Enes Kanter Freedom Is Cut, and Chinese Media Gloat about PRC Influence on the NBA

Turkish NBA player Enes Kanter speaks at National Basketball Players Association headquarters in New York, May 2017. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Enes Kanter Freedom was traded by the Boston Celtics to the Houston Rockets at the trading deadline on Thursday, and then promptly cut by the Rockets. The four-player deal made some sense for the Celtics, who are stalled and in need of retooling and were trying to clear salary-cap space. Kanter Freedom played in every game for the Portland Trailblazers last season after getting little playing time in his previous tenure with the Celtics, and this time was no different: He was used in just 25 of 53 games, and just 11.7 minutes a game. With so little playing time, his scoring opportunities were few: The center, who averaged 19.9 points per 36 minutes over the prior seven seasons, was averaging just 11.2 points per 36 minutes. Still, the Celtics abandoned their best rebounder and the only guy on the roster over 6’9″. It is harder to see a non-salary-cap basketball justification for the Rockets, who have the worst record in the Western Conference, although their center is their best player and they are likely more interested in landing a high draft pick than in winning games right now.

Unlike Colin Kaepernick or Chris Kluwe, Kanter Freedom is not just a fading player using politics as an excuse for running out of jobs. He was still averaging 14 rebounds per 36 minutes, and, at 29 years old, he should still have some years left as a banger in the paint. Certainly, he’s a guy that a contending team could use — say, a team like the 76ers, who just traded backup center Andre Drummond and could use a guy with a little of the Spirit of 76.

But will his politics — specifically, his outspoken criticism of the Chinese Communist Party — get him blackballed from the NBA? If so, it may be time to start asking which nation the “National” in NBA stands for. Certainly, Kanter Freedom, whose passion for human rights comes from experience with the authoritarian government in his native Turkey, has upped the rhetorical ante of late on the depredations of the CCP. He added the “Freedom” to his name in November as a political statement upon becoming a U.S. citizen. He called for an athletic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. He slammed Yao Ming — the popular former Rockets center — as a “puppet” of China on Laura Ingraham’s show. Once close with leading Democrats such as Chuck Schumer, he has been getting more love from outlets on the right for his criticisms of Communist China — he is speaking at CPAC — and now says that a Democratic senator told him that Biden is afraid to meet with him for fear of offending the Turkish government. He also cut a fantastic ad for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

On Wednesday, Kanter Freedom predicted in a PBS interview that the NBA would blackball him:

Kanter Freedom said NBA teams would “do everything they can” not to re-sign him. A day later, the vocal anti-China critic was traded, and subsequently waived from the roster of his new team. “So, recently, whenever I have a conversation with someone from the NBA or one of my ex-teammates, they’re like, ‘Listen, this is your farewell tour. Have fun with it, enjoy it, I hope you win a championship because I don’t think you’re going to sign another contract after this year,’” Freedom said during a Wednesday interview with PBS’s Firing Line. “So, what you’re saying is, you believe the NBA is going to punish you, and not renew your contract?” asked host Margaret Hoover. “I don’t want to say they’re going to punish me, but I’m going to say that they’re going to do everything they can to, I believe, not sign me now,” Freedom said.

The Global Times is a belligerent English-language daily that is owned by the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily and has been designated as a “foreign mission” by the State Department. It is a reliable barometer of the nationalistic id of the CCP under Xi Jinping. Its jubilant response to Kanter Freedom being traded and cut was not only to deride him, but also to brag about how Chinese influence could deter NBA teams from wanting to sign him:

NBA team the Houston Rockets, which has a large fan base in China, waived the controversial Enes Kanter Freedom after acquiring the center via a trade with the Boston Celtics…After [ESPN], announced the trade through a Twitter post, netizens swarmed to the platform, mocking the player who has been ignorant and arrogant on China’s core interests and internal affairs such as those involving Xinjiang, Xizang, and Taiwan…Broadcasters in China have yet to resume games featuring the Celtics, making the anti-China Kanter Freedom look like a burden to the league that has hundreds of millions audience members in China…If this is the end of his NBA career, Freedom’s future path doesn’t seem as surprising as he makes it out to be. “Now you can be a full time John Bolton puppet,” commented Chen Weihua, China Daily’s EU bureau chief, receiving over 1,600 likes.

Freedom wasn’t a popular character in the NBA…He called out Lebron James, one of the greatest basketball players ever, last November, for not standing up to sponsor Nike and its alleged use of “forced labor” in China, which proved to be fictitious and fabricated. James responded that Freedom tried to use his name “to create an opportunity for himself,” and “he’s definitely not someone I would give my energy to.”…Freedom repeatedly made false and irresponsible comments regarding China’s Xinjiang in 2021. Meanwhile, he publicly declared his support for Xizang and Taiwan secessionists.

Hopefully, an NBA team will give Kanter Freedom another chance to rebound. If not, it is fair to ask whether the CCP is calling the shots.