The Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets were greeted by cheers in their first preseason game in Shanghai on Thursday, which went ahead as scheduled despite the battle between China and the NBA over a tweet by a Houston Rockets executive supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.
Hundreds of fans at the arena sported Chinese flag paraphernalia in addition to their basketball gear.
The tweet, sent by Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, set off a firestorm that has dramatically affected the two teams’ trip to China. A number of other events were canceled this week, including news conferences before and after the game. There had been speculation that the games themselves would also be called off.
Morey quickly deleted the controversial tweet, which contained the common protest rallying call “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” and later apologized. But the NBA is now a bind.
The spat could end up costing the world’s most prestigious basketball league billions of dollars.
China is considered the NBA’s biggest growth market, and the Rockets are a fan favorite as Chinese star Yao Ming played his entire NBA career there. But in a matter of days, Chinese businesses have abandoned the team — and the NBA — en masse. All of the NBA’s official Chinese partners have suspended ties with the league, and fans are likely to follow suit.
Beijing virulently opposes the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong — a semi-autonomous city governed by a separate, more liberal legal system than mainland China — and considers support for the movement akin to backing secessionists. Though the demonstrations have become increasingly violent, independence is considered a minority opinion and most protesters are calling for democratic reforms and investigations into alleged police brutality.
Beijing’s position directly conflicts with the NBA’s open support of freedom of expression, and both sides have refused to yield.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Monday the league was unwilling to compromise on its ideals, which earned scathing criticism in Chinese state media.
A commentary published on a social media account belonging to 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. It also warned “the Chinese people will not equivocate or back down.”
A marquee preseason matchup
Interest in the China games had been higher than usual for a preseason game because they feature the league’s biggest star, LeBron James, and two All-Stars on new teams — the Lakers’ Anthony Davis and the Nets’ Kyrie Irving.
The Lakers are considered the NBA’s marquee franchise, and fans were eager to see how James would fit alongside Davis, considered the best big man in the league. The Lakers traded for Davis over the summer and are expected to contend for the championship.
While fans at the game Thursday will be able to see how James and Davis fit together, those at home may not.
The NBA’s digital and TV partners in China had already announced they would not live-stream preseason games in the country. It remains unclear what will happen during the regular season — a potential blow considering the NBA’s US regular-season ratings hit a four-year high last year.
Despite the barrage of negative articles in Chinese state media however, there was some limited pushback to the anti-NBA campaign online, amid frustration that the political scandal may end up in millions missing out on their favorite sport.
Meanwhile in the US, a bipartisan group of politicians criticized the initial response of the NBA and the Rockets, which both apologized for Morey’s tweet.
The group, which included left-wing Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and conservative firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz sent a letter to Silver Wednesday expressing their concerns about the NBA’s initial response.
“NBA players have a rich history of speaking out on sensitive topics of social justice and human rights inside the United States, and the NBA takes pride in defending their right to do so,” the letter read. “Yet while it is easy to defend freedom of speech when it costs you nothing, equivocating when profits are at stake is a betrayal of fundamental American values.”