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Former Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter Freedom, an outspoken critic of the Chinese and Turkish governments, attended Senate Republicans' closed-door lunch on Wednesday.
The 10-year NBA veteran received two standing ovations from Republican senators who hailed his advocacy for human rights and criticism of China's government as "very inspiring" and "amazing."
The former first-round draft pick talked to senators about China's growing influence over the NBA and how players and other personnel who speak out against China's human rights record face blacklisting, according to senators in the room.
Senate Republican Steering Committee Chairman Mike Lee (R-Utah), who hosted the lunch, said he wants an explanation from the NBA about why Kanter Freedom was traded by the Celtics and then unceremoniously waived by the Houston Rockets.
"I would love an explanation from the NBA, I really would. I think a lot of people would very much like an explanation from them," Lee told The Hill.
Kanter Freedom told PBS's "Firing Line" last week that his professional basketball career would likely be cut short because of his criticism of China's policies.
Last year, he slammed China's leader Xi Jinping and labeled China's Tibet policy "cultural genocide."
He has also called out the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, putting special focus on products made in the region with forced labor.
Kanter Freedom was traded from the Celtics to the Rockets shortly before last week's trade deadline and then cut.
The move wasn't a surprise.
"Whenever I have a conversation with someone from the NBA or one of my ex-teammates, they're like, 'Listen, this is your farewell tour. Have fun with it, enjoy it, I hope you win a championship because I don't think you're going to sign another contract after this year,'" he told PBS.
Republican senators were riveted by his story when they heard it Wednesday in the Kennedy Caucus Room.
"It's very inspiring. He talked about what's gone on here with China and the NBA and blacklisting. There's a reason he changed his name to Freedom," said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.).
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said, "He's an amazing person standing up for human rights."
"We all took pictures with him. So impressed with him," he said. "He's willing to stand up for human rights even though - look at the impact it's had on him and his family.
"He still wants to play basketball," he added.
Several Republicans said on Twitter that they had met with the NBA player.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), No. 2 to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), tweeted on Wednesday morning that he had met with Kanter Freedom.
".@EnesFreedom stopped by this morning. I commend his passion & gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy in the U.S. & his commitment to demanding attention to Turkey's record on human rights and China's Uyghur genocide. A powerful message on and off the court," the senator tweeted.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) tweeted a video on Tuesday showing him with the NBA player.
"It isn't often that I'm with somebody who's so much taller than me," the senator quipped.
Kanter Freedom has been known for his outspoken criticism of both nations' governments. After the NBA player called Chinese President Xi Jinping a "brutal dictator" in a video, the Celtic's game telecast and highlights were pulled last year by the Chinese government.
Speaking to The Dispatch in an interview published on Monday, the Celtics center claimed that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) "is in bed" with the Chinese government as he discussed his thoughts on the IOC's handling of sexual abuse claims made by Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai.
"First off, people need to understand, the IOC, International Olympic Committee, is scared to talk about human rights because they know China is one of the worst in this regard. They will rather take China's might than talk about values," Freedom told the news outlet.
"The reality is, the people need to understand, the IOC is in bed ... with the Chinese government. They do not care about human rights. They care about publicity and money," he added.
The chairman of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) said earlier this month that the Celtics center would be speaking at the 2022 conference, though one Washington Post reporter on Tuesday said he was told by Kanter Freedom that he would no longer be speaking.
The Hill has reached out to CPAC for comment on the matter.