“How can the biggest dictatorship in the world control a 100 percent American-made organization and put pressure on them to fire an American citizen?”
I sit down with NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom. After playing 11 seasons, his career abruptly ended when he made headlines, speaking out about human rights abuses in China.
“NBA is not the only one,” says Freedom. “You see Hollywood, you see Big Tech, you see academia, you see Wall Street, you see Congress … They’re pretty much trying to invade America from the inside because they know they’re not strong enough to invade America from the outside.”
Freedom tells me about what made him the man he is today, and what gave him the courage to stand up to major multinational corporations and the Chinese Communist Party.
He grew up in Turkey under a repressive regime, and was ultimately forced to choose between family and principle.
“They sent police to my house in Turkey and they raided the whole house. And they took every electronic away: phones, computers, laptops, iPads, because they wanted to see if I am still in contact with my family or not … They put my name on the Interpol list. So, until this day, I am pretty much an international criminal,” says Freedom.
Enes Kanter Freedom, such a pleasure to have you on American thought leaders.
Enes Kanter Freedom:
Of course. Thank you for having me.
These days you are building a foundation that’s going to focus on basketball as a unifying force in the world and I want to talk to you about that. But before we go there, I really want to talk to you about how we got here, because not too long ago you were scoring and getting some pretty great numbers in the NBA. Why don’t we start at the beginning?
Of course. I was eight years old, and I decided to play a sport. It’s funny, soccer was number one in my homeland Turkey, and I wanted to be a soccer player growing up. I just loved the game, but just because of my height, and because of how big I was, my teammates were just making me a goalie. I was like, “You know what? I cannot do this anymore. I’m just going to switch to sports.”
I actually started playing basketball very late. I was 14 years old when I first started to play basketball. Five years later I became an NBA player when I was 19. Obviously in Turkey, you either have to pick education or sports, you cannot really do both. My family actually wanted me to come to America. They wanted me to play basketball and get my education at the same time. I’m glad that I made that choice because I went to high school here. I went to college, and I’ve played 11 beautiful years in the NBA.
It’s a very different reality in Turkey. This is something that you talk about, and that you know about. You have been quite vocal about issues you see in many places around the world, but it started there.
Until my second year in the NBA, I really didn’t care about anything as much as playing basketball, and having fun with my teammates. Pretty much that was it, that was my whole life. And then back in 2013, it was my third year in the league, there was a big corruption scandal that happened in Turkey. President Erdogan and some of his family members were involved in it. I was following the news after he got cut. He was going around and putting innocent people in jail—journalists, prosecutors, judges, and people who own media outlets.
And then after that he started to go around and shut down media outlets. I wasn’t an NBA player, I wasn’t even educated about the situation, so I just put a tweet out there. Because of the NBA platform, it became a conversation in the United States, in Turkey, and in many other countries around the world. I was like, even one simple tweet can affect this much.
I was like, from now on I’m going to start to educate myself and study about what’s going on. I remember after that moment going forward, my teammates were going out having fun, and going out to clubs and bars. I was going back to my house, and I started to study. I was studying the things happening between America and Turkey, what’s happening in Middle East, and the political structure in Turkey. The more I studied, the more I realized I needed to talk about these issues.
So, I ended up writing an op-ed to one of the biggest newspapers in the world. I started to give interviews, and I started to sit down and meet with some people. The things that were happening in my country, I was very vocal about it because it’s human rights. I never talk about the political side of my country or anywhere in the world. I really try to avoid that.
I’m going to do a little bit of a segue here because there is this view, and actually it’s a view quite popular here and it’s certainly the view in communist China, which is relevant to our discussion, that anything you do is political. Anything you do, and everything you do is politics. So, what do you think about that?
If you look at all my interviews, if you look at everything that I’ve ever talked about, if you look at all my op-eds that I wrote, every word of them, even on these dictatorships, I never talk about politics. I have never said, “Okay, we should vote for this guy. Or we should take him out.” I say, “This regime needs to go because they’re violating so many human rights violations. There is no freedom of speech, religion, expression, movement, or protest.” Because when you say human rights, that is the one thing that is going to connect to both sides, Right and Left. That’s what I’m hoping for.
That’s why after my basketball career ended. I came here to DC, and I sat down with many senators, many congressmen, and many people in very important positions. I was like, “Well what now? Should I get into politics?” All of them said, “Absolutely not. Because in America, the country is divided so much right now, once you get into politics, you’re going to lose 50 per cent of the people. Just keep focusing on the message you have in your head and try to bring two sides together.”
I agree with you that everything isn’t politics, but I feel like we’re often dragged into it by people who are very politically-minded.
True. But like I said, I have my message and I’m just going to keep talking about it. I started to talk about the problems that were happening in Turkey. It affected me and also my family. My dad was a scientist. He got fired from his job. My sister went to medical school for six years. She still cannot find a job. The saddest one was my little brother.
He was 12 years old, and he wanted to be like his big brother, play in NBA one day, represent his country, and represent his family doing something he loved. But he was getting kicked out of every team because of the same last name. They were getting affected so much they had to put a statement out there and said, “We are disowning Enes publicly.” Actually, the letter is still out there on the internet. Everyone can find it.
The Turkish government didn’t believe that. They sent police to my house in Turkey, and they raided the whole house, and they took away all the electronics, phones, computers, laptops, and iPads. They wanted to see if I am still in contact with my family or not. They couldn’t find any evidence, but they still put my dad in jail for a while. But we put so much pressure on Turkey from here with the media, politicians, celebrities, and the NBA, that they had to let him go. After that, they revoked my passport. They put my name on Interpol. Until this day, I am pretty much an international criminal.
This is an incredibly difficult decision that people who choose to be courageous with their voices have to make. What was it like seeing that letter from your family?
I remember going to a practice that day and it was all over. First it was in Turkish media, then one of the American media picked it up and one hour later, it was everywhere in the world. All the media were talking about that letter. And I mean it was tough. I remember going to a practice that day and all my teammates were looking at me in the locker room and just because it was so personal, they were scared to come and ask me, “Hey man, are you okay?” But I could have just seen in their eyes that they were worried for their teammate.
So, I had to tell them. I’m like, “Listen, it’s a different system in Turkey.” There are so many people who talk about the regime in Turkey outside of the country, but just because of Turkey wants to shut them up, they put their family members in jail and they torture them. Unfortunately, it is like that in many countries around the world. Iran is like that. China is like that. Russia is like that. Turkey is one of them. Yes, that’s what the government does.
How difficult is it to have lost that contact?
Family is more important than everything. That’s your mom, that’s your dad, that’s your siblings that you grew up with. It was very tough. I have not seen them for almost 10 years now, it’s almost been 10 years. And just because the Turkish government listens to everything on their phones, they track their IP numbers, they are doing whatever they can to just make their lives miserable. They’re not even allowed to leave Turkey. They took their passports away.
They said, “Oh, you’re not allowed to leave the country.” Like I said, again, it doesn’t matter what you stand up for at the end, that’s your family. That’s what my teammates were asking me, “Dude, I understand you want to stand up for something so beautiful, but at the end that’s your family.” But then I tell them and say, “Listen, my family’s only one. I understand it’s my family at the end, but it’s only one.”
There are so many families in the jail right now waiting for help. There’s a really good website, I don’t know if you have heard of it or not, turkeypurge.com. And if you go on this website, you see the numbers. Right now, there are 17,000 innocent women are in the jail getting tortured and raped. There are so many kids and babies that are in jail with their mothers, and there are so many academics and professors who have lost their jobs. Many media outlets have been shut down. Now, I have the power to actually put a lot of pressure on to just release people or change it. I do work with a lot of people in DC, so they’ve been helping me a lot.
We will be talking about China shortly and that’s the country I’m most familiar with. These types of impossible decisions that we’re talking about right now are something that people have to make. We have a mutual friend, Anastasia Lin, who experienced a very similar situation when she did her activism as Miss World Canada. You mentioned that your career in the NBA ended, but I think officially you’re still in the NBA, right?
I am officially. I did not announce my retirement, which I am not going to until age 50 or 60. Because whenever I do an interview, whenever I go on the shows, when people call me former NBA player, I stop the interview and I fix it and I say, “Listen, I’m not a former NBA player, because that’s what destroys the NBA.” The NBA’s like, “You know what? Once he declares his retirement, okay, we know 100 per cent that he’s not going to try to play for any of the teams he can.” But right now, I’m still working out, still in good shape, 30 years old, healthy and I can play. I could start with many teams out there. So, I’m not announcing it.
Let’s go back to how you started thinking about China. It seems pretty clear why you were thinking a lot about the reality in Turkey, but what turned you on to the reality in China?
For the last 10 years, I’ve talked about the problems happening in Turkey. Just last summer, I’m doing a basketball camp in New York. I had an amazing basketball camp with this congressman, Hakeem Jeffries. After the basketball camp, we are taking pictures, I’m taking pictures with the kid. They come in and get autographs and stuff. I remember taking a picture with this kid and his parents literally were right there, like a couple feet away.
She said, “How can you call yourself a human right activist when your Muslim brothers and sisters are getting tortured and raped every day in concentration camps in China?” I’m still smiling for the camera, for the kid. I was shocked because he literally called me out in front of everybody. The media was there, a lot of my friends were there, kids were there, parents, everybody. I took the picture with this kid, and I turned around and I said, “I promise I want to get back to you.”
You didn’t know about this at the time?
I was hearing it, but I was just focused on Turkey so much, and obviously my plate was so full, and my family was there. I’m always trying to get them out of there, my friends, my neighbors. I really focused on Turkey. So, that day I canceled everything. I went back to my hotel, and I started to study about what’s going on. The more I studied, the more I was ashamed of myself.
I cannot believe for the last 10 years I was just focusing on one dictatorship. Once you’re going to talk about some of the important issues around the world, you have to know if they are facts or not, if they are fake news or real news. So, I called my manager that night, I said, “I need you to find me a concentration camp survivor.” He found one, and it was a lady.
We sat down and we had a one-hour conversation. She was telling me about all the torture methods. She was telling me about the gang raping. She was telling me about organ harvesting, forced sterilization, and abortion. She told me how many people are in there, and how many people are getting killed in those concentration camps. And she was telling me about how seven Chinese policemen one night took her and raped her and they were biting every part of her body.
It’s actually on YouTube and you can go and find her very easily. I don’t want to expose her name. She was telling me about this electric stake and these Chinese police were putting that electric stake in her private parts. I don’t want to go into too many details, because I don’t know who’s going to watch this interview. Because if a kid watches it will really literally will leave a scar in their head.
These are utterly barbaric methods that have been used on any group that’s targeted by the regime.
Exactly. I don’t want to go into too much detail. At the end of our one-hour conversation, I asked her, “Okay, how can I help you?” She said, “I’m good. I don’t need your help. I don’t want you to help me.” And I stopped for a second. I’m like, “What are you talking about? We just had this one-hour conversation for no reason?” She said, “No, I’m good. I’m in America. I can go wherever I want. I can do and say whatever I want. I can eat whatever I want. Don’t help me. Help those people in the concentration camps.”
So, I started to study. I started to talk to people. From one topic, you can jump into another one, because once you focus on Uyghurs and then there’s another link that pops out. Then you click on what’s happening in Tibet. Then you click on what’s happening in Hong Kong. Then you see Taiwan. Then Falun Gong. Then Mongolians. I was like, “Wow.”
And the only thing that I couldn’t see, that I didn’t see is that there is not one celebrity. Forget about athletes, singers, rappers, actors, whoever you are that are not talking about this country. They talk about all the other problems. They talk about Iran, Saudi Arabia, they talk about Russia, they talk about North Korea, but when it comes to China, they’re silent. I was like, “Okay. I guess that’s my job now.”
Why do you think there’s this deafening silence around the CCP and not these others?
I’ll give you an example from my story. When I grew up I was obviously a huge NBA fan, and a huge Lakers fan, actually. If the Celtics fans hear this, they’re going to be mad at me. Whenever I watched an NBA game, the first thing I was watching was the shoes. What color are the shoes that these players are wearing, what brand it is, is it comfortable? The next day I was waking up and telling my dad, “Please buy those shoes for me.” Every kid in the world loves shoes.
So, I came up with this idea. I was like, “Let’s find these artists around the world who have been oppressed by their government and let’s reach out to them and ask them to create these shoes for us. Not slave labor shoes. We are going to put all the struggles, all the violations and everything on the shoes—what’s happening in Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and with the Uyghurs, organ harvesting, surveillance cameras, and concentration camps.” And then obviously, we went to different topics—Venezuela and Cuba and Iran and Russia and North Korea.
I remember my first game. It was the Celtics against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, opening night for New York, on national TV with ESPN. The whole country was watching. It was the perfect moment, and my first topic was Free Tibet. The reason I wanted to do Tibet and not the Uyghurs was because I didn’t want people to say or think, “He’s only doing it because he’s Muslim.”
And I grew up as a fan. So, I put the shoes on. I went out there. I started to warm up. A minute before the game, the game hadn’t started yet. A minute before the game, two gentlemen came from the Celtics. They were working for the NBA. They said, “You got to take your shoes off.” And I was very confused. I’m like, “What are you talking about?”
Because I did a lot of research, and there’s no rule against it. Two years ago, when they put us in the NBA bubble, all the players were putting on their shoes; Black Lives Matter, “I cannot breathe,” Breonna Taylor. I’m like, “If that is the case, then I can say, Free Tibet.” I can say, Stand with Hong Kong. I can say, Stand with Taiwan. I can say, Free Uyghurs. They said, “Take your shoes off.” I’m like, “Why?”
They said, “Your shoes have been getting so much attention internationally.” It was from China, but they didn’t say it was from China. They said, “You got to take off your shoes. We’ve been getting a lot of pressure.” It was a perfect moment for me, because I was just getting ready for my citizenship test. I closed my eyes. I was like, “Okay, there are 27 amendments.”
The first amendment is freedom of speech. I told them, “I’m not taking my shoes off. Even if I get fined, I’m not taking them off.” And they said, “We are not talking about a fine. We’re talking about getting banned.” I was like, “Wow. They’re really threatening to ban me because of my shoes.” I didn’t take them off, obviously. The first half of that game, I played zero minutes. I went back to my locker room, and I looked at my phone.
There were thousands of notifications. I clicked on the one that my manager sent me. He said, “Every Celtics game is banned in China.” That clearly helped my case. That pretty much shows the dictatorship and the censorship that is happening and how scared they are. In that game I played zero minutes, but I had played in every game before that.
After the game, my phone was ringing. When I had talked about the problems that were happening in Turkey, they did not even call me once. Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, texted me twice and said, “We got your back. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
When I talked about the problems that were happening in China, my phone was ringing once every hour. The NBPA, the Players Association, to whom I paid thousands of dollars every month to protect my rights against the NBA, were calling me and saying, “You cannot wear those shoes ever again, because we are getting pressure from the NBA.”
They pressured me and my manager so much. I was like, “You know what. Promise. I’m not going to wear Free Tibet shoes ever again.” They said, “Promise?” I said, “Promise.” We hang up the phone. The next game, I wore the Free Uyghurs shoes, and they called me after the game. They were like, “You’re a liar. You lied to us. How could you do it?”
I’m like, “First of all, I never lied to you. I never said, I’m not going to wear Free Uighurs shoes. I just said, “I’m just not going to wear Free Tibet shoes.” At that moment, they understood that they’re not going to be able to handle me. After the second game, a guy called me, his name is Daryl Morey. He was the first guy who had tweeted and said, “Stand with Hong Kong.” And then, the NBA lost millions of dollars.
He said, “Listen, they made me apologize. They made me take my tweet down. They made me say, sorry. Don’t you apologize. You keep doing what you’re doing.” I was like, “Wow, this is crazy.” After the first game, after the Tibet game, one of my teammates walked up to me and said, “This is your last year in the NBA, right? Have fun with it, enjoy it. But if you say anything against China, you’re not going to be in the league ever again. I hope you win a championship, but this is your last year.”
I know you’ve told this story a number of times. It’s still unbelievable to me the soft power that the Chinese regime exercises, even with such a prominent, massive, iconic organization in America.
That was the one thing that really was driving me crazy. The biggest dictatorship in the world can 100% control an American organization and put pressure on them to fire an American citizen. But the more I talk to some people, and the more I have done research, the NBA is not the only one. You see Hollywood, you see Big Tech, you see academia, you see Wall Street, and you see Congress and local government.
They’re pretty much trying to invade America from the inside, because they know they’re not strong enough to invade America from the outside. By buying these people, organizations, companies, they’re pretty much trying to destroy America from the inside. People are letting them because they are bowing down to money. They are bowing down to power. And the more I researched, America is not the only one.
You see all the other Muslim countries around the world, all the Muslim leaders, when it comes to any other issue that is happening to Islam or Muslims around the world, these leaders, these sheikhs, these presidents or dictators come out and say, “It’s wrong. What’s happening to the Muslims is wrong.” But when it comes to Muslims in China, the Uyghurs, they’re silent. Why? Because of the economy. Why? Because they are scared of China, and what China could do to them.
I keep seeing this hypocrisy. The one thing that made me really sad was my teammates. I was very disappointed. I told them what Nike is doing. I was like, “Listen, in America, Nike is beautiful. Nike stands with Black Lives Matter, no Asian hate, the LGBTQ community, and the Latino community. But when it comes to China, I’m sure you guys know about the slave labor and sweatshops. They cannot say a word about it in this country or they will lose billions of dollars.”
That’s hypocrisy. It was the perfect moment for me because it was just right before the Beijing Olympics. I literally tried to reach out to everyone. Forget about the NBA, NFL, MLB. MLS, NHL. Forget about America. I tried to reach out to Olympians. I tried to reach out to athletes in other countries, including my teammates. They said, “Listen, I think what you’re doing is so amazing, so inspirational. You are sacrificing a lot. We love you, we support you, but we just cannot do it out loud.” I asked them, “Why?” They said, “Well, we have shoe deals and endorsement deals. We have jersey sales. We want to get another contract.”
What do you think would have happened if the NBA decided to stand with you?
The thing is, more people watched NBA games in China last year than the American population. Around 450 million people watched NBA games in China. So, the Chinese government cannot just ban the NBA in China. It’s a bluff and the NBA is buying it. If not only me, but if a couple players joined me, it would have become a movement. If players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić, or these players that have made a name for themself in the NBA and signed with companies like Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, and Puma, they could come out and say, “You know what? Enough is enough. We are sick of the NBA’s hypocrisy.”
The NBA was the first organization where there were Black Lives Matter protests in America. The older players said, “Okay, we are not playing any games. We are protesting. There are problems happening in this country. We have to take a stand. We have a huge platform. We can inspire millions of people.” I’m like, “Okay, human is human. You either have no heart, no empathy, or you just care about money and business. The things that you stand up for in America are not going to cost you anything, not going to cost your money or business or any kind of endorsement deals.”
It’s only really a statement when there’s a cost. Would you say?
100%. I see these