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'Stand for what you believe in': NBA player turned activist shares story in Bismarck

A guest of U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, Enes Kanter Freedom came to North Dakota to tell his life story and to promote the same kind of human rights activism that he believes cost him a career on the hardwood.

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Enes Kanter Freedom, a professional basketball player turned human rights activist, speaks to a crowd in Bismarck on Tuesday, April 19, 2022.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — A year ago, Enes Kanter Freedom was boxing out the best basketball players on the planet as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers.

But as his former colleagues in the National Basketball Association tipped off high-stakes playoff games on Tuesday night, April 19, Freedom sat on a stage before a half-full auditorium in Bismarck.

A guest of U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, Freedom came to North Dakota to tell his life story and promote the same kind of human rights activism that he believes cost him a career on the hardwood.

The life story goes like this: As a 17-year-old, Enes Kanter moved to the United States from Turkey to pursue his hoop dreams. They came true, and the 6-foot-10-inch center entered the NBA as a top prospect just two years later in 2011.

After a few years on the job, Kanter, who changed his surname to Freedom when he became a U.S. citizen in 2021, accidentally stumbled into the role of human rights activist with several tweets that defied authoritarian Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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In response, Turkish authorities hassled Freedom's family still living in the country, raided his home, banned him from returning and attempted to extradite the basketball player to face criminal charges. Freedom's parents disowned him — likely at the insistence of the authorities — and he hasn't seen his family since 2015.

Last summer, Freedom became aware of human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese government against a Muslim minority known as Uyghurs. Several countries, including the U.S., have accused China of committing genocide against the group. Chinese officials have denied the allegations.

Freedom, a devout Muslim, said he met with a survivor of a Uyghur concentration camp, which spurred his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government's mistreatment of Uyghurs and other persecuted groups.

When Freedom, then a member of the Boston Celtics, wore shoes reading "Free Tibet" earlier this season, the Chinese government reportedly began censoring the team's games in China. The world's most populous country provides a sizable portion of the NBA's television revenue, and the league has tried to uphold the financial relationship.

Two months ago, Freedom was traded by the Celtics and then released by the Houston Rockets. He had struggled to find playing time and on-court success in Boston, and the league's predominant fast-paced style of play has made plodding big men like Freedom less valuable in recent years.

A top Celtics official said trading Freedom was "a basketball-driven decision" and not a result of the player's political stances.

The 29-year-old Freedom told the Bismarck crowd Tuesday he's a capable pro player who is being blackballed from the league because of his protests against China.

Cramer, who joined him on stage, made the same insinuation, and argued the NBA and its players association are hypocritical for strongly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement but casting Freedom aside when he spoke up on Chinese atrocities.

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The activist and the senator both contend that the NBA's willingness to appease China is tantamount to allowing the Chinese authoritarian government to run the league.

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Enes Kanter Freedom (left) looks at U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., as he speaks to a crowd in Bismarck on Tuesday, April 19, 2022.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Freedom didn't say his basketball career is over, but he declared he wouldn't sacrifice his morals to play in the NBA again.

Recently, Freedom's activist career has begun to take off, particularly in conservative circles. Given his recent appearances on Fox News and other conservative media, Freedom's presence in deep-red North Dakota with a Republican senator is not surprising.

Earlier on Tuesday, Freedom spoke in a more intimate setting with student-athletes at the University of Mary in Bismarck.

The hourlong event began with Freedom fielding questions about basketball analytics and offseason routines, but it evolved into a storytelling session, where the athlete shared the origins and motivations behind his advocacy.

Freedom, who has earned more than $100 million playing basketball, told the students to choose ethics over cash when they arrive at that crossroads.

"There are more important things than money and business, like morals and principles. I'm sure you guys will get to a point where you have to pick one, but just know there are so many people out there that need your voice," Freedom said. "Stand for what you believe in."

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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