in 2020. On Chinese search engines the 6-foot-10-inch basketball player's name brings up no results since he began opposing Beijing's alleged mistreatment of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority, in Xinjiang. China denies the allegations of human rights violations, but Kanter comes up as "player No. 13" in searches for the Celtics scoring table.

VOA Mandarin spoke with the Swiss-born, Turkish-raised NBA player last month in Boston. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NBA Star Enes Kanter Freedom
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Q: Mr. Freedom, you have a unique last name. What does it mean to you, since it's your name of choice and not from your parents?

A: I remember my first time coming to America in 2009, I came here to play basketball and go to school at the same time. I remember we were in the locker room and one of my teammates criticized the president of America. And I was very scared for him because I thought that he was going to be thrown in jail.

I even asked him … ‘Hey, you know … aren't you scared?’ He turned around and laughed and said, ‘This is not Turkey.’ And he tried to explain to me a little bit about what freedom of speech means. I was still very shocked and amazed at the same time, and I researched, and I found out that not every country in the world is like Turkey.

And that's why I wanted to make that word part of me and carry it everywhere I go. I also want all the young kids out there, NBA fans, sports fans out there, to just research about what freedom means and (that's) why I chose that last name.

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Q: Recently former NBA star Yao Ming invited you to visit China. You accepted his invitation and invited him to visit labor camps with you. Do you think that Yao Ming will come along, and will (Chinese President) Xi Jinping give you a visa?

A: I really wanted to go, and I wanted to go see. But I told him, ‘I don't want propaganda. I don't want a luxury tour of China. I want to see the real China and show the whole world what's going on over there.’ I said that if I'm coming to China, let's go visit (Uyghur) labor camps in Xinjiang, let's go visit Tibet together. Let's go visit Hong Kong. And after that, we can fly to Taiwan and see what democracy means.

And obviously, after I posted that video, I was very shocked that he (Yao Ming) blocked me on Instagram. I even put a tweet out and said, ‘That's what the little kids do.’ I think what I will say to Yao Ming is: ‘Stop being a puppet of the Chinese Communist Party. Stop being a mouthpiece of Communist Party and Xi Jinping, if you want to have a real conversation, you know where I live. Just come here and we can have a conversation.’

NBA Star Enes Kanter Freedom
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Q: When people search Enes Kanter Freedom using Chinese search engines, there're no results. It's as if you don't exist. What is your response to that?

A: Well, I'm actually kind of used to this. You know in Turkey, they ban my Twitter account, they censor all my basketball games in the whole country, and they censor my name because they're scared. They know that I'm exposing them. And now when I saw that the Chinese government is doing the same thing, it actually gave me extra motivation because I know whatever I'm doing is right. Whatever I'm doing is really scaring them.

Q: Does being outspoken on human rights issues make any difference in your life as an NBA star? Have you faced pressure from (Celtics) management, the league, or the sponsors?

A: I remember the first time I put my 'Free Tibet' shoes on my feet. There were two gentlemen from the NBA and they came to me on the bench right before the game, and told me that 'We are begging you take those shoes off.' And I asked, 'Am I breaking any rules?' They said no. Then I told them, 'Go tell your boss, whoever it is, (NBA Commissioner) Adam Silver, the Celtics owner, and whoever you're talking to, I'm not taking my shoes off. I don't care if I get banned or if I get fined.' And they said OK.

That game was right before my citizenship test, and I was getting ready for it. There are 27 amendments, and my First Amendment (right) is freedom of speech. I didn't want them to take that away from me.

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Q: Being a basketball player and an activist at the same time, does it get a little bit overwhelming sometimes?

A: It could get overwhelming, yes. But at the end of the day knowing that you're doing this for innocent people will always give you extra hope and motivation. Everyone thinks I'm a basketball player. Yes, I am a basketball player, but I think what I'm doing is bigger than basketball.

I want to make this very clear: I don't do politics. Some people say that: stay away from politics, focus on basketball. But there's a big difference between politics and human rights.

I never said vote for this guy, don't vote for this guy. I always say we need to free political prisoners, we need to have human rights, we need to have freedom of speech, we need to bring awareness to countries like Taiwan or Ukraine. So I feel like this is bigger than basketball.