Why former Jazzman Enes Kanter Freedom received an award from a Utah mayor

Riverton’s mayor declared this week that April 12 would be known as Enes Kanter Freedom Day in the city.

(Alex Vejar | The Salt Lake Tribune) Enes Kanter Freedom, right, accepts the Freedom Award from Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs on Wednesday, April 12, 2023, at the Old Dome Meeting Hall in Riverton, Utah.

Riverton • Enes Kanter Freedom started his career with the Utah Jazz. But the way he left the organization — a trade request and some harsh words in the following years — pointed to him maybe never mending the fence between him and the fan base.

Now the ex-Jazzman says he’s ready for a moment of healing.

“I want them to understand that this was not about me hating them — I actually love them,” Freedom told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I hope this will help to build that bridge between me and the fans. ... I have no problems with any of the fans, have no problems with the organization because everyone changed now. It’s all about building that bridge. We need each other.”

Freedom, an outspoken critic of the Turkish and Chinese governments as well as the politics of the NBA, has seen his message land with Utah’s conservative leaders in particular.

Earlier this year, the former NBA player attended a closed-door lunch with Senate Republicans — an event hosted by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

This week, Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs awarded Freedom with the city’s first “Freedom Award.” Staggs also declared April 12 as Enes Kanter Freedom Day in the city from now on.

Staggs told The Tribune that he chose Freedom for the award because of his ties to Utah after playing with the Jazz from 2011-15 when he was traded midseason at the trade deadline. More importantly, Staggs said he felt his city’s values aligned with Freedom’s causes.

“I’ve knocked on a lot of doors, I’ve talked to thousands of our constituents and residents here,” said Staggs, who is in his sixth year as Riverton’s mayor after four on the City Council. “This is very close to their hearts — the Constitution, the liberties that are constitutionally protected, particularly freedom of speech.”

Freedom has made headlines in recent years by criticizing the government of his home country of Turkey. At one point, there was a warrant out for his arrest there and his passport was canceled. He revealed in recent months that Turkey has a $500,000 bounty on his head.

Last year, while a member of the Boston Celtics, Freedom wrote “Free Tibet” on his shoes in a statement against China and the unrest between the two countries. He said he was asked to take them off but refused. He was later traded to and waived by the Houston Rockets and hasn’t played in the NBA since.

“Of course, everybody knows I am being blackballed by the NBA for the things that I stand for,” Freedom said in a recent Fox News interview.

Staggs on Wednesday expressed his admiration for Freedom while taking shots at other athletes he sees as “social justice warriors.”

“We have so many social justice warriors out there today, and I think that several players are all too eager to criticize injustices or perceived injustices in our country from 150-plus years ago, but they won’t take a stand for actual slavery that’s going on in China with organ harvesting, with all types of human rights atrocities, and that’s a shame,” Staggs said from the podium. “I say that there are several out there that are willing to take a knee, but too few are willing to take a stand. Enes is one of those that’s willing to take a stand and actually to stand up to this.”

(Alex Vejar | The Salt Lake Tribune) Enes Kanter Freedom, right, listens to Utah Rep. Burgess Owens before accepting the inaugural Freedom Award on April 12, 2023, at Old Dome Meeting Hall in Riverton, Utah.

Staggs went on to say that it’s important for people in Riverton and all over the United States “to appreciate the freedom we have again and how fragile it can be.”

“Unfortunately, increasingly here in the U.S., under this false religion of wokeness, free speech sometimes has been labeled almost as blasphemy,” Staggs said. “It’s OK to speak out on certain issues. You’re afforded a platform, you can speak out if you’re talking about the right political agenda.

“But when you’re not, far too often people get silenced, they get de-platformed and they’re not able to speak freely, or their interests aren’t able to be shared in the way that they are with other points of view.”

Freedom said he does not believe his message is a partisan issue, but a human one, especially for young people. He said he was supposed to organize a basketball camp in Riverton, but the timing didn’t work out. He still wants to do it sometime in the future, he said.

“My job is to just try to reach out to every kid I could to educate them about what really matters for them,” Freedom told The Tribune. “There are bigger things than money and business — freedom, democracy, human rights above everything.”

Still, Freedom has found a warm welcome in conservative circles.

In recent months, Freedom has appeared on Fox Business to speak out against the NBA and China. In one appearance, he called Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James a “big hypocrite” for his business relationship with Nike. In another, he criticized China on the “Mornings with Maria” show. He has also appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

On Wednesday, Rep. Burgess Owens appeared at the award ceremony in Riverton and the two were seen having a conversation. Later, Freedom met with Gov. Spencer Cox, who tweeted about their visit.

“Welcoming back a friend to Utah,” Cox wrote. “Thanks [Enes Freedom] for taking the time to connect again. We are grateful for your time in Utah and your powerful voice.

When he left the Jazz in 2015 and criticized the team’s front office soon after, Freedom said he did it because he wanted to hold the organization accountable. Now he said he feels his current mission is more important than playing in the NBA.

“I was gonna retire maybe three, four years later,” Freedom said. “Now, with this job, I could just do it [until] I die. This is bigger than, really, basketball. ... Also, look at this. I mean, [the]NBA has been around 76 years, I believe. Every year, there are 450 [players who] play in this league. Not one of them is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee but me. So I’m like, you know what, I’ll take this over basketball any day.”