Freedom, who is Muslim but knew little about Uyghurs, threw himself into the cause. Tahir Imin, a Uyghur activist in Washington who met Freedom at a rally on Capitol Hill, said Freedom “lifted the spirits of Uyghur activism.”
It was just over a week after Freedom opened the NBA season with the Boston Celtics in October. Ahead of their first game, Freedom posted a video on Twitter with a caption referencing Chinese leader Xi Jinping. as a “brutal dictator”. During the match, he wore shoes designed by Chinese dissident artist Badiucao that read “Free Tibet”, referring to the region invaded and seized by Chinese troops in 1951.
The NBA’s response, Freedom said, was to try to silence him. In several media appearances after that game, he said two league officials asked him to take his shoes off, which he refused. At the Olive Tree, he changed the story, saying the officials were with the Celtics.
He also said the NBA Players Union separately tried to get him to stop wearing the shoes.
“Instead of advocating on my behalf, I met with the union who told me I had to shut up and stop talking about human rights abuses in China,” Freedom told The New York Times.
Freedom’s story is difficult to corroborate as he would not divulge the names of his antagonists. The union would not comment on specifics, but said in a statement it supports Freedom and other actors are speaking out on important issues.
Brad Stevens, president of basketball operations for the Celtics, said team staffers simply asked if the shoes were a violation of the league’s dress code.
“Even the next day I walked up to him and said, ‘Hey, you still have our support to speak up and say whatever you want,'” Stevens said. Freedom confirmed this exchange.