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Why NBA player and political activist Enes Kanter added Freedom to his legal name

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A pro basketball player is criticizing U.S. athletes who attend the Olympics in China. The Boston Celtics player is expanding his political activism. Since he last was heard on NPR, he has also changed his name.

So how should I refer to you?

ENES KANTER FREEDOM: You can just say Enes, or my teammates call me Mr. Freedom.

INSKEEP: Mr. Freedom - Enes Kanter is now legally Enes Kanter Freedom.

FREEDOM: When you change your last name, that's going to be behind your jersey. My goal was to educate every kid in the world.

INSKEEP: You got an endorsement deal with Freedom.

FREEDOM: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Kanter wide open for the finish.

INSKEEP: He's known for using his full 6 feet 11 inches on multiple NBA teams over the last decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: There is Kanter, and he's fouled.

INSKEEP: He's also known for his backstory. He's an immigrant from Turkey, a follower of an exiled Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Turkey accused Gulen's religious movement of trying to overthrow the president and arrested thousands. When Kanter defended the movement, Turkey revoked his passport.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SCOTT SIMON: Next week, the NBA's putting on its big London game.

INSKEEP: He had to skip an overseas game, which he discussed on NPR in 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SIMON: And why did you decide not to go to London?

FREEDOM: I really didn't feel safe.

INSKEEP: He feared Turkey would seek his extradition. He feels more comfortable traveling these days because he just became a U.S. citizen after studying for the naturalization test.

FREEDOM: All of my teammates were asking me questions one by one, you know, about American history, about the current situation in America, about politics, about all that stuff.

INSKEEP: He still speaks out about Turkey. He visits Fethullah Gulen, the movement leader whose place of exile is in Pennsylvania. He has also lobbied members of Congress on human rights issues. Last fall, he joined calls to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics over China's treatment of Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim minority.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FREEDOM: There are so many, you know, athletes, so many actors, so many celebrities out there who are scared because if they criticize China, obviously, they will be affected.

INSKEEP: So he said in a TV appearance on Fox News.

Why did you decide that you should speak out about China?

FREEDOM: I remember doing a basketball camp with Hakeem Jeffries, the congressman. And after that, we were taking pictures. I was taking pictures with the kids. This parent pretty much called me out in front of everybody. He's like, how can you call yourself a human rights activist when your Muslim brothers and sisters are dying in concentration camps in China? I was like, I promise you, I'm going to get back to you. I was very ashamed of myself. I was like the last 10 years, I talk about one topic and one country. I was like, I cannot believe I did this. You know, I was like, I'm going to do everything to put this out there and try to be the voice of people over there.

INSKEEP: You called for U.S. athletes to boycott China. That's not happening. But there's this diplomatic boycott. What do you think of the diplomatic boycott?

FREEDOM: I feel like it is definitely a good first step, but it is not enough. All the athletes, I believe, need to come out and say, I'm not going to compete in a country where there is a genocide happening. That's what I'm expecting from athletes.

INSKEEP: In criticizing China's human rights record, Enes Freedom is taking a bipartisan position. He's taken that message to places that are more partisan. He appeared, for example, on a Fox program hosted by Tucker Carlson, who's noted for promoting conspiracy theories about last year's attack on democracy at the U.S. Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

TUCKER CARLSON: Enes, Mr. Freedom, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations on becoming a citizen.

INSKEEP: Carlson has promoted the great replacement, an idea that, quote, "obedient immigrants" are brought here to outnumber what Carlson called legacy Americans. But he asked this immigrant to bring more people.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

CARLSON: If you have any siblings, tell them to come, please.

INSKEEP: And the host asked Freedom if his teammates and other Americans appreciate America as much as he does.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

FREEDOM: I feel like they should just - please, they should just keep their mouth shut and stop criticizing the greatest nation in the world, and they should focus on, you know, their freedoms and their human rights and their democracy.

INSKEEP: In other forums, he specifically criticized his fellow NBA player LeBron James, who, like the whole league, does a lot of business in China. LeBron once called a basketball executive misinformed for talking about democracy in Hong Kong.

Why did you choose to criticize LeBron James over this?

FREEDOM: Well, I think LeBron - obviously, LeBron is the face of Nike, you know, and the face of NBA. But the reason I call out LeBron is because of - call himself a human rights activist, call himself a social justice warrior.

INSKEEP: LeBron James has described himself as preaching about, quote, "equality, social injustice and racism." In Enes Freedom's view, that makes it hypocritical to be silent about China.

Isn't that criticism true, essentially, of the whole NBA, it's the NBA's biggest market outside the United States?

FREEDOM: Oh, yeah. I mean, players are just, you know, puppets. What we need to do is call out these companies like, obviously, Nike - right? - because they're the one using these athletes.

INSKEEP: But I'm just thinking, doesn't the NBA itself have a giant TV deal with Chinese state TV? Have you ever gone to league officials and said, listen, what are you doing? I'm part of this. I don't like being part of this.

FREEDOM: I have not - I have not talked to them about it. But obviously, all the jerseys and all the merchandise that we're wearing is Nike. And I've been - I have been trying to talk to some people about it, about what can we do? Because this is just - obviously I'm calling out Nike and going out there and still playing in a Nike jersey. And this is - just doesn't feel right. So I'm thinking about, like, what can we do about this?

INSKEEP: We invited Nike to comment, and they didn't write back.

I want to ask about one criticism of you that comes from Jemele Hill, who wrote the other day in The Atlantic.

FREEDOM: Yeah.

INSKEEP: If I was going to summarize this, she says, you're talking to right-wing figures like Tucker Carlson, and they have a different agenda than you do that has to do with race in America and that sort of thing and that you're being used. Do you worry about being co-opted by someone or used by someone?

FREEDOM: You know, when Black Lives Matter protests happened two years ago - right? - I was a third one in the whole league, went out there and protested with my city in Boston, right? Because I know even, like, when we were kneeling, I was like, this is what I believe in and I'm going to kneel with you guys, you know? The reason I appear on this show is that I go off and I talk about what's happening, not just in Turkey and China but the problems that are happening all over the world. And they know where I stand. They know where I stand with vaccine, gun control. They know where I stand with many of the stuff that they don't like. You know, they could have a different agenda, yes, but my agenda is to go out there and reach out to every person in America.

INSKEEP: Enes Freedom says he's concerned about division in his adopted country. If he mentions gun control, he sounds like he's leaning left while he often sounds like he's leaning right. In our discussion, he criticized politicians who he said talk cynically about progressive causes like Black Lives Matter.

FREEDOM: The next week, talking about climate change. The next week, they talking about Asian community or Latino community or LGBTQ community. Whatever is trending, they're talking about that so they can get, I guess, more votes. They can get more clicks. They can get more retweets. You know, I feel like this is wrong.

INSKEEP: Enes Kanter Freedom, brand-new citizen of the United States, says he'd like to focus on human rights and keep politics out of it. He prefers not to be seen as picking a side, though that's as tricky in his new country as in his old one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.