China Pulls Celtics Games After Player Says 'Free Tibet'

Center Enes Kanter called President Xi Jinping a 'brutal dictator'

Detail of the shoes worn by Enes Kanter #13 of the Boston Celtics with the wording "Free Tibet" during the first half against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on October 20, 2021 in New York City. / Getty Images
October 21, 2021

China pulled Boston Celtics games from the streaming service Tencent on Thursday after center Enes Kanter protested Beijing's repressive rule over Tibet and called President Xi Jinping a "brutal dictator."

Wearing a T-shirt bearing an image of the Dalai Lama, Kanter in a Facebook video post called for China to "free Tibet," saying the Communist Party is carrying out a campaign of "cultural genocide" in the region.

"Shame on the Chinese government," Kanter said. "The Chinese dictatorship is erasing Tibetan identity and culture."

Kanter's remarks further complicate the NBA's relationship with China. In recent years, the league has faced growing pressure to sever commercial ties with the regime for its growing list of human rights abuses, including ethnic and religious oppression of Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims. The league's relationship with Beijing has been strained since October 2019, when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in favor of protests in Hong Kong against Xi's regime.

Los Angeles Lakers star forward LeBron James criticized Morey at the time for the tweet, saying he was "not really educated on the situation."

"So many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually," James said. "So just be careful what we tweet and we say and what we do even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech. But there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too."

James has a $1 billion lifetime sneaker deal with Nike, which is the largest sports brand in China, and much of the company's manufacturing is located in the nation.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the league lost "hundreds of millions of dollars" following Morey's tweet due to severed sponsorships and lost television revenue. The NBA's business in China is worth more than $4 billion.

Tencent Sports recently pulled all games of the Philadelphia 76ers, the team where Morey now serves as president.

Kanter later shared images on Twitter of a pair of custom "Free Tibet" shoes and called for the liberation of the Tibetan people.

China has exercised control over Tibet for more than 70 years, during which time it has oppressed Buddhists and submitted Tibetans to political "reeducation." Some Tibetan monks have set themselves on fire to raise awareness of the ethnic cleansing campaign.

"More than 150 Tibetan people have burned themselves alive!! — hoping that such an act would raise more awareness about Tibet," Kanter tweeted. "I stand with my Tibetan brothers and sisters, and I support their calls for Freedom."

Kanter wore the "free Tibet" shoes during the first half of the Celtics game against the New York Knicks on Oct. 20.

Published under: China , LeBron James , Tibet