The NBA found itself in the middle of a firestorm Monday — facing criticism from both Beijing and U.S. lawmakers — for its reaction to a tweet by the Houston Rockets’ general manager backing ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Beijing was furious over General Manager Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting the protesters, while U.S. lawmakers slammed the NBA’s response as a capitulation.
The controversy erupted less than 48 hours before the Rockets were to begin a two-game preseason series against the Toronto Raptors outside Tokyo and ahead of more NBA exhibition games in China.
Friday’s tweet spurred a rapid and furious backlash in China and raised questions over the lengths to which sports organizations and businesses will go to in order to placate one of the world’s largest and most lucrative markets.
The controversy threatened to overshadow the NBA’s return to Japan for the first time since 2003, with the Rockets scheduled to face the reigning league champion Raptors in two games at Saitama Arena this week.
Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni on Sunday said that was the team’s focus.
“We’re here to concentrate on playing in Japan, playing great games and enjoying the culture of Japan,” D’Antoni said.
Rockets guard James Harden, who in the past has been critical of U.S. President Donald Trump’s attitude toward fellow NBA superstar Stephen Curry and other athletes who have taken a public stance on racial inequality in America, emphasized the team’s affection for China following a Monday training session in Tokyo.
“We’ve apologized. We love China, we love playing there,” Harden said while standing next to teammate Russell Westbrook. “We appreciate their support that they give us individually and as an organization.”
The 2018 MVP and seven-time All Star indicated a preference to put the furor behind the team during its tour of Japan, saying: “We are focused … The reason why we’re here in Japan, we got two amazing games tomorrow and Thursday. And the opportunities for fans to come to watch and meet (the) players, the Rockets and Raptors competing in it, in beautiful preseason games. That’s what we are focused on. We are excited to be here.”
The NBA’s response Sunday was indicative of the value it places in recent FIBA World Cup host China, where basketball has skyrocketed in popularity thanks to former Rockets superstar and current Chinese Basketball Association President Yao Ming.
The Rockets and the NBA have been in damage control mode since Morey posted the tweet featuring the message “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” that was subsequently deleted.
Semiautonomous Hong Kong has seen four months of increasingly violent pro-democracy protests. The rallies were ignited by a now-scrapped plan to allow extraditions to mainland China, fueling fears of an erosion of civil liberties that Hong Kong has enjoyed under the 50-year “one country, two systems” model China agreed to ahead of the 1997 handover from Britain.
The Chinese Consulate General in Houston condemned Morey for what it termed “erroneous comments” on Hong Kong.
“We are deeply shocked by the erroneous comments on Hong Kong made by Mr. Daryl Morey,” a spokesperson for the consulate said in a statement.
“We have … expressed strong dissatisfaction with the Houston Rockets, and urged the latter to correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact,” the statement added.
In Hong Kong, Cantopop singer and activist Denise Ho touted the tweet urged the world to “wake up,” saying that the incident had highlighted the Chinese Communist Party’s “bullying powers,” which she said are “everywhere,” while pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong praised Morey for his tweet, saying that “his willingness to speak the truth is a great embodiment of the @NBA’s global social responsibility.”
But Morey appeared to offer what some interpreted as an apology, posting a series of tweets Monday morning from Tokyo.
“I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” he wrote.
“I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives,” he added.
“I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention,” Morey said.
He also reiterated that his tweets “in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”
In a statement released in the U.S. late Sunday, NBA chief communications officer Mike Bass called Morey’s tweet “regrettable,” words that appeared to diverge from the Chinese-language translation.
“We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable,” Bass said in the statement.
“While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.
“We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
The Chinese-language version of the statement, however, was more blunt, calling Morey’s tweets “inappropriate” and adding that he “undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans.”
However, the NBA’s attempt to stem the damage appeared to backfire, with prominent current and former U.S. officials on both sides of the aisle blasting the move.
Republican Sen. Rick Scott ripped into the NBA, targeting Commissioner Adam Silver, who has been known for his progressive record on free speech, over the league’s “shameful” response.
“It’s clear that the @NBA is more interested in money than human rights,” Scott wrote on Twitter. “Tonight’s statement from Commissioner Silver is an absolute joke. The NBA is kowtowing to Beijing to protect their bottom line and disavowing those with the temerity to #standwithHongKong. Shameful!”
Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro, a former secretary of housing and urban development in the Obama administration, meanwhile, rebuked Beijing for bringing the force of its economic might down on those who might speak out against the communist-ruled country.
“China is using its economic power to silence critics — even those in the U.S.,” Castro said.
“The United States must lead with our values and speak out for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, and not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government.”
Those criticisms came despite the fierce backlash in mainland China, with the CBA vowing to sever all ties with the Rockets.
“General manager of Houston Rockets club Daryl Morey made incorrect comments about Hong Kong,” the CBA said on its official social media page Sunday.
“The Chinese Basketball Association is strongly opposed to this and will suspend communication and cooperation with the club.”
Fans on social media in China also savaged Morey’s comments, with some urging he be fired, and others even hinting at violence, including some users who replied to his original tweet before it was deleted with “NMSL” — Chinese internet slang that means “your mother is dead.”
Joe Tsai, a Taiwanese-Canadian businessman who is the co-founder and executive vice chairman of the Alibaba Group and owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, had strong words for Morey.
Tsai, in his first public communication since becoming the Nets’ owner last month, effectively called the Hong Kong protesters a “separatist movement” and said that Morey “was not as well informed as he should have been.”
“The Chinese psyche has heavy baggage when it comes to any threat, foreign or domestic, to carve up Chinese territories,” he wrote in a statement posted to Facebook and Twitter.
“When the topic of any separatist movement comes up, Chinese people feel a strong sense of shame and anger” because of China’s history of foreign occupation, said Tsai, who was born in Taipei and lived in Hong Kong for years as an adult.
He said that while the NBA “has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues” such as free speech, “there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities.”
“Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China,” he said.
“The hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”
Some China experts, however, said the issue could prompt U.S. companies and firms from other countries to think twice about the repercussions of doing business with Beijing.
“China can block freedom of speech within its borders, but not outside,” Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, tweeted Monday. “These kinds of actions will isolate China, not force others to mute their criticism.”
Asked about the tweet, Glaser told The Japan Times that she believes “the backlash is just beginning,” but acknowledged that any isolation of China would be far off.
“That tweet (was) in part to send a positive signal to Taiwan and Hong Kong,” she said. “It’s going to take time for greater awareness to lead to pushback. Companies put profit first.”
Staff writers Kaz Nagatsuka and Ed Odeven contributed to this report.