The NBA has abruptly called off a hotly anticipated press event for the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers in Shanghai, the latest attempt to contain what is fast becoming a major crisis after a team official tweeted support of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
The tweet has placed the basketball league at odds with China’s communist government – and now threatens to undermine its decades-long relationship with the country and its millions of fans.
The firestorm began Friday when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey sent a tweet containing the popular protest rallying call “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
The tweet, though swiftly deleted, resulted in a severe backlash inside China, where the Hong Kong protests have been framed in state media as a foreign-backed independence movement.
The NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver were initially criticized in the US for not forcefully defending Morey’s right to free speech. Silver and the league issued a more robust statement backing Morey and the right to individual expression Tuesday, only to draw the ire of Beijing, as well as major Chinese sponsors and commercial partners.
Wednesday’s press conferences had been widely publicized inside China, where many were eager to hear what Lakers forward LeBron James had to say about the furore.
James is considered the NBA’s biggest star and its global face. He is also one of its most outspoken advocates on social issues. James has previously used his celebrity to speak out on topics he’s personally passionate about like childhood education and racial injustice.
The Lakers and the Nets are in China to play two preseason games and participate in several events with fans and the community. A Nets community event Tuesday and NBA fan night Wednesday were also canceled. Those events was supposed to feature players from the Nets and Lakers as well as Chinese celebrities.
The Shanghai Sports Federation said in a statement it canceled the fan night “because of Houston Rockets General Manager Morey’s inappropriate comments and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s inappropriate remarks.”
It’s unclear if the games will still go ahead as planned.
’30 years of hard work was destroyed in three days’
The NBA was the first North American sports league to invest in China 30 years ago, and until Morey’s tweet Friday the league had reaped the benefits in the form of lucrative broadcasting contracts and other deals. Today, there are more NBA fans in China than in the US. The market is estimated to make up at least 10% of league revenue, according to estimates.
That partnership is now in jeopardy.
A commentary published on the Weibo account of China’s state-run CCTV, whose sports channel broadcasts NBA games, said “30 years of hard work was destroyed in three days” by Silver and the NBA. The piece also accused Silver of “twisting the facts and confusing the public.”
The fallout for the NBA has been swift. All of the NBA’s official partners in China have now cut ties with the league, and the criticism from Chinese state media has become increasingly biting.
“So-called freedom of expression is never absolute. Any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability do not belong to the category of free speech. Silver and Morey’s excuses have only shown their ulterior motives and arrogance,” the CCTV commentary published Wednesday read.
Fans in a bind
James and the Lakers’ trip to China was hotly anticipated even before the Morey controversy because it offered fans a glimpse into how the longtime NBA star will fit alongside new teammate Anthony Davis, one of the best big men in the league. The Lakers traded for Davis over the summer and are expected to contend for the championship.
The Nets also added two All-Stars – Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving – to their exciting young core in the summer, though Durant is expected to sit out this season with an Achilles injury.
CNN spoke to several fans outside the Ritz Carlton in Shanghai, where the teams are staying. While some were afraid to share there true feelings, several made it clear that country comes before fandom – and they would stop watching basketball if Beijing severed ties with the NBA.
“Morey must apologize for his misunderstanding about our country,” said 21-year-old college student Rudy Chen. “If I cannot watch NBA, it’s not a big deal.”