An NBA player used his shoes to send a colorful, imaginative and devastating message to the league’s preeminent superstar when their teams met recently.
Through provocative art on his footwear, the Boston Celtics’ Enes Kanter rebuked the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James for his self-serving attitude toward “social justice” during their game Nov. 19. In the process, Kanter inadvertently asked a disturbing question: are James and the NBA unwittingly acting as a fifth column for China’s geopolitical agenda?
Kanter uses James’ nickname, “The King,” to mock him. The outside of Kanter’s black left shoe shows rioters looting and burning, much like the protests after George Floyd’s death. The instep features emblems representing Tibet and the Muslim Uyghurs whom China persecutes.
In between at the heel is James, kneeling as if he were responding to the national anthem, carrying a large, stuffed moneybag and wearing a crown emblazoned with the word, “silence.”
But Kanter’s red right shoe provides the most stinging rebuke. It shows James kneeling before Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is coronating him with a crown featuring the symbol for China’s currency, the yuan. Behind James lie bulging sacks of money. Over the superstar’s shoulders are the five stars featured in the canton of China’s flag.
Kanter’s shoes even engage in dialogue. On the instep of the right shoe is a mock quote from James: “I am informed and educated of the situation.” That comment refers to pro-freedom demonstrations in Hong Kong. On the instep of the left shoe is a question from Kanter: “Hey, still researching and getting educated?” That question refers to James’ public apathy concerning China’s oppression of Tibetans and Uyghurs.
Unlike James, Kanter dedicates himself to ending that oppression. On Oct. 22, he used Twitter to call Xi a “brutal dictator” and to support independence for Tibet, which China annexed in 1951. Nine days later, Kanter led a protest in Washington, D.C. against China’s use of Uyghurs as slave labor. Kanter wants Congress to pass a bill forbidding any Chinese goods made with slave labor to be sold in the United States.
China retaliated by preventing the Celtics’ games from being shown there. Undaunted, Kanter not only displayed another pair of shoes condemning China’s intrusive surveillance policies; he leads a campaign to convince the International Olympic Committee to move this February’s Winter Games from Beijing.
Unlike James, Kanter, a Turkish Muslim, has paid a steep personal price for his activism. After he called Turkish President Recep Erdogan “the Hitler of our century,” Kanter’s family disowned him publicly, probably under government pressure. His father, a medical doctor and professor, lost his academic position, faced trial for belonging to a terrorist group and briefly spent time in prison.
Kanter himself faced similar charges after Turkey revoked his passport, demanded his extradition and threatened to try him in absentia. The center so fears for his safety that he lives in hotels and even refused to travel to Canada and Great Britain with his NBA teams. Just last month, Kanter became an American citizen.
If “systemic racism” truly permeates a nation ruled by “white supremacists,” especially in the White House, as “woke” activists constantly claimed during President Donald Trump’s administration, then James would neither live in luxury nor receive acclaim from his homeland’s elite for superficial gestures.
For James, kneeling during the national anthem, speaking at post-game press conferences, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “Black Lives Matter,” supporting a plan to boycott the NBA’s playoffs after Jacob Blake’s death, and mocking a defendant’s tears during a criminal trial constitutes “activism.”
“He cares about his PR more than anything,” Kanter told CNN on Nov. 21. “I had so many conversations with LeBron’s ex-teammates. They are the ones who told me that all LeBron’s doing is (for) PR.”
That explains James’ reaction to Kanter’s message following the Lakers’ 130-108 loss Nov. 19: “He’s definitely not someone I would give my energy to. He’s trying to use my name to create an opportunity for himself.”
It also explains James’ reluctance to confront China, where he is extremely popular. As early as 2008, the superstar not only had two shoe designs sold exclusively in China but also his own museum in Shanghai, complete with personal mementos.
In 2018, James made $32 million from Nike, which earned more than $8.3 billion from sales in China during the past fiscal year. He has travelled to China at least 15 times to promote Nike’s and the NBA’s interests, not to mention his own.
China has become fundamental to the NBA’s financial success. Mark Tatum, the league’s deputy commissioner, told Forbes in 2018 that the NBA makes between $4 billion and $4.3 billion from its investments in China. More than 300 million Chinese play basketball and about 144 million follow the NBA on social media.
“In my opinion, China is the biggest growth engine of the NBA, in terms of what we’re going to see in three, four, five years down the road,” Forbes’ Mike Ozanian said in 2018.
So in October 2019, when Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets’ general manager at the time, tweeted support for demonstrators in Hong Kong wanting freedom, James rebuked him.
“I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand,” James told reporters before elaborating on Twitter: “My team and this league just went through a difficult week. I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it.”
James’ motivation came not from the protection of Hong Kong’s residents but from the comfort of his teammates, members of the Brooklyn Nets and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. All of them had to confront tension from authorities and unwanted exposure while visiting China for exhibition games that month.
More than a decade earlier, James expressed similar reticence concerning China’s policies.
In a 2007 piece for the Christian Science Monitor, Jonathan Zimmerman called James “cowardly” for not signing a teammate’s open letter condemning China’s role in enabling the Darfur genocide in Sudan.
At the time, China spent billions of dollars to purchase as much as two-thirds of Sudan’s oil. Sudan’s government funneled some of that money to Arab militia groups that murdered, raped and dismembered Black Sudanese during a civil war.
James, then with the Cleveland Cavaliers, was one of only two players not to join their teammates in signing. The other had an endorsement contract with a new Chinese sporting goods firm.
The following year, James helped the United States win Olympic gold in men’s basketball at the Games in Beijing.
James, of course, is not the only NBA figure engaged in “social justice.” Several players and coaches used Twitter to bemoan Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal. “We are treading down a dangerous path,” tweeted Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warriors’ coach and a noted Trump critic. “The system is broken,” added the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns.
The more such “woke” sentiments become part of American conventional wisdom, the more China benefits. As FrontPage Magazine reported in June, China not only seeks to benefit from American controversy, but to cause it.
“We first need to create the conditions to make it easier for the United States to make mistakes,” said Jin Canrong, associate dean of Renmin University’s School of International Studies and an advisor to China’s Communist Party. “Second, we should make it as busy as possible, to the extent that it will feel depressed and want to give up. Third, we should become intertwined with the United States, so that it can’t attack us.
“The task of our next generation is to put the U.S. under our jurisdiction/management, too. But the premise is that we need to do a good job in our generation.”
Black Lives Matter plays a pivotal role in China’s quest to sabotage the United States, as FrontPage Magazine reported in “Beijing’s Lies Matter.”
For example, BLM co-founder Alicia Garza, a native of the Bay Area, has been working with the San Francisco chapter of the Chinese Progressive Association since 2012. The CPA helps fund the Black Futures Lab, which Garza formed to create policies and organize Blacks. BLM calls the Black Futures Lab “a fiscally sponsored project of the Chinese Protective Association.”
“Black Lives Matter is a Communist organization 100 percent, tied to foreign Communists and directly to the Communist Party of China,” said Trevor Loudon, an author and filmmaker who has studied Marxist movements for more than 30 years.
The NBA’s substantial investment in China enables the Chinese to peddle their influence subtly, yet effectively.
“If they cultivate enough people in the right places,” Jamestown Foundation fellow Peter Mattis said, “they start to change the debate without having to directly inject their own voice.”
If James provides an obvious example of that policy, Gregg Popovich serves as a more understated one. Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs’ president and head coach, has called anyone offended by BLM “ignorant” and even equated Columbus with Hitler. Nevertheless, his limp praise for Kanter obscures the refusal to address China’s unjust policies forthrightly.
“I am glad that Enes speaks up when he feels like it,” Popovich said. “I think it’s great. No reason not to.”
Kanter reached the ultimate conclusion when he displayed his controversial shoes on Twitter.
“Sad & disgusting how these athletes pretend they care about social justice,” he wrote. “They really do ‘shut up and dribble’ when Big Boss says so.”
After the phrase, “Big Boss,” Kanter included a small picture of China’s flag.
Joseph Hippolito is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to FrontPage Magazine. His commentaries have appeared in The Federalist, The Stream, Wall Street Journal, Jerusalem Post and National Post.