One of my favorite interviews I’ve ever done was with John Rocker. The once-dominant former Atlanta Braves pitcher had torched his career with an immortal profile in Sports Illustrated in which he complained to reporter Jeff Pearlman about having to take the 7 train to Mets games “next to some queer with AIDS” and said, “The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners.” That article appeared in 1999, when Rocker was at the peak of his powers. My interview came much later, a year after his career ended in 2006, when Rocker was desperate to hang on to some fleeting semblance of fame. He was about as outrageous as he was in ’99 — he called Pearlman “a liberal Jew from New York,” referred to NFL star Michael Irvin as a “crackhead,” and was, at the time, promoting his “speak English” campaign for a book he was writing, which he hoped would lead to a political career. But my interview didn’t make nearly as much of a splash as Pearlman’s, nor should it have. It was obvious what Rocker was doing. With no baseball ahead of him, he needed his name in the headlines — it turned out he’d been thirsty for fame all along and admitted he was hoping for a show on Fox News — and would do whatever he could keep it there. It didn’t work. Other than an appearance on Survivor in 2014, no one has heard from Rocker in years.
But I’m starting to think Rocker was simply ahead of his time. Were he an active pitcher today, that “speak English” shirt alone would get him at least a streaming Fox Nation show, right? From a marketing perspective, there is a clear opening for an athlete to counteract all the political activism we’ve seen in sports the last few years — for someone to paint himself (or herself, but surely himself) as the good athlete, the reactionary who wants to keep sports as it is, the human antithesis to LeBron James and the entire More Than a Vote sports-as-politics concept. Cynical and depressing as it is, it’s a pretty terrific business plan for an athlete at the end of their career.
Which brings us to Enes Kanter. Or Enes Kanter Freedom, as he is now known.
Kanter Freedom, which we’ll call him for the rest of this piece — lest you think the concept of “acting without restraint or hindrance” currently plays center for the Boston Celtics — is an 11-year veteran of five NBA teams, including the Knicks. He has generally been a useful player, a big man who can score but is mostly a nonentity on defense, the sort of guy who doesn’t hurt you to have around but whose presence is a sign your team isn’t in danger of winning a title anytime soon. More to the point, he is very obviously at the end of his time in the NBA: He’s playing only 12.7 minutes a game for the Celtics and averaging only 4.6 points, both by far the lowest totals of his career. He has been a perfectly serviceable player for a full decade, an undeniably impressive achievement. But things are winding down. He knows it. His teammates know it. The whole league knows it. There’s no shame here. It happens to everyone.
But Kanter Freedom has always been known for more than just his interior-post play. From early on in his career, he has been outspoken on political issues, particularly those involving Turkey and China. Kanter Freedom grew up in Turkey and has been an avowed opponent of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for years, calling him “the Hitler of our century” in 2017 after Erdogan had cracked down on civil society following a failed coup attempt. Kanter’s opposition to the Erdogan regime eventually resulted in the Turkish government putting out an extradition request on him. (Kanter declined to travel with the Knicks when they played in London in 2019 out of fears that there would be an attempt on his life.) Kanter Freedom is also a practicing Muslim and has lambasted China for its treatment of the Uighur people, calling Chinese president Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator.” (The Chinese government responded by refusing to stream Celtics games in the country.) He even held a rally in Washington, D.C., last fall in support of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which passed the Senate in July. He has never been anything remotely resembling a “shut up and dribble” guy.
This is generally laudable stuff so far — and, to be clear, presents a deep contrast in moral righteousness to someone like John Rocker.
But recently, Kanter Freedom’s often noble mission has intersected with some political bad actors who are incredibly eager to find, and exploit, someone exactly like him. As player activism around Black Lives Matter and police violence exploded last summer, one way conservative politicians and commentators tried to neutralize their voices was to criticize their views on China. The most notable adherent to this strategy was Senator Ted Cruz, who never missed an opportunity to call LeBron James a coward for speaking out against racial injustice but failing to denounce China for its human-rights violations. (James, like just about every executive in the NBA, has many business interests in the country.) Things came to a head when then-Rockets executive Daryl Morey sent out a tweet in support of Hong Kong protests in October 2019, and the league, and its players, lined up almost universally against him, ultimately forcing him to backtrack. (He later admitted he worried his NBA career might be over.)
It was certainly inconvenient that Cruz, in this specific instance, was right: There has been an unquestionable disparity between James’s (and others’) views on injustice in the United States and their far more muted opinions on what’s happening in China. And Kanter Freedom has served as a powerful countervailing voice on the matter while almost everyone else in the league clammed up. But Cruz isn’t driven primarily by a sincere interest in human rights here. Blasting James is just a way to minimize him and other mostly Black NBA athlete-activists — essentially paint them as hypocrites and, even more usefully, as intellectually out of their depth. It’s an attempt to lessen their credibility as activists, to essentially shut them up. So you want to get involved in politics, they seemed to be saying. Okay, this is how politics really work. Welcome to the arena.
This is where Kanter Freedom has very much come in handy. His fight against China’s policies is sincere, but Cruz — and more recently, Tucker Carlson, Mike Pompeo, and others — finds him useful simply because he’s such a strong counterpoint to James. He’s someone who would simultaneously damage James’s image and play the “immigrant who loves his country more than the people who were born here” card that Carlson loves to apply in his ever-so-selective way. Late in his career and eager to take the next step, Kanter Freedom leapt at the opportunity.
Thus, when Kanter Freedom appeared on Carlson’s show last week, the interview was only ostensibly about China. It was mostly about Kanter loving America and LeBron James (and by extension all those other ungrateful and mouthy Black athletes) being an ungrateful troublemaker.
This is the spot that Rocker could have occupied: the athlete-activist but in the other direction. (Because Kanter Freedom is from Turkey and does have at least one more noteworthy cause than “speak English,” he’s much more fitting in this role than Rocker could have ever been.) Kanter Freedom has clearly embraced his new part: He has become, almost instantly, remarkably trollish. He told Carlson that he’d be happy to sit down to have a conversation with James about his political views but that “it wouldn’t go well” for James. (When Kanter Freedom’s Celtics played James’s Lakers the next night, according to James, Kanter Freedom didn’t say a thing. James mostly ignores him and says, correctly, that he’s “trying to use my name to create an opportunity for himself.”) Kanter Freedom has also become an expert troll on Twitter, retweeting praise from Mike Pompeo, hanging with Jared Kushner, and bizarrely pulling poor Jeremy Lin into this, accusing him of “turning your back against your people.” (Jeremy Lin is from Palo Alto.)
This may be the most American thing the newly minted citizen could possibly do. Rebrand, pivot, extend his fame, get his own show. (Hell, he’s even dating a Rockefeller.) Kanter Freedom started from a good place, and there is little doubt he has a hard-earned passion for his pet causes. But there’s also no question that the likes of Cruz and Kushner are using him, and it’s becoming clear that he does not mind. You may be about to hear more about Enes Kanter Freedom when his career is over than you ever did when he was on the court.