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Ex-Player to Congress: China Criticism Derailed His NBA Career

Since coming to America as a teenager to attend school and play basketball in 2009, Enes Kanter Freedom, now 31, has been learning important lessons about his adopted country.

One of his most vivid memories from his first years in America is overhearing a teammate criticizing the president of the United States.

“I was very scared for him, I thought he was going to be thrown in jail. I even asked him: ‘Hey, aren’t you scared?’” Freedom recalled in an interview with VOA last year. He said his teammate laughed and reminded him that “this is not Turkey.”

The teammate went on to explain American principles of freedom of speech, religion and the press.

“I was shocked and amazed at the same time,” he remembered. Freedom said he did some research and realized that “not every country in the world is like Turkey.”

In November 2021, he chose to become an American citizen and adopted Freedom as his official last name. He said he did so because he wanted Freedom to be literally a part of his identity “and carry it everywhere I go.”

Freedom became a vocal critic of the Turkish government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, especially in response to an extensive crackdown after an attempted coup in July 2016.

Freedom told a congressional panel this week that, in the years since, he has been struck by another reality in American political life: It is OK to criticize the Turkish government, but things can get tricky if one speaks out against the practices of the People’s Republic of China.

“For the last 10 years, I have been talking about the problems happening in Turkey, human rights violations, political prisoners over there. … When the topic is Turkey, the [National Basketball Association] is very supportive, especially commissioner Adam Silver, my teammates, the coaches, and the five [teams] I played for, and that gave me so much hope and motivation to fight the dictatorship in Turkey,” Freedom told the Congressional-Executive Commission on China at a hearing on Tuesday.

The 2.08-meter (6-foot-10-inch) basketball player said things changed when he began to speak up against China’s human rights record in places like Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and its threats against Taiwan.

Freedom said he began criticizing China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim community about three years ago and saw the earlier support from his basketball family disappear.

“I was doing a basketball camp in New York with Congressman Hakeem Jeffries,” now the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, Freedom told the congressional panel.

“After the camp [ended], I was taking pictures with the kids one by one, and I remember taking a picture with this kid, and his parents called me out in front of everybody. ‘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?’” he said.

Since then, Freedom, a Muslim by birth and by faith, has become one of the most recognizable faces in calling the world’s attention to the plight of the several million Uyghur Muslims in northwestern China.

“I wanted to do something for them, in a unique way,” he said. That uniqueness found expression in the athletic shoes he would wear to games.

“When I was a kid, whenever I was watching an NBA game, the first thing I looked for was the shoes,” he said. “What color they are, whether they seemed comfortable, and the next day I would tell my dad: please, buy those shoes for me!”

Fast forward to 2021 and Freedom, now earning millions of dollars as an NBA player, turned to his shoes to send a message about his beliefs. He had seen other players wear shoes with political messages in support of Black Lives Matter, Black Revolution and George Floyd, the Black man whose death while in police custody in 2020 led to worldwide protests over police brutality.

“Free Tibet” were the first words he painted onto his footwear, designed by the renowned Chinese dissident artist Badiucao, living in exile in Australia. The next game, Freedom’s shoes had “Free Uyghurs” painted on them.

In his written testimony to the congressional panel, Freedom said:

“After the third game, one of my teammates walked up to me and said, “Enes, you know this is your last year in the NBA right, if you ever criticize China, NIKE then you never gonna be able to play basketball in this league. So have fun, smile and I hope we win a championship this year because this is your last year, and your basketball career is going to end.”

“And that’s pretty much what happened,” he told the congressional panel on Tuesday. “February [2022] came, I got released, it was over for me.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has insisted that Freedom’s departure from professional basketball had nothing to do with his political activism or the league’s attempts to expand in the lucrative Chinese market.

“We spoke directly about his activities this season,” 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.”

Responding to a question from Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from the western state of Oregon, Freedom said the last year and a half has been a bit lonely.

“I played 11 years in the NBA … the one thing that broke my heart: after I got released, not one of them texted me, not one of them called me. I was shocked,” he said. “They were just scared that if I do an interview, or a podcast, they just didn’t want me to mention their name, because they knew that if I ever say [publicly] ‘oh, this player supported me, this player said this and that,’ all their endorsement deals will be gone.”

It is uncertain whether he’ll ever get another call from the NBA, but Freedom’s activism and his ability to communicate have prompted congressional members and interviewers to raise the question: Would he ever consider a run for office in this country?

“When the time is right,” Enes told VOA on the sidelines of the hearing. Prodded about when that might be, he said perhaps 2028.

“Right now, whatever I say may likely offend half of the country,” he jokingly said.

Human rights are nonpartisan, and the cause of freedom is “bigger than basketball,” he has often said.

Asked where he would run from, Freedom smiled: “Florida. Warm and relaxed,” in stark — and welcome — contrast with the tense couple of years he’s had.

Source : VOA News