Enes Kanter Freedom on LeBron, Erdoğan and the earthquake

‘LeBron knows that the shoes that he has been wearing are made by slave kids’

enes kanter freedom
American basketball player Enes Kanter Freedom at the United Nations Office in Geneva (Getty)
Text Size
Line Spacing

Basketball player and human rights activist Enes Kanter Freedom was invited as Leader Kevin McCarthy’s guest of honor to the State of the Union last week, an address in which President Biden barely touched on foreign policy. The former Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder center spoke with The Spectator about democracy, autocracies and hypocrisy.

John Pietro: How far does China’s influence reach into the NBA, in your estimation? Could you see the NBA ever standing up to China in the way the Women’s Tennis Association did in defense of Peng Shuai?

Enes Kanter Freedom: I didn’t know…

Basketball player and human rights activist Enes Kanter Freedom was invited as Leader Kevin McCarthy’s guest of honor to the State of the Union last week, an address in which President Biden barely touched on foreign policy. The former Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder center spoke with The Spectator about democracy, autocracies and hypocrisy.

John Pietro: How far does China’s influence reach into the NBA, in your estimation? Could you see the NBA ever standing up to China in the way the Women’s Tennis Association did in defense of Peng Shuai?

Enes Kanter Freedom: I didn’t know how deep the relationship between the NBA and China was until Daryl Morey tweeted and said “stand with Hong Kong” and after that obviously the NBA lost millions and millions of dollars. I started to research about what’s going on between the NBA and China, and I started to talk to people and stuff. And I remember two years ago when we were in the NBA bubble, and it was the first organization that went out there and said “we are more than just a basketball organization, we care about social justice, we are more than athletes, and we stand with what’s going on in America.” This is pretty interesting, because it actually gave me so much hope, because I was like, “The NBA stands for something other than basketball.”

And then two years later I started to speak up about the problems that were happening in China, which was non-political. It was all about human rights violations and political prisoners in China. And I was seeing the hypocrisy, I was seeing how my coaches, the NBA, the NBPA — players association — was pressuring me to stop speaking up against the violations over there. And I was very confused at the beginning, and then I started doing research, and I was seeing about how much business there was between China and the NBA, what the TV deals are, the jersey sales, the shoe sales, how much business is going on, and I was very disgusted. I was like, “You know what? We have to expose their hypocrisy. We have to expose Adam Silver’s hypocrisy.” So that is why I decided to speak up.

JP: Do you think that there’s any chance for them to turn around any time soon?

EKF: You know, right now, I don’t see any hope that the NBA is ever going to stop the hypocrisy. But, right now, I am so happy that the Congress… I was just in Congress last week, and I met with some of the people on the China Select Committee. They were the ones that told me that they were going to start bringing some people from the NBA to testify. I believe with that it is going to change.

JP: Can you tell us a little bit about your talk with the China Committee?

EKF: It was an amazing conversation, and they actually told me to come in and testify too. I don’t want to give too much detail, because I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to speak about it and stuff, but it is very soon that there is going to be a hearing about what is going on. And I already gave them a couple things.

The owner of the Brooklyn Nets, Joe Tsai,  everybody knows how he is funding the genocide that is going on in China and I just cannot believe how Adam Silver is allowing him to have a team in the NBA in America, on US soil. So we had a lot of great conversations about Adam Silver, Joe Tsai, how much business is going on between the NBA and China, and the more that you research, you realize it is not only the NBA. You see Hollywood, Wall Street, academia, Big Tech — they are all pretty much owned by the Chinese government. So, we are like, “Enough is enough, and let’s do something about this.”

JP: Did you find that your teammates or coaches in the NBA treated you differently after you spoke out about China?

EKF: Yes. Of course. I spoke about some of the problems we were having in my home country, Turkey, for the last ten years. I had nothing but respect and support from my teammates and the NBA. Adam Silver himself texted me twice and said, “We support you, keep doing what you’re doing, we’re always here for you, keep standing up for your country.” And the China thing happened, right? I have been blackballed by the NBA for the last twelve months, and I did not hear from one of my teammates or coaches or anyone from the NBA. Because they are scared. Even in the locker room, my teammates were like, “Listen man, you talk about China, this is your last year in the NBA, have fun, I hope you win a championship, because you are not going to get another contract after this.”

JP: And do you think that that ended up being the case?

EKF: Yes. I mean everybody, I mean this was expected for sure. You know, my teammates knew, everybody knew. When you talk about Nike, when you talk about China — doesn’t matter how good of a player you are, you will be cut from the NBA.

JP: Do you think LeBron James can be considered an American great if he doesn’t stand up for America’s values against those who would not only oppose them but actively try to subvert them?

EKF: You know, he was one of the people that I really wanted to expose, because of his hypocrisy, because he has been calling himself “more than an athlete,” “freedom fighter,” “human rights activist,” “social justice warrior” — because he knows the things that he’s standing up for are not going to cost him anything. It’s not going to affect his endorsement deals, his contract, his shoe sales, or anything. But he knows that the shoes that he has been wearing are made by slave kids. So I do not respect any of the Nike athletes out there who are talking about social justice. This is one. And two, no. This definitely does not count as a hero or true patriot because some of the things that he has said, some of the things he has stood up for or not stood up for. If you are gonna call yourself a human rights activist and criticize America, then you cannot stay silent about a company you just had $1 billion with — I’m talking about Nike — or when they ask you about the problems that are happening in China, you cannot say “Oh, I am not educated enough, I don’t know enough about this situation” blah, blah. So, no, he is definitely not a player that I respect.

JP: Did you find any players in the NBA who agreed with your criticism of China and/or James, but who were too concerned about the repercussions to say so publicly?

EKF: Many in the Boston Celtics locker room, when I started to speak up about China, I remember we were having conversations in the locker room, and they wanted to learn what’s going on, and we sat down, and we were having conversations about the Uighurs, the Tibetans, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese people — and I think they learned what’s going on, and obviously, they were going home and researching about, about what is really happening.  You know, many of them came to me and said “Listen man, keep doing what you’re doing, keep standing up for what’s right, it’s not political, it’s a bipartisan issue, everyone should care about human rights all over the world, and we love you, we support you, but we just cannot do it out loud.” I asked them why, and they said “Well, we have shoe deals, endorsement deals, we have… you know… we wouldn’t get another NBA contract.” I asked them one simple question, I was like, “Put yourself in their shoes. If your mother, if your sister, if your daughter was in those concentration camps getting tortured and raped every day, would you still take money and business over your morals, values, principles?” They usually turned around and left the locker room.

JP: And that was with the Celtics?

EKF: Yes.

JP: The CCP is well-known for its use of online actors to attack individuals, and leveraging its economic power over corporations to harm opponents abroad. Have you faced any threats or attacks from China or CCP-affiliated actors?

EKF: I remember the first time I started to speak up about the problems that were happening in China, I had a conversation with one of my friends who worked at the State Department. Me and him had a sit-down, and I remember it was in Miami, we sat down and were having a conversation, and he told me, “I want to picture for you what is going to happen for the next twelve months.” He said, “From now on, going forward, you are going to be getting text messages, WhatsApp calls, Instagram DMs, Twitter feeds, from one of the most beautiful girls in the world.” He said, “Do not answer any of them, because they are Chinese spies.” And that actually happened. For the last one year, I have been getting calls from, I guess, one of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen in my life. And it got into my head so much that I don’t know who to trust at this point anymore. So yes, the threats were real, and I do get death threats all the time, and not only from the Chinese government, but the Turkish government also. I am sure you heard about the bounty news and stuff.

JP: You are a practicing Muslim and former Turkish citizen. What do you think about the fact that most Muslim-majority countries around the world refuse to take a strong stand against China and the genocide of the Uighur people?

EKF: This is actually one of the questions that I wanted to figure out. When a problem happens in the Muslim world, with Palestine, or with another big issue, all the Muslim leaders, many of whom like to call themselves the leader of the Muslim world, are the first ones to go on the news to talk about the problems. But when it comes to one specific topic — China — which is pretty much a genocide happening while we are talking, all of them are silent. And I just couldn’t understand why. And I sat down and had a conversation with one of my congressman friends, and he said, “Well, because of the relationship between China and them, because of the economy, because of the business done between the two countries.” So I asked my congressman, “Congressman, you’re telling me, all of the Muslim leaders out there in the world that call themselves the leaders of the Muslim world are pretty much hypocrites, and they are scared, the only way that they will talk is if it doesn’t impact their business or economy?” And he said, “Unfortunately, yes. You will not see any Muslim leader, any Muslim athlete, any Muslim celebrity [from these countries], who will say anything about China or their human rights abuses.” And I started doing research, and I realized that it is 100 percent true.

JP: What is the most important thing you think the US should do to deal with China?

EKF: Well, I mean, the first thing, and this should have been done a long time ago, is the China Select Committee, and I am glad that they just built it. And I believe that the first thing that America needs to do is that President Biden needs to be way tougher on the Chinese government. It’s not a lie that he has been soft on some of the dictatorships out there, like China, like Turkey. I am sure everybody knows about the Chinese spy balloon now — it literally took us days and days to just shoot down the balloon. But I believe the first thing we need to do is for the president of the United States, whoever is in the office, and his cabinet, needs to be way tougher on dictatorships, because we have seen throughout history, and throughout the years that diplomacy and soft talk never work with these dictatorships. They actually take advantage of your soft talk. And the second thing is just sanctions and bills — you know we just put a bill out there, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. If you’re a company that has anything to do with the slave labor, you are not allowed to send it to America, and that is going to cost some of the companies out there billions of dollars. So, I think, you know, we have to take some concrete actions, because like I said, soft talk or diplomacy or letters or resolutions are not going to work with these dictatorships, so I believe, sanctions are the key.

JP: You are a prominent critic of President Erdoğan, and recently revealed that you have a $500,000 bounty on your head. Can you explain that? How did you find out and who is behind the bounty?

EKF: It is the Turkish government. Actually, the website is still on the internet, you can literally just go on and find it very easily, so it’s not like they are trying to hide. That is the crazy part. I was doing a basketball camp in the Vatican for Muslims, Jews, Christian and Catholic kids, and after my basketball camp I found out that they actually put a bounty on my head. My name was on the most-wanted terrorist list before, and they put my name on the Interpol list, but this the first time they are actually putting a bounty on my head. After I heard that news, I had a conversation with the FBI immediately, and they said “Get back to the US immediately.” So I came back, and now I have been to a lot of meetings with members of Congress about what we can do, because it is unacceptable — a foreign government cannot put a bounty on a US citizen’s head on US soil. This is unacceptable. So we put a letter out there to Blinken, we put a letter out there to President Biden, saying “Enough is enough. Put some sanctions on individuals who are putting bounties on people’s head.” And, people need to know, whenever I had a conversation with the FBI, I told them, “I am not the only one on that list.” There are so many innocent people, so many journalists, academics, so many professors, that are on that list, that live in the US, and these people are green-card holders, US citizens that live in America, and now their lives are in danger.

JP: And have you been targeted in any other way?

EKF: I mean, I have been getting death threats, hundreds of death threats every week. I actually post, if you go on my Twitter, you can see some of my posts, but I have been getting hundreds of death threats every day. And I had a conversation with the FBI, and we are thinking about starting an investigation about all of these threats.

JP: Erdoğan has been heavily criticized for his government’s handling of the recent devastating earthquake, and the Turkish economy has suffered under his disastrous monetary policy. What do you think is going to happen in the May elections? Does the opposition Table of Six have a chance?

EKF: So, there are actually a couple of the opposition that can go against Erdoğan, and have the charisma to beat Erdoğan, but they are in jail. There is one Turkish leader who is in jail right now, and, I believe it was the Istanbul mayor, he was in jail, he got out but now he is not allowed to run for anything, for any political seat for the next two years. I have had a conversation with many of the members of the Congress: senators, congressmen, congresswomen, they were the ones telling me, “Listen, don’t have any hope for the election, because Erdoğan is going to cheat, he is going to steal, he is going to create chaos. He is going to do whatever he can to win the election.” And that actually is very sad, because, knowing what Turkey was before, because it was the bridge of Islam and the West, but now, what it is now, is heartbreaking, you know? In the end, it is my country, I love my country, I love my people. My problem is the current regime. And I believe that once the current regime, the Erdogan regime, changes, Turkey — it is going to take some time — Turkey is going to have a better and brighter future. But unfortunately, I am not that hopeful for the elections.

JP: Is there any particular politician in Turkey that you see as being a rising star in the opposition?

EKF: Well, the Kurdish leader, Selahattin Demirtas, unfortunately, he is in jail. He was the only one that was bringing people together. He was talking about democracy and freedom and stuff, but that is why Erdoğan was very threatened by him, and that is why he put him in jail.

JP: Erdoğan has blocked Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO for months now, claiming they — particularly Sweden — are harboring “terrorists.” What do you think is really behind Erdoğan’s stonewalling — does he really think there are terrorists there, or is this just a ploy to score nationalist political points?

EKF: So, what is really behind Erdoğan? I said this before and I am going to say it again: Erdoğan is the Trojan horse for Putin in NATO. Look at what Erdoğan is doing. He is asking for F-16s from America, and at the same time he is going and buying S-400s from Russia. He is acting more like a Russian ally than an American ally, and he does not act like a NATO ally, and he is creating problems in NATO, you know? He is asking for a lot of journalists from Sweden to be extradited to Turkey, but they have committed no crime, their only crime is to criticize Erdoğan, which is, in Erdoğan’s eye, a terrorist act, and in the world’s eye, it is not a crime. So Sweden said, “No, we are not going to send any of these people to you so you can torture them.” So Erdoğan said, “I am not going to allow you to join NATO.” So, maybe Turkey should be kicked out of NATO, but other than that, I mean, it is not a lie how Erdoğan is using his power to abuse NATO, abuse Europe, and harass Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, the Kurds — and now all of the neighbors around Turkey are complaining about Turkey, which is because of Erdoğan.

JP: Do you think it should be on the table to kick Turkey out of NATO?

EKF: I mean, I think that is the only solution right now, because Erdoğan is the only one in NATO that is creating problems, and, God forbid, Putin decides to invade Sweden or Finland after Ukraine, Erdoğan is going to have millions of people’s blood on his hands. So, people need to wake up — the Western leaders, NATO, need to wake up and say enough is enough.

JP: What’s your take on the recent earthquake — from the government response to it, to the devastation that has occurred?

EKF: It is not a lie that everyone is criticizing Erdoğan. And they are right, he has been very weak on helping the people in Turkey who have been suffering. I believe the last number was, between Turkey and Syria, close to 20,000 people died already. But I think, you know, my prayers, my thoughts, and my condolences to all of the people who have suffered or who died because of this earthquake, I mean it is probably the biggest disaster that Turkey ever faced. But what made me so happy was that all of the international community has been trying to do whatever they can to try to help, send help, send rescue teams, send food, send everything they can to Turkey. What gave me so much hope… Erdoğan has been attacking Greece from day one, and Erdoğan even said himself that one day the Greek people will wake up and Turkey will be invading Greece. Despite all of that, Greece was one of the first countries in the world to say, “You know what, forget about what Erdoğan is saying, this is not about Erdoğan, this is about Turkish people, and we are going to send help.” And that got me so happy and excited, you know? But, so, Erdoğan needs to understand that the world is not his enemy. He needs to stop creating enemies, and start making friends, because when you have a disaster like that, people are going to want to help you, but just because of Erdoğan, many people that I have talked to, don’t want to even help. I tried to convince them all that, “Listen, Erdoğan does not mean Turkey. So many innocent people are suffering. You are not helping Erdoğan, you are helping the Turkish people.” So, it has been a disaster, so we definitely have to do whatever we can to help those people over there.

JP: Did you see that Tsai Ing-Wen, president of Taiwan, is donating a full month of salary to go to the people of Turkey?

EKF: I did see that, and like I said, I do appreciate it a lot. It definitely means a lot to Turkish people, because so many in my friends’s families have passed away, and many of them are lost and under the buildings, and they are still trying to escape from that disaster, so every help, big, small, it doesn’t matter — it means a lot to the Turkish people.