A fan of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers was removed from a preseason game against a Chinese team after he held signs and chanted in solidarity with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
The NBA is embroiled in a political firestorm that began when the general manager of the Houston Rockets expressed support for the protests against China’s influence in Hong Kong.
Sam Wachs, 33, told CNN he and his wife brought face masks and “Free Hong Kong” signs at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia for the game against the Guangzhou Loong Lions on Tuesday.
Shortly after they held up the signs while sitting near the Chinese bench, security rushed to take the signs away, he said.
“They told me ‘no politics,” he said. “I asked why and they told me not to give them a hard time. A little after the signs were taken away, I stood in my seat and chanted “Fee Hong Kong” until security escorted us out.”
A video shot by Wachs shows him and his wife being ejected from the game.
The 76ers released a statement to CNN on Wednesday.
“At last evening’s game, following multiple complaints from guests and verbal confrontations with others in attendance, two individuals were warned by Wells Fargo Center staff about their continuing disruption of the fan experience. Ultimately, the decision was made by Wells Fargo Center personnel to remove the guests from the premises, which was accomplished without incident,” the statement said.
Wachs, who lived and worked in Hong Kong in his 20s, said protesters there “are seeking to preserve their democracy.”
“There is nothing controversial about the Hong Kong protesters demands,” he said. “In my experience, Hong Kong people did not want China dictating their politics and way of life. They were concerned about the increasing level of Chinese influence in the Hong Kong government.”
Calling himself “a huge NBA fan,” Wachs accused the league of bending over backwards “to appease the Chinese government.”
“The NBA claims they are not political, but they are not only cooperating with the Chinese government, but also helping to spread their disinformation and silence protest. It’s greedy and shameful.”
“My favorite team (the Sixers) tried as hard as they could to avoid the issue. It was really disappointing and something I felt I couldn’t ignore,” he said.
Earlier this week, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted his support for the demonstrations in Hong Kong.
His post, which has since been deleted, included an image that read, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The former British colony, now controlled by China, has been rocked by months of political unrest.
Several Chinese businesses decided to suspend ties with the Rockets following Morey’s remarks.
Initially, the NBA said that it regretted Morey’s views, recognizing that they “have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”
Later, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver clarified the league’s stance, saying that he won’t censor players or team owners over China or other issues, arguing that the league is motivated by much more than money, and freedom of expression must be protected.
He also acknowledged the league’s initial response left people “angered, confused or unclear.”
On Tuesday, China’s CCTV’s sports channel said they won’t broadcast or stream NBA preseason games held in the country.
CNN Business’ Michelle Toh, Charles Riley, and Wayne Sterling contributed to this report