When Celtics center Enes Kanter Freedom walked into a news conference at the Auerbach Center Tuesday, one day after changing his last name during his citizenship ceremony, he was asked what he would like to be called now.
“Mr. Freedom,” Kanter said, smiling.
Kanter has spent much of his career speaking out as a human rights activist, most recently taking aim at the Chinese government and voicing his support for freedom in Tibet and Uyghur. Kanter said his interest in this cause was sparked over the summer, when he was doing a basketball camp and a parent of one of the campers asked him how he could call himself a human rights activist when so many in China were being mistreated.
“I was shocked,” said Kanter Freedom, who is from Turkey. “I turned around and I was like, ‘I’m going to do my research and get back to you.’ And the more research I have done, I have seen the human rights violations that are happening not just in Turkey, but all over the world.”
Kanter Freedom officially became a US citizen Monday, and he said his approach will not change.
“I try to stand up for the things that I believe,” he said. “I always try to stand up for the truth, for freedom and for democracy. It doesn’t matter who it’s for or against.”
Earlier this season, when he was rarely playing in games, he shared a post on social media that suggested his stance may be affecting his playing time. Coach Ime Udoka disputed the notion then, saying his absence was mostly related to his defense, and had nothing to do with his social views.
On Tuesday, Kanter Freedom said he sat down with Udoka soon after his social media posts and said they have been on the same page since.
“After that talk, I’ve played every game,” Kanter Freedom said. “I mean, yeah, that’s how I felt, and I put it out there, and Coach Ime came to me and said that’s not the situation. And I said, ‘OK.’ And after that talk, I pretty much played every game.”
Kanter Freedom has appeared in Boston’s eight games since his conversation with Udoka, but starting center Robert Williams missed six of those games because of knee injuries and a non-COVID illness, creating a need at the position.
Kanter Freedom has also taken aim at Nike and Lakers superstar LeBron James, a top client of the sneaker behemoth, for not speaking out about human rights violations in China, where many Nike products are made.
When the Lakers played at TD Garden earlier this month, James said Kanter Freedom walked past him in a hallway without speaking about whatever issues he has with him. Kanter Freedom offered a different assessment Tuesday.
“I was actually on the court, and after I left the court, he was behind me,” Kanter Freedom said. “It was me, my assistant coach, and him. Then I stopped to take a picture with a kid, and he was the one who walked right past me.
“I think the important thing is, whenever I talk about players, my first thing that people need to understand is players need to do their research and they have to educate them so before they put their signature on the paper and sign the lifetime deals and stuff, because obviously everybody knows how I feel about some of the sponsors we have.
“Nike, to me, is the biggest hypocrite company out there. They stand for Black Lives Matter in America — amazing. They stand for the Latino community, No Asian Hate, they stand with the LBGTQ community, but when it comes to some of the countries out there, like China, they remain silent.”
Kanter Freedom said he would welcome the opportunity to sit down with James and discuss these topics that are so important to him.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a very uncomfortable conversation for him,” Kanter Freedom said. “I don’t know if he’s going to want that. I’ll make that really comfortable for him. I don’t know if he’s educated enough, but I’m here to educate him and I’m here to help him, because it’s not about money. It’s about morals, principles, and values. It’s about what you stand for.”
Kanter Freedom on Tuesday wore a shirt that said “Freedom for Uyghur.” This season, he has frequently worn sneakers adorned with messages related to his causes. He said he spoke to NBA commissioner Adam Silver about the sneakers and was told that he was not breaking any league rules by wearing them.
“I was like, ‘Adam, you guys are the ones that are telling us and encouraging players to stand up for what’s right, not just the problems in America, but all over the world. So you guys are the ones that encouraged me to talk about all the violations that are happening all over the world, right?’ ” Kanter Freedom said.
“And he was like, ‘Listen, you have the freedom to say whatever you want.’ And I was like, ‘I appreciate that.’ ”