The man formerly known as Enes Kanter has for years been among the most politically outspoken players in the NBA, and easily the one whose convictions had the highest stakes. Kanter's opposition to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and close ties to exiled Erdogan antagonist Fethullah Gulen, had severe consequences, including the revocation of his Turkish passport, years of separation from his family in Turkey, the detainment of his father, and his reluctance to leave the U.S. in case of arrest or extradition abroad. Through all this, he's been admirably consistent in his critiques of the regime and has worked closely with U.S. lawmakers on policy relating to Turkey, repeating every so often that "freedom is not free."
As the 28-year-old center, now with the Celtics, has seen his nightly minutes hit a career low, he's ramped up his production off the court, appearing almost weekly on cable news or in front of his webcam to tackle issues outside his old wheelhouse. Ahead of the season, in September, he appeared on MSNBC to talk to Chris Hayes about his support of a vaccine mandate for all NBA players, and he followed it up with more appearances on CNN, all against the backdrop of LeBron James telling reporters that it was "not my job" to persuade other people to get vaccinated.
By October, Enes shifted his attention to China, one customized in-game sneaker at a time. He supported the autonomy of Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. (The president of Taiwan thanked him directly.) He criticized China's treatment of its Uyghur minority, its "forced organ harvesting" from them and other ethnic minorities, and surveillance state. He called on the Olympics to abandon the Beijing games in 2022, and on Nike to prove that there were no forced labor camps in its supply chain. He also had a shoe for LeBron, personally:
In late October, China's Tencent streaming service reportedly pulled Celtics games off the platform.
Over the last weeks of November, the Turkish big man—and, I assume, an industrious publicist—diversified his targets and conversation partners. On CNN, he claimed that "Michael Jordan hasn't done anything—nothing—for the black community in America, besides just giving them money ... because he cares too much about his shoe sales." He wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, calling on the IOC to move the Olympics for the sake of Peng Shuai, the tennis player who accused a former high-ranking Chinese official of sexual assault. He called Nets owner Joe Tsai a "coward & puppet" of the Chinese state. In quick succession he became a U.S. citizen, officially changed his name to "Enes Kanter Freedom," and appeared on Tucker Carlson's Fox News show to wax rhapsodic about American liberty: "People should feel really blessed and lucky to be in America. Because they love to criticize it, but when you live in a country like Turkey or China or somewhere else, you will appreciate the freedoms you have here. So I feel like they should just please keep their mouths shut and stop criticizing the greatest nation in the world and they should focus on their freedom, their human rights and democracy."
I'm not really sure what rhetorical turn comes next—or what other queasy entities might find his criticism of China and song of American exceptionalism useful for their own ends, in our weird new era of bipartisan hawkishness—but I am genuinely curious. Clearly he relishes the spotlight and a lustily spiced take. What will Freedom bring in a (possibly rapidly approaching) post-basketball career—talking head, congressman, NGO type? Choose your adventure, Enes.