Boston Celtics center Enes Kantner tweeted photos of his “Free China” game shoes Sunday night, as he continued his pro-democracy activism despite Beijing censoring all Celtics games in the communist country.
“XI JINPING and the Chinese Communist Party Someone has to teach you a lesson, I will NEVER apologize for speaking the truth. You can NOT buy me. You can NOT scare me. You can NOT silence me. Bring it on!!” tweeted Kanter, who is Turkish and has a history of activism.
Kantner wore the red-and-white sneakers on the bench during Sunday’s road game against the Houston Rockets.
The shoes show Kanter holding the severed head of Winnie the Pooh like a basketball and also depict Pooh’s head atop two tanks bearing down on the NBA player in an homage to a widely seen act of defiance during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
The tweet of the images, banned in China, included the hashtags #FreedomShoes and #XinnieThePooh.
Celtics President of Operations Brad Stevens defended Kantner on Friday, saying during a weekly appearance on FM radio station 98.5 that he had spoken with Kanter and that “we’re always going to support any of our players and their right to freedom of speech and expression.”
However, Celtics coach Ime Udoka told the Boston Globe that while Kanter is “very passionate about a lot of different social issues,” the team hadn’t discussed his political statements about China.
In an apparent act of state-pressured censorship, the NBA’s Chinese media partner Tencent removed all Celtics games from its streaming platforms after Kanter wore “Free Tibet” sneakers at the team’s season opener against the New York Knicks on Wednesday.
That same day, Kanter posted a viral video on Twitter in which he accused China’s leader of perpetuating a “cultural genocide” against Tibetans and wore a T-shirt featuring their exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
Neither the NBA nor Tencent have issued a statement on Kanter, making it unclear whether the censorship arose from the sneakers, the video or both.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a news briefing Thursday that Kanter’s remarks “were not worth refuting.”
The Washington Times reported that Kanter doubled down on his criticisms Friday, wearing a “Freedom for Uyghur” T-shirt in a new video where he said, “the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda” had turned the majority-Muslim autonomous region of northwest China into an “open-air prison” with “slave labor camps” and “political reeducation” for dissenters.
Kanter, who was indicted in Turkey in 2018 on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization, has called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “the Hitler of our century” and appeared with Democratic lawmakers at a November 2019 press conference to criticize Mr. Erdogan’s visit to the Trump White House.
Despite the Celtics‘ support for Kanter and the NBA’s general support of players’ activism, it remains unclear whether the league will tolerate one of its teams being banned from Chinese media for very long.
In October 2019, the NBA was forced to apologize to Chinese leaders after Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong during an exhibition game in China.
When league star LeBron James denounced Morey as “misinformed,” backlash from fans forced him to walk back his comments.
Kanter, who remained on the bench throughout Sunday’s game at Houston, has much less clout with the league than James.
China has banned images comparing Xi Jinping to Winnie the Pooh, a popular protest meme, and of the Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protesters.