Activist, NBA player, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Enes Kanter Freedom, whose games were banned in China after he spoke out against the country’s human rights abuses, is presented with the 2022 Courage Award at the 14th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see full remarks below.
Moderator: So Enes before we start I have a question that’s what’s triggered by Bobi’s performance. I’ve seen you play basketball, I’ve seen you fight for human rights, I saw you in congress with politicians, my first question would be though can you sing as well as Bobi?
Enes Freedom: I don’t think you guys want to hear I sing. I’m horrible at it, so I just keep sticking to playing basketball.
Moderator: Yeah let’s let’s start with basketball. On February 8th you were at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn crushing my home team or the Brooklyn Nets, you scored a magnificent the three-point basket which to this day is your last basket in the NBA. Your teammates at the time were Robert, Jalen, Dennis, Al, Romeo. Two months later you met the Dalai Lama, you went to congress several times and your new teammates are Zarifa, Leonid, Olga, Berta, Bobi. What does it mean for you and many others who share their courageous stories today? What does it mean for you to win that award here at the Geneva Summit and be among them?
Enes Freedom: First of all thank you guys for inviting me. I’m honored and humbled to be here. You know, today’s a very special day because this is actually my first time leaving the United States, the reason is I’ve been following what the Geneva Summit has been doing over the years and I was so inspired by the work that they have done.
So the Turkish government revoked my passport and put my name on the Interpol list and I have 10 arrest warrants for me in less than four years and when I had a conversation with many of my people, they told me not to take any risks and travel outside of America, but I wanted to come here and I wanted to be part of this beautiful event, because I think before everything I wanted to come here and educate myself. You know I have seen so many champions, so many heroes, that inspires me so when I go back home I can inspire and I can also educate the friends around me, my teammates, and my athlete colleagues. So today was definitely a special day. And like you said two months ago I was with the Boston Celtics in the NBA. We never won a championship. But I believe with my new team here, with my new heroes, new champions, we can definitely win a championship because they are fearless. I mean, all the dictators out there better be scared because with this team we’re going to crush them.
Moderator: It looks like it. Yesterday after the panel at the UN you stepped out, you were talking to some of the panellists and you told some of them “thank you I learned a lot today” and so what did you learn talking to them, talking to all these activists, that you met in Geneva.
Enes Freedom: You know I was already in touch with some of the activists here, but I think what I learned that day is a very simple line: live for others. There are so many people here who sacrificed so much, some people sacrificed their family, some people sacrificed their career and a lot of money and businesses but for something better and something bigger. I think all the connections we are going to create is going to be effective in our world, and I think that that’s what the dictators are afraid of the most. You know because we are from different, you know, countries, we are from different colors, and different regions, and different religions but I feel like we need to fight as the one. I was just hearing the all the speeches all day, and a lot of people are struggling because of all the dictatorships out there but I feel like we need to unite and fight as one.
Moderator: Talking about sacrifice, you left your family at a very young age to play basketball in the US, so tell us about your journey, because you made the ultimate sacrifice, I mean as a teenager, to be without your family to play basketball. And now your activism kind of seems to have at least put an end to your career.
Enes Freedom: My whole life was all about basketball and I went to America when I was 17 years old because of education and also to play basketball at the same time. So my dad was a genetics professor and I asked him if I can start playing basketball and he made me promise one thing he said “I want you to be a good student before a good basketball player because you’re only going to play basketball for maybe like 10-15 years then you have a long life ahead of you.”
So that was the reason I travelled to America to go to school and play basketball at the same time. Then I went to high school and I went to prep school and then I went to college then I got drafted in 2011 by the Utah Jazz. You know my first two years in the league all I cared about was, you know, playing basketball having fun with my teammates and just go around and just chill. But then in 2013 there was a corruption scandal happening in Turkey and President Erdogan and his family were involved in it and after that corruption scandal President Erdogan started to put innocent people in jail, journalists in jail, activists in jail, and he started to go around and shut down media outlets.
And I was like “I don’t care who you are, if you’re going to fight against free press I’m going to say something.” So I just put a tweet out there, very simple tweet, and because of the NBA platform, it became a conversation. Then I was like even one simple tweet can affect this much so from now when I’m going to pay attention about what’s going on in my country more and more.
I started to study and obviously because of the platform a lot of them big news outlets and newspapers started to give me a platform and I did start to talk about a lot of stuff but it affected me and my family. My dad was a genetics professor, he got fired from his job. My sister went to medical school for six years, she still can’t find a job. I think the saddest one was my little brother, because he was playing basketball and he wanted to be like his big brother and play in the NBA one day, he was literally getting kicked out of every team and he was so young I couldn’t explain to him why.
So they were getting affected so much they had to put a statement out there and said we are disowning our son and they made it publicly. I remember going to a practice that day was one of the toughest days in my life but then the Turkish government didn’t believe that. They came to my house in Turkey and they raided the whole house and they took every piece of electronics away because they wanted to see if I’m still in contact with my family or not. They couldn’t find any evidence but then they took my dad in jail for a while. We put so much pressure on Turkey they had to let them go. But then you guys know the story, so then they put my name on the Interpol list and revoked my password and tried to kidnap me actually in a couple of places. And that is that is my life story pretty much.
Moderator: Talking about your dad the first time we met I asked you what triggered your activism. You told me about a conversation you had with your parents and when you told them you were going to speak out, and the one thing you said about your dad is that he remained silent when you told him you were going to speak out. Do you think he would be proud of you today?
Enes Freedom: So my dad didn’t want me to speak up about it in the beginning but then you know there’s no communication right now because if I talk to them they will be in jail. But I think today if he sees me standing here not just by myself but with his you know but with these heroes, I think he will be very proud and happy.
Moderator: In French, there is a saying that says ‘nul n’est prophète en son pays’. No man is a prophet in his own country. Three weeks ago I was in your neighbourhood of Karakoy in Istanbul and I noticed something very quickly. There you cannot say your name out loud.
Enes Freedom: I’m sure you guys watched Harry Potter right? Think about Voldemort ‘he who should not be named’ in a good way, not the bad guy but the good guy. It’s crazy how you know even my ex-teammates or, you know, friends or like some of the other family members are scared to even say a name. That shows how much censorship, how many dictatorships, how much pressure they’re seeing and it’s just unbelievable. I just laugh at it I’m like “I could care less because I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.” But it just it’s really sad to see.
Moderator: You changed your name recently to Freedom, how did that come about?
Enes Freedom: So the reason I wanted to change my name, I think, I remember when I came to America back in 2009 one of the one of my teammates actually criticized the American government and I was very scared for him because I was like “dude what are you doing?” And he turned around and asked me “what happened?” And I was like then “you might be in jail tomorrow!” And he started to laugh and he’s like “this is not Turkey this is America.” I didn’t understand what he meant. So he tried to explain to me what freedom of speech means, freedom of the press means, but I still couldn’t get it because I never had that growing up.
But the reason I wanted to make that word part of me and carry it everywhere I go and put that word behind my jersey is to inspire our young generation. I feel like if you want to have a better and brighter future we have to change the mindset of our young generation because I think it’s really important to just inspire. Especially if you’re an athlete, you have a huge platform. I’m sure so many people here have Tik-Toks, and Instagram, and Twitters, and Facebook, and Snapchats and many other handles but you know they’re following everything you’re doing. So it is important to stand up for the right things.
That were the one thing that made me so happy because I was educated and inspiring the all the sports world, especially the kids, so now whenever I hold the basketball camp instead of asking me questions about basketball they ask me questions about Tibet. They ask me they ask me questions about Venezuela or Cuba or they ask me questions about Iran or what’s happening with Hong kong. So that actually really really made me happy because now I know that they’re studying.
Moderator: In the past few months you have had to expand your scope a lot because when we met right after you were traded you said something, we met in a hotel room in D.C., the day before Valentine’s Day and you were there and you said something striking, you said “I spoke about Turkey for the past 10 years and nobody kind of cared, I speak about China in one day and my phone is ringing every hour.” How did that fight for China and the Uyghurs and Tibet came about?
Enes Freedom: Well the reason I got into the China topic is because in the last 10 years I was so busy because my plate was full because my family is in Turkey right. Anyway one day this past summer I’m doing a basketball camp with kids, anyway we had an amazing basketball camp and after the camp kids were just coming and taking pictures one by one. I took a picture with this kid right and then while I was taking a picture his parents called me in front of everybody, there were cameras and there were kids and parents and media. and he said “how can you call yourself a human rights activist when your brothers and sisters are in East Turkistan in concentration camps right now, when they are getting tortured and raped every day?”
I’m taking a picture with the kid. I was so shocked I’m like oh my god, you know, I turn around and I’m like “I promise I’m gonna get back to you”. That day I cancelled everything. I went back to my hotel I started to study about what Uyghurs are going through, while I was studying Uyghurs and I am a big fan of his holiness Dalai Lama so and then I started to study about Tibet, then other regions came. I already knew about Hong Kong because of two years ago I’m sure you guys know the general manager of one of the NBA teams tweeted something and it became a huge mess. Then I started to you know study about I study about Southern Mongolians and Taiwan and I was very ashamed of myself. I was like I cannot believe the last 10 years I was just only focused on one dictatorship. So that day I promised myself whatever it takes I’m going to speak up for those innocent people, because there are human rights violations that are happening all over the world and I feel like this platform is given me by god and I need to use it for his cause.
Then I talked. And the craziest thing, so I’m sure you guys watched a lot of basketball, I talked about Tibet, my first topic was Tibet. Before the game right and then in the first half – so in one half there is 12 minutes, two quarters it’s 24 minutes – and at half time I went back to my locker I looked at my phone my manager texted me and said every Celtics game is banned in China. I was like oh my god that clearly shows how much they’re scared of a voice. And then my friend told me and said that it’s normal. I asked him what do you mean? He said do you know there is a cartoon called Winnie the Pooh, I’m sure you guys know, and that cartoon is banned in China. And I asked him what do you mean? He’s like just because the character of Winnie the Pooh looks like the dictator Xi Jinping he literally banned the whole cartoon I started to laugh I’m like this is just wild, and I was like oh well I guess they’re not gonna be watching any Celtics game in China this year.
Moderator: So you decided to speak through your feet basically.
Enes Freedom: So I wanted to create these beautiful shoes right, because when I was a kid I remember whenever I watched that NBA game, right. The first thing I was looking at in an NBA player was his shoes. What color it is, if they were comfortable, what brand. I think my goal was to inspire our young generation, right. I’m like I’m going to do it in a very unique way, I’m going to create these shoes where I’m going to put all these human rights abusers, and political prisoners, or names, and flags on my shoes and go out there and play. That is my freedom of speech.
The crazy thing is, NBA came and told me right before the game – the first game – said we are begging you to take your shoes off. I’m like hold on a second “what do you mean?” He said we are getting a lot of attention you have to take your shoes off. It was the perfect moment because I was getting ready for my citizenship test, American citizenship test, and I was like there are 27 amendments, my first amendment freedom of speech, I turn around to that guy I’m like you cannot take that my first amendment from me I’m not taking them off, go tell your boss. Then you know it became even bigger news, than the second game we talk about the Uighurs, in the third game we talk about Winne the Pooh, the fourth game we talk about the Nike and all the sweatshops, the fifth game we talk about Hong Kong and Taiwan, and well just keep going and you know every time now I go to an arena and they’re like when are you going to start producing those shoes?
Moderator: Are you going to produce them?
Enes Freedom: I actually will, it’s called the Freedom brand. So I’m excited.
Moderator: Just about this because I think it’s interesting we’re talking about teams in the beginning so you teamed up with, not just anyone, you teamed up with some artists like how did that came about? did they reach out to you?
Enes Freedom: We reached out to them because I wanted to do it in a very unique way where I can reach out to these artists where they’ve been oppressed by their governments because they know the best. So whenever I’m gonna say, today I’m gonna talk about Hong Kong, right, I was reaching out to an artist who knows Hong Kong really well. Or the next game I was going to talk about Nicaragua, I was reaching out to an artist from Nicaragua and you know she was helping me and actually, she is here I don’t know where she’s at right, now yep she’s right there, Ms. Valle. But other than that I think it was really important to reach out to those artists because I mean they were putting the best works out there.
Moderator: I want to go back to February 8th and 10th because that kind of changed everything. There were a lot of discussions today about the price of activism. The price you paid happened on February 10th, can you tell us about that day and what you felt that day?
Enes Freedom: So the first time I started to talk about these issues right my first topic like I said was Tibet and after the game my agent called me and said, “listen I’m going to be honest with you I work for you I don’t work for NBA. He said if you don’t say a word ever again people probably going to forget about what you did in like three-four days. You know you can apologize, you can say sorry, you can just say I didn’t know enough, then people will forget about it. You’ll be fine. But if you say another word you’re not going to be able to get another contract again.” and I’m like this is crazy because this is my freedom of speech and you’re telling me I’m going to be banned from the NBA just because I’m using my first amendment?
Anyway, I’m like okay. Second game I started to talk but I think my teammates were warning me. You know my teammates were telling me like “listen dude you know this is your last year, have fun I hope we win a championship but you’re not getting another contract.” And February 10th came and it was I remember it was like 3pm eastern time and my agent called me and said they are pretty much like waiving you and I was like wow. They did that. I cannot believe just because China made a call to NBA to say release this guy and I was out of the league. Like this.
Moderator: And it’s not any team that released you. It’s the Houston Rockets, who have a long history in China.
Enes Freedom: So Houston Rockets right, known as China’s team because of Yao Ming, because of how the general manager of the Houston rockets Morey tweeted about Hong Kong two years ago, it became a big mess for the NBA. Actually not many people know this, I think that this is the first time I’m saying it here, when Morey tweeted about Hong Kong I was playing for the Boston Celtics. They made me immediately unavailable for two weeks. They did not let me speak to media for two weeks, because they knew I could care less. I would just go out there and say whatever I want. It was it was a shame but I mean now I’m out of that team I can just speak freely but yep I was made media unavailable for two weeks.
Moderator: What did you feel last week when you heard that public television in China is going to broadcast NBA games again?
Enes Freedom: Many people, many sports writers who are controlled by the NBA were saying oh no no it’s not China he’s just not good – by the way I averaged a double-double last year and we made the playoffs.
Moderator: You should explain what a double-double is.
Enes Freedom: They were saying oh no it’s not that it’s basketball right. So as soon as – after I think was four weeks – I was out of the league they put the game back on the Chinese television. I was like at least wait for a year, at least wait for next season, don’t make it that obvious. It was just crazy man, it was like you’re telling the whole world why I am released.
Moderator: You mentioned your teammates, you talked about the price you paid but why do you keep speaking up? You know, like, you paid quite a price with not being able to see your family.
I think that’s the one question that I get the most, especially from my teammates: “are you crazy”? They asked me a question so many times because when it comes to Turkey issues they say “well your family’s still back in Turkey and you’re not even allowed to see or talk to them, you haven’t seen them for eight years, your dad was in jail”, but when it comes to China they’re pretty much saying “you lost your career, you get death threats every day, you have to be in touch with the FBI all the time, you’re not even allowed to go anywhere freely, you have to go everywhere with security and stuff, like why?”
I mean people need to understand my family is only one. There are so many families in jail right now suffering. I mean now I listen to these people’s stories, I’m like, if you’re carrying a heart there’s no way you can stay silent. It’s a shame if you stay silent.
The other thing is, I always ask this, when the Beijing Olympics were happening, right, I reached out to so many Olympians and so many of my teammates and so many athletes. I’m like listen, this is an amazing opportunity to bring awareness, let’s boycott the Olympics. And then they put diplomatic boycotts which I think is good, but not enough. But I asked them one question, which I ask this question to people a lot, “if your mother, if your sister, if your wife, or if one of your family members was in those concentration camps and getting tortured and raped every day, would you still remain silent?” And unfortunately none of them answer.
Moderator: Did anybody reach out to you from the basketball world after you lost your job?
Enes Freedom: Good question. Not even one. And I always looked at my team and my teammates as my brothers, as my family, and unfortunately not even one of them reached out. But guess what I found a new family here.
Moderator: Let’s talk about change because you did not only average double-double, which by the way means that he had a double amount points and rebounds so more than 10 rebounds and more than 10 points in the game, which is quite something – I mean who am I to say that – but anyway, talking about change, you were part of another team who managed to do something quite extraordinary in Washington D.C. which is to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act with like 428 votes to 1 in the House of Representatives. I mean for people who don’t know the US government this is quite something to do this. So tell us about this.
Enes Freedom: We always say don’t just talk about it, be about it. If I come here and just give you guys a 25-minute speech, right, and if I go home and start watching movies and not care about what I talk about it’s just not going to be effective. So we always say don’t just talk about it, be about it. So, by the way, I don’t want to take credit, because, you know, I did not do a lot in that bill, well I helped, but didn’t do much. That bill, Uyghur Bill, was so important because if you’re a company, right, if you’re using slave labor pretty much you’re not allowed to step into America and that is going to cost billions of dollars with a B to China and these companies that are using slave labor. So I was really happy about it. Actually when we put that out there a couple of the companies, I believe Apple and especially Nike was lobbying against this bill but I was like you know what we’re going to crush them. I don’t care how strong they are I don’t care how influential they are we’re going to go out there and just do this because this is the right thing to do.
Moderator: What are you setting your sights on now? Is there another fight in congress that you want to be part of?
Enes Freedom: I mean there are so many bills now I just keep hearing about you know there was a Tibetan bill, and there are Hong Kong bills, so there are so many other issues that are happening and I was listening to my Afghan sister about this. So there are so many problems that are happening in our world but I feel like people need to understand it doesn’t matter what your the background is, it doesn’t matter what your skin color is, your religion, or your culture is, the most important in life is to leave your differences on the table and try to find what we have in common.
Till one of those billionaires finds another planet to live this world is what we have so we need to make this world better together and we need to fight as one. That’s why I was so excited to you know be part of this beautiful event because now I know what Afghanistan going through, Nicaragua is going through, Venezuela is going through, Cuba, or Iran or all the other countries, Tibetans or Hongkongers are going through. Now I can help them and how they can help me.
I feel like we are a huge family and we need to you now move as one, we need to fight as the one. You know I heard this from a speech if you are if you’re a boxer you would know this, but if you punch someone like this [shows open hand] right you’ll break your hand but if you come to fight as one [shows closed fist] and punch them like this then you’re going to break their jaw. So I feel like you know all these activists, my friends, and my heroes here need to come as one and punch all the dictators out there in the face and we’ll destroy them.
Moderators: I have two more questions in the 13 seconds that we have left, two more and they’re like kind of deep. Do you feel free?
Enes Freedom: Do I feel free? Good question. You know I’m in America. I do live a good life. But til all my friends are free, I’m not free. Til Tibetans and his holiness Dalai lama, til all these other political prisoners we talked about, til you know Ms.Valle’s husband, until all these political prisoners, not just here but all around the world there are so many other countries that are going through so much, you know, rough times, until they’re out I’m not free. And it doesn’t matter if there is peace in my country I will be, you know, working with these people to fight for freedom and democracy.
Moderator: For the last question I’m gonna quote Martin Luther King Jr. He said “no matter who you are or where we come from we’re all entitled to the basic human rights of clean air to breathe, clean and water to drink and a healthy land to call home”. So what is home for you?
Enes Freedom: What is home for me? Good question. I think…I don’t know. I don’t know what is home for me.
Because my home country Turkey, where I grew up, thinks that I’m a terrorist because I spoke out against the issues there. You know I’m born in Switzerland by the way so I can call Switzerland home maybe. But I think what’s home for me is. I think that the world is our home. You know the world is our home. When you step into your home you always make sure it’s clean, it’s perfect, you always make sure that everything is perfect. But I feel like we are the builders of our world so that’s why I think for me was so important, here now I see in the backstage I see so many you know young kids here, a young generation here who are going to be our future. I think we need to give this fight. I understand my heroes here are struggling a lot and they’re giving so much sacrifices but I feel like we have to do this for the young generation because if we don’t then they’re going to face the same problems we are facing right now. So we have to do this. I know it’s a lot but we have to just fight for this against oppressors, authoritarian regimes, and dictators around the world.
I think the fight will never stop until every dictator falls and if you look down the history every dictatorship falls in the end but we just have to stay strong. I think in end the most important thing is to not lose hope.
14th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, April 5, 2022