Less than 24 hours before he sent the message that infuriated China, the one that erased Boston Celtics broadcasts from Tencent and put the NBA on the brink of another Daryl Morey-esque crisis, Enes Kanter ducked into Phuntsok Deshe Hall in Queens, New York. He’d come to the Tibetan community center at the corner of 57th Street and 32nd Avenue, according to those who met him there, with a simple mission: to learn.
Inside, around 15 Tibetans greeted him. They were young and old, human rights defenders and community organizers. One presented Kanter with a khata, a traditional Tibetan Buddhist scarf. Kanter, though, had something to show them, too. He tugged off his hoodie to reveal a black T-shirt. Emblazoned across the front was His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, hands in prayer.
“That,” says Lobsang Tseten, one of the Tibetans who’d organized the meeting, “was an ‘Ah’ moment for us.”
Over the next two hours, they shared with Kanter stories of oppression, of the Chinese government’s crackdown on basic freedoms in the land of their ancestors. Many of their parents and grandparents had fled the autonomous region in western China where political and religious freedoms do not exist. They told Kanter why they now fight for those freedoms, and advocate for Tibetan independence.
The following day, they watched as Kanter, wearing that same Dalai Lama shirt, spoke into a camera. “Free Tibet,” he said with a point of his finger.
— Enes Kanter (@EnesKanter) October 20, 2021
He went on, decrying China’s detentions of “Tibetan monks, nuns, intellectuals, writers, poets, community leaders, athletes and many more.” He relayed the alleged horrors of life under Chinese rule: “political reeducation classes, ... torture, lengthy interrogations,” even executions, “simply for exercising the freedom that you and I take for granted."
Back in Queens, those displaced Tibetans recognized the message — because it was also theirs.
Death by fire
Kanter, though, did not take up the Tibetan cause on a whim. The 11th-year NBA center is himself something of a political refugee, a vocal critic of authoritarian Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a nomad living in exile and occasionally fearing for his safety. And as he became increasingly vocal, he realized that his story and his people were not unique. He studied authoritarianism and oppression elsewhere. In 2019, amid the Morey affair, Kanter seemed to back the Rockets executive, albeit vaguely, and tweeted: “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.”
Sometime between then and now — it’s unclear exactly when; Kanter’s manager declined to comment — Kanter homed in on Tibet. A couple weeks ago, he initiated contact with Badiucao, a prominent Chinese dissident cartoonist and artist. Because Kanter, as Badiucao recalls, “wanted to tell the world that human rights is a universal value. It's not just for his own folks. It's for every individual around the world.”
“Even though we might come from different religion, different culture, different social structure, it doesn't matter,” Badiucao continues, paraphrasing Kanter’s message. “There's a bottom line, which is the human rights that every country or society have to respect. That's the connection, and the motivation from him.”
By the time the two connected, earlier this month, Kanter had decided he wanted to speak up. Together, they set out to design a shoe that would amplify the message. But first, they spoke to each other. Kanter told his new acquaintance about the weight of sporting pressure mixed with social responsibility. Badiucao taught Kanter about China and “how China has oppressed Tibetan society.”
They also discussed the most powerful symbols of Tibetan resistance, the most iconic visuals that represent the Tibetan experience. Badiucao spoke about the self-immolation campaign. Over 150 Tibetans, in protest of Chinese rule, have burned themselves, some to death.
The two agreed that the self-immolation symbolism was a natural choice for the shoe. Badiucao — who lives in Australia, and uses the one-name alias to protect his identity — was in the U.S. for an art show. He picked up the shoes, and painted them himself. Kanter packed them when the Celtics traveled to New York for Wednesday’s season opener. He planned to wear them pregame, and then in-game if he ever got off the bench.
More than 150 Tibetan people have burned themselves alive!! — hoping that such an act would raise more awareness about Tibet.
I stand with my Tibetan brothers and sisters, and I support their calls for Freedom.#FreeTibet #FreedomShoes pic.twitter.com/MKxfs1l7GA
— Enes Kanter (@EnesKanter) October 20, 2021
A Tuesday night meeting
But Kanter also planned to continue learning. Prior to the trip, a member of his management team reached out to Tseten, a Nepal-born Tibetan who grew up in a refugee settlement. His family has lived in exile his entire life. He’s never seen Tibet, but he’s heard the stories, passed down by parents and grandparents, who fled repression when Tseten’s parents were preteens.
Tseten went off to India for college, and found the Bangalore chapter of Students for a Free Tibet, a global network of activists, some 30,000 of them advocating for Tibetan independence. Now a prominent member of the organization, “we were informed that Enes was very much interested in learning about the Tibetan community,” he says. “And he was interested in meeting Tibetans, and learning directly from the Tibetan people.”
So they welcomed him, and sat around the room off 32nd Avenue.
Kanter listened and was moved by what he heard. But he also spoke. And as the night wore on, the attendees realized how much they had in common. Tseten, for example, had learned that when Kanter tried to organize a summer basketball camp at an Islamic center on Long Island, alleged threats from the Turkish Consulate forced him to cancel the camp. “And I kind of related that to what we had faced in the Tibetan community,” Tseten says. “Whenever we try to work, whenever we try to organize something, it's always this Chinese government interference, the consulate in New York trying to block us from organizing.”
Kanter, Tseten says, spoke about “how Tibetans and Turkey and everyone suffering under dictatorial regime are brothers.” About “how we have to come together [against] such atrocities.”
Before Kanter left, his hosts gifted him a Tibetan flag, and Tseten told him: “This is not just a national flag, but also a symbol of resistance.”
Not long after he ducked out into the Queens night, midway through a monologue that has since been viewed by around a million people, Kanter spoke about that flag. He spoke about the self-immolations. He spoke about “cultural genocide.”
“After learning all of this, I cannot stay silent,” he said. “I stand with my Tibetan brothers and sisters. And I support their calls for freedom.”
He has since received death threats. But he knew he would. “Oh yes, oh yes,” he was aware there’d consequences, Badiucao says. Kanter has experienced it all before. “What he's doing now is essentially no different from his other activisms about Turkey,” Badiucao says. “It is still advocating for the people who do not have a voice.”
And those people, the Chinese dissident says, are appreciative. They “cannot speak freely,” he explains. “But in private, I have received messages from friends in China saying they're so grateful that Enes is doing this. That they feel their voice is being heard. And they feel that it's great that the Tibetan community is supported by such an important celebrity-athlete in the most important sports league on this planet.”