Then the fallout began. China has canceled all broadcasts of Celtics games for the entire year. Pressure from the NBA is also mounting.
“I didn’t even play that game,” recalls Freedom. “After the game, obviously they put so much pressure on me. The players’ association, NBPA, called me and said, “You can never wear those shoes again.” They put so much pressure on me and I was like, ‘I promise you, I’ll never wear ‘Free Tibet’ shoes again.'”
Freedom wore a pair of “Free Uighur” shoes the next game.
“I never said I wasn’t going to wear ‘Free Uighur’ shoes,” Freedom said. “I just said I wasn’t going to wear ‘Free Tibet’.”
The backlash happened again – death threats, constant notifications, trolls – and this time it wasn’t the televised NBA games that were banned, but, as he points out, Freedom itself.
The 30-year-old former star hasn’t played since February last year and is now a free agent. He has reason to believe he will never play in the NBA again.
“After the first game, one of the players came up to me and said, ‘You know this is your last year in the NBA, right? Because you’re talking about China, you talk about Nike. You’ll never get another contract, so have fun with it. I hope you win a championship, but it’s your last season,” Freedom said.
“I can play for another six years. I am healthy. My body feels healthy. But right now unfortunately I’ve talked to a lot of people and there won’t be an NBA for me because I believe I’ve been blackballed…because they’re scared that any team that’s going to sign me get a lot of feedback from the Chinese government,” he said.
The Price of Courage
Freedom’s activism began not with human rights abuses in China, but with a corruption scandal in its native Turkey. What started as a conversation on Freedom’s high-profile Twitter account began to change the situation in Turkey.
(Story continues below)
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“Even a simple tweet can affect so much,” Freedom recalled after the incident. It inspired him to start paying more attention to his country – and to become more outspoken. His testimony came with a cost.
“Things I’ve talked about [began] affecting me and my family,” Freedom said. “You know, my father was a scientist. He got fired from his job. My sister went to medical school for six years. She searches, does not find jobs.
“I think the saddest thing was my little brother because he played basketball – he wanted to be like his big brother. He was getting kicked out of all the teams because he had the same last name and he told me asked about it.
“He was too young to understand.
Pressure mounted when her father was imprisoned, even though the family repeatedly informed the Turkish government that they had no connection to Freedom, which was in the United States.
Eventually, his father posted a letter online disowning his son in the family name and begging him to change his surname. Years later, after becoming an American citizen, he chose the name Freedom.