Is another Muslim player being blackballed by the NBA?

The 2022-23 NBA season is right around the corner, and Enes Kanter Freedom still doesn’t have a spot on a team.

On paper, it doesn’t make much sense.

Freedom is a proven NBA veteran who is relatively young — he’s just 30 years old, but has a decade of experience in the league. The No. 3 pick in the 2011 draft is listed at 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds. And as recently as the 2020-21 season he averaged a double-double, putting up 11.2 points and 11.0 rebounds that year for the Portland Trail Blazers. During that season, he set a Portland franchise record with 30 rebounds in one game.

And yet, as NBA training camps opened this week, no team had signed Freedom. And the prevailing belief is that he’s being punished for his politics, not banished for a lack of basketball ability.

Freedom, a practicing Muslim of Turkish descent, last played with the Boston Celtics in 2021-22. Before the Celtics advanced all the way to the 2022 NBA Finals, they traded the big center to the Houston Rockets. However, Freedom never played a game for the Rockets; they waived him soon after acquiring him.

Now, that in itself is not uncommon in the NBA. In efforts to manage their salary cap situation, or simply to make room on the roster for a more coveted player, teams often trade for someone they have no plans on keeping.

In Freedom’s case, though, it may have been deeper than that. It didn’t go unnoticed by basketball fans and media that Freedom was swiftly jettisoned by the Rockets — the same franchise that is very popular in China, the same country of which Freedom has been loudly critical for its history of human-rights violations.

In 2019, then-Rockets general manager Daryl Morey created a public controversy when he used Twitter to voice his support of anti-China protests happening in Hong Kong at the time. Despite team owner Tilman Fertitta admonishing Morey for the tweet, it caused a fracture between the Rockets and the Chinese Basketball Association, who had a working relationship dating back to the Rockets drafting Chinese superstar Yao Ming in 2002. (Yao’s NBA tenure in Houston is the main reason why the Rockets are so popular in China.) The Chinese government even stated its displeasure with Morey’s stance. Because the Rockets and the NBA did not really defend Morey, the team and the league drew heavy criticism in the U.S. for allegedly kowtowing to China to preserve business relationships.

All the while, Freedom — who was formerly known as Enes Kanter but legally changed his name after becoming a U.S. citizen following a falling-out with Turkey over his public views regarding the Muslim-majority country’s leadership — hasn’t been shy about criticizing China. Among the many controversial issues there is the communist country’s mistreatment of its minority population of Uyghur Muslims.

So consider the perception: The NBA, and the Houston Rockets in particular, have had lucrative business dealings in China. Enes Kanter Freedom has been highly critical of China. The Rockets acquire Freedom, then immediately dump him. And no NBA team has touched him since.

“They’re pushing me to retire at the age of 30, unfortunately,” Freedom told TMZ in July. “I’m going to push through it. I’m still working out. I’m still practicing. … But the one thing I can say is, the NBA and [commissioner] Adam Silver is definitely one of the most hypocritical organizations and one of the most hypocritical commissioners out there in the world.”

That the NBA has been so open in its advocacy for WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner during her legal troubles in Russia, and also supportive of Ukraine during its war with Russia, starkly contrasts with the league’s general silence when it comes to China’s politics and aggressive actions.

“They definitely need to do more because you’re dealing with, like I said again, one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world,” Freedom was quoted by the New York Post. “Human rights is above politics, so I’m going to do whatever I can to bring awareness and be the voice of all the innocent people who don’t have a voice.”

If Freedom is in fact being blackballed by the NBA teams — or even if NBA teams individually just believed his contributions on the court aren’t worth the potential distraction off the court — he wouldn’t be the first to encounter such treatment. In the 1990s and 2000s, another Muslim NBA standout, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, was infamously frozen out of the league for years after he sparked controversy by declining to stand up during the pregame playing of the U.S. national anthem.

“Normally, I should have already received offers (from NBA teams),” Freedom said in a recent interview with an Israeli media outlet. “This summer I did not receive one single offer. The reason is that I spoke out against what is happening in China in recent months. The Chinese market is a big part of the NBA business. So, they will allow talking freely about anything you want until it hurts them financially. As soon as you do that, they will cut you. It is very sad and unacceptable.

“I knew there was a price to pay. And I don’t regret my actions,” he went on. “These things are bigger than me, bigger than the NBA, and bigger than basketball. While I am playing in the USA, people are being killed all over the world or imprisoned or tortured in prisons. If this is the sacrifice I need to make, I am ready to live with it.”

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