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OPINION

The Boston Celtics, my political activism, and a call for greater freedom

When I was targeted by Turkey for speaking out against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, my Celtic teammates consistently checked in on me and offered to help in any way they could.

Shoes worn on court by Enes Kanter Freedom of the Boston Celtics.Kevin C. Cox/Maddie Meyer/Getty Images; Michael Dwyer/AP

This holiday season has given me time to reflect on my return to Boston as a Celtics player and my longer journey to reclaim my freedom as an American citizen. In the past few months, I’ve changed my last name to “Freedom,” become a US citizen, and continued my political activism, having most recently launched a campaign in which I wear custom shoes dedicated to human rights crises around the world. I’ve doubled down on my advocacy, using every opportunity to keep world attention on human rights, whether on the court, as a regular guest in the media, or in meetings with politicians.

The journey to get here wasn’t easy. The last time I spoke with my parents was in 2015. Any contact with me could get them arrested. Turkish authorities forced my family to publicly disown me, imprisoned my father on charges that he was a member of a terrorist organization (he has since been acquitted), revoked my passport, and issued 10 arrest warrants against me in four years. Fortunately, my teammates have been there every step of the way to get me where I am today, becoming family after mine was broken up.

When I was targeted by Turkey for speaking out against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, my teammates consistently checked in on me and offered to help in any way they could. When Celtics games were pulled from China’s Tencent streaming service this season in retaliation for my wearing shoes that called for greater freedom in Tibet, my teammates were the first to express their unconditional support.

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They encourage me to stand up for what’s right, give voice to innocent people, and always remind me they have my back no matter what. They’re my No. 1 source of motivation and hope.

My activism has also brought the team closer together. Our locker room has become a forum for deeper discussions about how to effectively seek justice in the world. My shoes spark running conversations about the messages behind them. And my citizenship process gave us a chance to discuss American history, government, the Constitution, and even the current situation facing marginalized communities. America is far from a perfect union with its own set of appalling human rights abuses.

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Most shockingly, the United States leads the world in jailing its own people, mostly due to crimes related to poverty, mental illness, or addiction — social and health issues that need to be addressed. As a country that accounts for nearly 5 percent of the global population, the United States has 20 percent of the world’s prison population, with people of color suffering disproportionately. The consequences don’t end with incarceration, as former inmates can go on to face a lifetime of barriers to finding work and re-entering society. Even a progressive state like Massachusetts locks up people at higher rates than many countries. According to a 2020 Harvard Law report on racial disparities in Massachusetts’ criminal system, Black and Latinx people receive longer prison sentences than similarly situated white people for similar offenses. The devastating impact of mass incarceration on our communities is a stark reminder of the work that needs to be done at home.

In the lead-up to my citizenship test, my teammates printed out the questions to ensure I was ready. They’d test me over and over again, in the locker room, on the plane, and during our health treatments. When I finally passed, they were ecstatic and offered to throw me a party. But I said all I want are some American-themed cupcakes. To my surprise, the next day I found the perfect red and blue cupcakes in our dining hall, made by my Celtic brothers themselves.

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Wherever I find myself, Boston sport fans similarly show gratitude and love for what I stand for. I get standing ovations whenever I check into games. I feel at home here in Massachusetts. And it’s because we all know this is bigger than basketball.

Enes Kanter Freedom is a center for the Boston Celtics.