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Sunday basketball notes

Enes Kanter Freedom revels in new identity while remaining true to himself

The Celtics' Enes Kanter Freedom changed his name when he gained his US citizenship Monday.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Enes Kanter Freedom will speak to anyone about his beliefs, and he proved that this past week when he appeared on a variety of news shows to discuss his name change, American citizenship, and human rights.

He is admittedly proud to be a naturalized citizen, proud to be an American, and finally with a home country after being banished from his native Turkey. But the danger in displaying this pride and also criticizing influential Black athletes about their criticism of issues in America is attracting an audience and support system that will be thrilled to amplify those criticisms.

Kanter Freedom has appeared on several networks, including twice on Fox News, including with controversial conservative host Tucker Carlson, who seemingly invited Kanter Freedom to criticize Black athletes such as LeBron James (a constant Fox News target) and Colin Kaepernick for their strong opinions about racism and discrimination in America.

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Kanter Freedom said he has no intention of being a pawn or used for political means. But he also emphasized that those who heavily criticize America should consider the alternatives.

Kanter Freedom has taken on China, which is a major contributor to the NBA, for its treatment of Uyghurs, who are of Turkish descent. He has also criticized James and Michael Jordan for their sponsorship of Nike, which Kanter Freedom believes condones the exploitation of workers in their Chinese factories.

“I can tell it straight,” he said. “I never had a side. I’m not a Democrat and I’m not a Republican. I said this from Day 1. Some of the things I do, people might be mistaken because I don’t do politics. I do human rights. There is a thin but huge line between human rights and politics.

“The reason I’m so involved with politicians — whether it’s senators or congressmen or people in the State Department or in the White House — is because I’m trying to help people. We’re trying to create bills, trying to find way to help those people, not just in Turkey but all over the world, find a way to put some sanctions on some of the countries for violating human rights.”

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Kanter Freedom said he is politically neutral, but being outspoken about Black sports icons places him in a unique category. There are only a handful of American athletes who speak on international issues. Some believe there’s enough problems in America they need to tackle. Others choose not to discuss topics for which they are not deeply knowledgeable.

Kanter Freedom said he has studied the issues of Uyghurs in China over the past several years and became comfortable enough to speak openly and loudly about the perceived injustice.

“The reason I talk to these people is for human rights,” he said. “I help people. I don’t have a side and obviously every country has their issue and we are seeing what’s happening in America like two years ago, but the thing is people still feel lucky to be in this situation.

“If you want to go see what’s out there, countries like Iraq or Turkey or Syria or Iran or China or Belarus or Venezuela or North Korea. I could go on and on and then you will appreciate this country even more. We are having our problems here, but people should be blessed to be in this situation.”

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Enes Kanter Freedom continues to wear messages on his shoes.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

“Just be glad you’re here” is a theme that people of color and those from underrepresented communities have been told for decades about the injustices they have faced in America. Kanter Freedom may be correct about the difficulties of living in other more volatile countries, but that could be perceived as denigrating the Black and Brown oppression in America.

That is not Kanter Freedom’s goal. But it may be perceived that way with his open criticism of athletes or anyone who criticizes this country.

What Kanter Freedom emphasizes is the difficulty of being exiled from his own country and not being able to see his parents, who still reside in Turkey. He tells the story of a high school teammate who criticized the president and Kanter Freedom warned him that he could be reprimanded for his opinions, similar to his native Turkey.

“No, you can’t,” the teammate said. “This is America.”

“The last six years have been tough,” Kanter said. “It’s been very rough because the Turkish government put my name on the Interpol list and they revoked my passport. But it’s finally happened. People know me and they know I stand up for what I believe in.”

Kanter Freedom said he will continue to speak without fear of repercussions. He said many Black players have approached him over the past few years in agreeance with his criticism of James and others who refused to speak on international issues.

“My whole life I was never scared of anything,” Kanter Freedom said. “Not many people notice this, whenever I sit down with an NBA player, they are telling me they want to talk about many of the issues that are happening but they are scared because of the challenge that they will face. The thing is there’s so many. Whenever I talk about LeBron, whenever I talk about Michael Jordan, the Black athletes are the ones who reach out to me and they are the ones who give me talking points.”

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Kanter was one of the first athletes to join the Black Lives Matter protests in Boston following the murder of George Floyd. He told other protestors on May 30, 2020, “I get emotional, but we are on the right side of history, man. You know what? Black lives matter, right? Let’s go.”

So this is not as simple as Kanter Freedom taking sides or being used as a pawn. He doesn’t discriminate in that regard, and that could cost him.

“Michael Jordan is scared to speak up. Silence is violence,” he said. “If I believe in it, then I’m going to go out there and say it because I’m not scared of anything.

“This is bigger than basketball. It’s important not to have that fear and I hope more players will join me.”

READY TO CHECK BACK IN?

Would Ainge consider Blazers?

The Trail Blazers fired GM Neil Olshey this week, leaving one of the league's major executive roles vacant.Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

If Danny Ainge wants to get back into the NBA management game, there is suddenly a position open in Portland after the firing of general manager Neil Olshey, for apparent verbal abuse of his staff and other members of the Trail Blazers organization in his nine-year tenure.

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Ainge did not retire but instead stepped away from the Celtics to get some rest. But he is a Eugene, Ore., native and most certainly will get a call to see if he’s interested. The Blazers’ job is not an easy one. In fact, it may be one of the toughest in the NBA.

The Blazers have a star in Damian Lillard who has been as loyal as any player in the NBA. But they have not been able to attract a second star and have gradually slipped since reaching the Western Conference finals in 2019.

Lillard said several months ago he was unhappy, but when Olshey hired Chauncey Billups as coach, Lillard appeared to change his mind. The Blazers, however, have struggled this season. Lillard is having a career-worst season and several times Billups has questioned his team’s effort, such as in Thursday’s loss to the Spurs.

Olshey has always been known as a hot head among GMs, and while the Blazers were in the bubble, he often loudly chastised the officials in near-empty gyms. But there is a fine line between passion and abuse, and Olshey apparently stepped over that line so many times that the Blazers launched an internal investigation that led to his firing.

The Blazers have a plethora of problems. Lillard, who was not expected to play against the Celtics on Saturday night because of an abdominal injury, is averaging 7.3 fewer points and shooting 9 percent worse from the 3-point line than last season. Is the organization upheaval affecting his play? Can he get it back when he’s healthy?

Portland entered the weekend 12th in the NBA in scoring but 24th in opponent scoring and 28th in opponent field goal percentage. In other words, the Blazers can’t stop anybody, which is a concern for Billups, who was a staunch defender during his playing days.

Could Ainge save the Blazers? Yes. He is still the mastermind who pulled off several shrewd deals during his Celtics tenure. But he needed a break. Some of his recent drafts had been below average at best, and Ainge just appeared worn out.

But those close to the 62-year-old Ainge said he’s been refreshed, hitting the golf course, doing some traveling, and spending time with his family. What’s more, he was on a planned golfing trip that prevented him from attending Paul Pierce’s Hall of Fame induction in September.

“I think he’s in the Bahamas or something right now,” former Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s funny, though, because Danny is the ultimate competitor and people who were here when he played really understood who Danny really is. Danny is as competitive as they come. And he’s always going to be a Celtic and now when you talk to him and ask him something about the game, he’s far more willing to share than he was before.”

Ainge suffered two heart attacks during his time as Celtics president of basketball operations, including a minor one as recently as 2019. He was ready for an elongated break.

“He’s really in a good place right now, and I’m happy for him,” Rivers said.

ETC.

Rivers has been in Udoka’s shoes

Sixers coach Doc Rivers understands the short leash and high expectations Ime Udoka is currently dealing with.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Doc Rivers fully understands what Ime Udoka is going through in his first season as Celtics coach. Rivers was 43 when he became Celtics coach in 2004, and he quickly realized the heavy expectations, the short leash, and the rich tradition. He said he’s a supporter of the 44-year-old Udoka, who is trying to alter the team’s culture.

“You’ve still got to be you, and I think he’s doing that,” said Rivers, now in his second season as coach of the 76ers. “I think he’s doing a fantastic job. You have to be you. I took a job without any experience in my first job in Orlando and you realize as you do it, you have to have your beliefs, you have to stick to them. You have to be daring and willing to take chances and you have to not worry about the repercussions as a coach. You don’t even worry about that.”

While the Celtics entered Saturday night’s game against the Trail Blazers a mediocre 12-11, Udoka has stuck to his convictions as a defensive-minded coach that is going to win with precise execution. The Celtics were third in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage and have improved immensely on defense since last season.

“You make decisions that you think are best for the team, you’re not going to always be right,” Rivers said. “I recently told one of my coaches who was scared to pull the trigger on something that you’ve got to be a third base coach. I say that to my players, too. You’ve got to send the runner sometimes and he’s going to get thrown out, and you’ve got to stand there and take it. That’s what you have to do, but you’ll get more right than wrong, and I believe that here.”

Rivers has dealt with many superstars and Hall of Famers. He said the key is finding out what motivates each player and then making suggestions to hopefully help them improve.

“You have to have an approach with every player and you have to figure out what the balance is,” he said. “The superstars have more on their plate, far more than everybody else. They do. But they’re not going to win without everybody else, so you have to figure out individually what you will allow and what you will put up with and what you won’t. And then you have to make it work.”

Rivers’s relationship with Pierce is well-chronicled. Rivers once approached Pierce about his shooting, when Pierce already believed he was a polished player. Rivers then asked why such a polished player was shooting 39 percent from the field.

“I had Paul when I was here [in Boston], and that wasn’t easy early on,” Rivers said. “It turned out OK, but it took some head-butting a couple of times. But it was worth it. I think that’s why our relationship is so strong now. I believe that.

“You know the whole story of Paul. It was easy, it was a layup in my opinion. A great shooter but he’s shooting 39 or 40 percent. It doesn’t take being a rocket scientist to figure that out. Move without the ball, do more movement, let it come back to you, and the percentages will go up.”

It’s been more than eight years since Rivers walked away from the Celtics to coach the Clippers. But he’s still wildly popular in Boston because he led the Celtics to a championship and helped resurrect the franchise after difficult times.

“The great part about coaching and playing, those relationships never go away just because you go somewhere else,” he said. “I had special ties here. When you get here you realize why they are what they are. I was fortunate enough to coach here when Red [Auerbach] was still alive. So I had a relationship with him. That’s special stuff. A lot of people don’t ever have a chance to be around a guy like Red. I did, so I was lucky.”

Layups

Kemba Walker's New York homecoming has been far from storybook.Michelle Farsi/Getty

The Knicks thought bringing Kemba Walker back home with a two-year contract was a good idea. He assured them he would return to the form he displayed during most of his eight seasons with the Hornets, before two injury-plagued years with the Celtics. But the homecoming story took an unfortunate turn this past week when the Knicks pulled Walker from the regular rotation in favor of Alec Burks at point guard. Walker went into the weekend averaging 11.7 points and 25 minutes in 18 games. Tom Thibodeau has always been a defensive-minded coach and Walker’s 110 rating (points scored per 100 possessions with him on the floor) was one of the worst on the team, so Thibodeau could no longer offer playing time. This situation started in the bubble when Raptors coach Nick Nurse exposed Walker by running every pick-and-roll at him. Walker has struggled since. Although his left knee injury has improved, he’s lost the explosion off the dribble from his Charlotte days. The Knicks guaranteed the second year of Walker’s contract, so they may be stuck with him for a while. The Knicks are eligible to trade Walker on Dec. 15, and it is likely in the team’s best interest to make a move if he’s not going to play. It’s been a sad fall for Walker, who was one of the league’s top point guards before arriving in Boston. Walker played at an All-Star level in his first season as a Celtic before experiencing knee soreness, and playing in the All-Star Game worsened the injury. Walker’s knee has never been the same, and it’s a lesson that not every player has the longevity of LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. Could there be a situation for Walker to flourish? Perhaps. But it’s not likely in New York … In Houston, John Wall is reconsidering his stance of sitting out until he’s traded. But if the Rockets are trying to rebuild with a young lineup, why would they insert 31-year-old Wall unless the first priority is to win games. The Rockets are again headed for the draft lottery and another top-five pick, and then they are likely to implement a plan to take that next step forward with young talent. Will Wall playing help Jalen Green, Josh Christopher, Kenyon Martin Jr., and their other prospects? Likely not. So there may be no motivation for the Rockets to play Wall unless they just want to get something out of him because he’s being paid $44 million this season.


Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.