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Video: NBA’s Enes Freedom talks escaping kidnappers, persecution

Connor Bartholomew, 14, of Wind Gap, guards Trail Blazers great Enes Kanter as they play one-on-one. Kanter lead a free basketball clinic at the Slate Belt YMCA on July 19, 2021. (Photo by Saed Hindash/TNS)
January 15, 2023

In a recent interview, NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom shared the story of how he escaped attempted kidnappings and became an outspoken critic of authoritarian governments.

Born Enes Kanter, Freedom grew up in Turkey but moved to the United States as a teenager. Freedom went on to become a professional basketball player, most recently playing for the Boston Celtics and now as an unsigned free agent.

In an interview titled “The Price I Paid for Criticizing Erdoğan” Freedom focused on his upbringing in Turkey, his move to the U.S. as a teenager and his criticisms of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Turkish government, all while managing a professional basketball career.

As the interview began, Freedom described a moment from his early childhood in Turkey when his friends at the time were burning the American and Israeli flags and encouraging him to hate America. Freedom said he told his mother about the incident.

“My mom said ‘I’m not going to tell you what to do but do not hate anyone before you meet him,’” Freedom said. “So I give a promise to my mom that I was like ‘promise I’m not gonna hate anybody until I actually get to meet with these people.’”

Freedom went on to describe how, after moving to America as a teenager, he made friends with a Jewish person who invited him to a combined Thanksgiving and Shabbat dinner. Having been raised Muslim, Freedom said he initially hesitated to accept the offer, but remembered his promise to his mother.

“I went to the house, it was so beautiful, everything was so amazing, we had an amazing dinner, we had so much fun,” Freedom said. “At one point I was thinking to myself, like are they trying

to brainwash me or something, so it was like the funniest thing.”

Freedom continued to describe his eventual entry into the National Basketball Association. Freedom began playing for the Utah Jazz in 2011.

It was in his third season playing for the NBA, Freedom recalled, that there was news of a corruption scandal in Turkey. Freedom described how people were being jailed and media outlets were being censored and closed during the 2013 corruption scandal.

“That’s when I put a little simple tweet out there and because of the NBA platform it became a

conversation here in the United States and Turkey and I was like ‘even one

simple tweet can affect this much, from now on, I’m gonna start paying attention about what’s going in my country more,’” Freedom said.

Freedom said his outspoken criticism of the Turkish government led to his family, who still lived in the country, facing persecution. He said his father lost his job, his sister could not find employment and his younger brother — who also has aspirations to play in the NBA — “was getting kicked out of every team in Turkey because of the same last name.”

Freedom has said he was the subject of two kidnapping attempts in a matter of days in May of 2017. The first suspected attempt took place while he was hosting a basketball camp in Jakarta, Indonesia. In a 2017 article he wrote for Players Tribune, Freedom said his manager woke him in the middle of the night and told him that Indonesian police were searching for him “because they received a call from the Turkish government saying I was ‘a dangerous man.’”

The next kidnapping attempt came days later as Freedom flew to Romania. Freedom said during the Middle East Forum interview that the Turkish government revoked his passport while he was in Romania.

“That’s when they actually pretty much tried to kidnap me and took me back to try to take me back to Turkey,” Freedom said. “And that’s when I called pretty much my Senator friends Congressman friends and actually Homeland Security really did help me.”

“They told me one thing until you become an American citizen do not leave this country because you know we might not be able to help you next time so I literally stayed in America for the last six years and I became a citizen just over a year ago,” Freedom continued.

Enes Kanter officially changed his name to Enes Kanter Freedom in 2021, after gaining U.S. citizenship. He has also been an outspoken critic of authoritarian behavior by the Chinese government.

Freedom focused much of his comments during the interview on the Turkish government.

“Turkey is like the number one country in the world of most journalists in a jail,” Freedom said. “I believe more than China and Russia.”

According to a December report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a U.S.-based press freedom watchdog organization, Iran had become the country with the most journalists imprisoned. China held the number two spot while Turkey held the number four spot, with 40 journalists imprisoned in the country.