Former Utah Jazz man Enes Kanter Freedom returned to the state Wednesday to be honored for his activism after speaking out against alleged corruption in Turkey and human rights abuses in China.

Riverton City awarded him the inaugural “Mayor’s Freedom Award,” which they named after him, for speaking out against human rights abuses even after he says the NBA “blackballed” him for his words.

Utahns will know him as “Enes Kanter,” but in 2021, he added the surname Freedom after becoming an American citizen.

It was a welcome homecoming.

Freedom said receiving the award gives him hope for the future, “because I know I am not alone.”

When he was playing for the Utah Jazz he said he noticed that it didn’t matter in Utah what religion or color you are. “People here know the most important thing in life is taking care of each other,” Freedom said.

He recounted how his mother was “so happy” that he was drafted by the Utah Jazz in 2011.

“‘I could have been drafted by any of the 30 teams, why are so you happy it was Utah?’” he remembers asking her on a phone call to Turkey.

“‘Son, it’s because you got drafted to the most holiest place in America,’” Freedom said his mother told him. “‘You won’t have any distractions and you can focus on basketball.’”

After playing for the Jazz for a number of years, he was traded to another team. He said it wasn’t long before he realized how “blessed” he was to start his career in Utah.

In February, when Salt Lake City hosted the NBA All-Star game, former basketball stars Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley called the city “boring.” Freedom responded to the accusation, telling the Desert News: “First of all, shame on them,” with a grin on his face.

He said Utah is the perfect place for NBA players who care about basketball and do not want to get distracted.

“There are so many players who get drafted by L.A,, Miami or New York and then end up losing their career after only a few seasons,” he said. “Utah is great because you can focus on your career and on those things bigger than basketball.”

Freedom’s message about free speech

Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs praised Freedom for exercising his right to speak up, “a God-given right he only learned he had after playing basketball in America,” he said.

“Enes has taken on some big opponents,” Staggs said at the ceremony. “It may be unusual to use a David and Goliath comparison given his size, but he has truly taken on some goliaths in the shape of the country of Turkey, China, as well as the NBA.”

Staggs said Freedom’s determination to speak up, even at great sacrifice, is inspiring.

His home country of Turkey has labeled him a “terrorist” and established a $500,000 bounty for his capture for speaking up against what he views as corruption. He remembers being bewildered that some of his teammates in 2020 would complain about how bad it was in America.

He acknowledged America is not perfect, but he said he feels blessed to be here.

“‘If we lived in China, Russia, Iran or Cuba would they let you tweet or criticize the government?’” Freedom said he asked his teammates. “No, they would put you in prison, believe me I know.”

His family have been targeted and jailed in Turkey because of his activism.

Staggs continued, “freedom and Enes Freedom will always have a home here in Riverton, Utah.”

Utah Rep. Burgess Owens, who was in attendance, praised Freedom and said America needs more athletes like him willing to speak up.

“Our nation has been missing courageous Americans like him who are willing to sacrifice to stand up for our freedom,” Owens told the Deseret News. “It is time for us to put country before profits, and (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver and (NFL Commissioner) Rodger Goodell need to understand that. They have turned their backs on American people and embolden China because of money.”

Following the year the NBA supported the Black Lives Matter protests, he wore shoes designed to call attention to the treatment of people in Tibet and the Uyghur Muslim minority in China.

Freedom, who is a practicing Muslim, said he wanted to stand up for his fellow Muslims, similar to how his African American teammates stood up the year prior.

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At first his teammates and coaches in Boston were supportive, but the blowback from the Chinese government caused the NBA to “censor” him, he said.

He was soon released from playing in the NBA.

“Bigger things than Basketball”

Freedom said many Americans don’t seem to understand “how good we have it here.”

He said he wanted his former NBA teammates to use the platform they have to set a good example around the world.

“There are bigger things than basketball and we have an amazing platform to inspire the whole world,” he said. “There are millions of kids out there who idolize you, so show them how to exercise their rights to freedom of speech.”

“I promise you that in the end, that will mean more to you than any shoe contract,” Freedom said.

Now that he is an American citizen, Freedom says he has thought about running for office someday. “When the time is right, I want to run,” he said, adding that he wants to bring “both sides” of America together to support human rights.

Taking on the last name “Freedom,” he said shows words, like human rights, matter.

“Freedom has to come with sacrifice, because without sacrifice, freedom is just another word,” he said. “It is so fragile. In Turkey we lost freedom because of one man, but it’s worth sacrificing to get it back.”

“I just want kids in Utah and everywhere in America to know how lucky and blessed they are to have freedom,” Freedom said.