In one of the most meaningful moments of his life, the gregarious Enes Kanter Freedom had to be himself.
He appeared Monday at the Joseph Moakley Courthouse to officially become a US citizen wearing a black T-shirt in 30-degree weather that read: “U.S. Citizen: est. 2021.” His application for his name change and citizenship was a mere formality. Both were approved quickly as he spent more time taking photos and shaking hands with court officials.
“We did it,” he said. “I waited for this for like six years now. It’s finally happened. It’s like a dream come true. You can call me Mr. Freedom.”
Walking out of the courtroom into the cool evening, Kanter Freedom looked like a man who had just unloaded years of stress and anxiety off his broad shoulders. For years he was a man without a home. He was banished from his native Turkey in 2017 for his open criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
He hasn’t seen his parents in nearly a decade. While Kanter Freedom is one of the friendlier and more talkative players in the NBA, he admitted he has received multiple death threats for his opinions on Turkey and the treatment of Uyghurs, who are of Turkish descent, in China.
It’s been a lonely journey for Kanter Freedom, sometimes he’s been a man on an island screaming about injustices that he feels are largely ignored by his athletic brethren. But he won’t quiet down. He won’t relent.
“America has taught me so much,” he said. “You’ve got freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of press. Just because of what you guys are writing, you guys are not in jails. But so many of your colleagues in Turkey are suffering and are in jail because they are doing their job. I want to carry that word [freedom] with me everywhere I go.”
Kanter Freedom is unapologetic about his stances and his opinions. He fully understands that the NBA wants a positive relationship with China because of its financial investment in the league. Chinese folks buy sneakers, too. Many are big NBA fans but also protective over any criticism of their country.
Because of Kanter Freedom’s opinions, many of which were written on his sneakers during games, China pulled Celtics games from television in October. Kanter Freedom’s messages have become stronger and more profound, and he believed until recently that his actions were costing him minutes on the floor.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka, who said he has not had extensive conversations about Kanter Freedom’s off-court comments, said it was more the team’s depth at center and Kanter Freedom’s struggles on defense limiting his playing time.
Recently, when Robert Williams went down with knee issues and a non-COVID illness, Kanter Freedom has played meaningful minutes, including the entire fourth quarter in the Celtics’ 109-97 win Sunday over the Toronto Raptors.
Kanter Freedom said his social messages expanded beyond Turkey after he hosted a basketball camp where a camper’s father asked how could he consider himself a spokesman for human rights when he’s ignoring the situation in China. Kanter Freedom said he was embarrassed and promised the father to research the issues.
“The more I studied, the most I seen all the violations were happening [with Uyghurs] in China,” he said. “And when China is involved, there’s so many athletes, singers, rappers, celebrities who are scared because obviously whatever they talk about is going to affect their business and endorsement deals and contracts.
“To me, I don’t care about any of that stuff. Morals, principles and values are way more important than endorsement deals they can offer me.”
Kanter Freedom went on to admonish the International Olympic Committee for holding the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and he has also gone after Lakers’ star LeBron James for his silence on what Kanter Freedom believes is Nike’s exploitation of Uyghurs in labor camps. James is one Nike’s biggest spokespersons.
“I’m definitely calling out, not just athletes, but all these governments and countries, to boycott the Olympics,” Kanter Freedom said.
And he said he has no fear, despite the threats, despite the vitriol he faces on social media
“This is God’s work,” he said. “I’m not scared of anybody. I’m not scared of China, anyone I’m outspoken against because I know I’m doing this for innocent people.”
Kanter Freedom said his teammates wanted to give him a party but he said he just wanted some cupcakes. Although many of his teammates may not agree or understand his stances, they do respect his opinions. That’s all he asks.
“My teammates [in past years] were the ones who give me the motivation to fight for what’s right,” he said. “It definitely means a lot to me. They were my family. They gave me a welcome from Day One. They became like my brothers, good days and bad days.”
When asked about his playing time being taken away, he said he definitely thinks the league is closely watching his every action.
“That’s the decision that [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver and China are going to make, obviously you see after I talk about some of the issues, I don’t know if it affected [my playing time] or not,” he said. “The one thing I need to do is focus on my teammates. Focus on winning and having fun.”
Kanter Freedom can exhale for now. But he said there’s more work to be done, and he plans on remaining impactful on and off the floor.