The NBA Feels a Backlash in China After a Tweet Supporting Hong Kong

The ferocious response to Daryl Morey’s tweet unfolded as NBA executives descended on China for a series of preseason games this week. Photo: Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images

The National Basketball Association scrambled late Sunday to contain an escalating crisis in China after a Houston Rockets executive’s tweets supporting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong sparked an international furor.

The league’s carefully plotted strategic emphasis on China was jolted off course on Friday night when Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted an image with the words “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” in reference to the mass rallies against China’s authoritarian government on the streets of the semiautonomous city. The Rockets are scheduled to play an exhibition outside Tokyo on Tuesday.

Mr. Morey quickly deleted the tweet, but the damage was done. Chinese sponsors pulled their money from the franchise, Chinese broadcast partners said they wouldn’t air Rockets games and the Chinese Basketball Association suspended its ties with one of the NBA’s best teams.

Mr. Morey tweeted again on Sunday night to explain that his views don’t represent the team’s or the league’s. The NBA soon addressed the fallout for the first time, but the league quickly found itself under attack by American politicians on the left and right for its statement, which attempted to reaffirm the league’s commitment to free speech but said it was “regrettable” that Mr. Morey’s tweet had offended Chinese fans and partners.

“The values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said. “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.”

James Harden wears a Houston Rockets Lunar New Year jersey. Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

It wasn’t immediately clear how the Chinese government would respond.

The ferocious response to Mr. Morey’s tweet and the NBA’s response coincided with the league’s top executives descending on China for preseason games in Shanghai and Shenzhen this week. LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are scheduled to play the Brooklyn Nets, a team owned by Joseph Tsai, the billionaire co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. Mr. Tsai wrote on Facebook: “The hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and the league’s top brass were dealing with the crisis in Japan before they travel to China.

The rapidly unfolding series of events over the weekend pits democratic ideals against the influence of foreign money in a high-profile example of the difficulties American companies encounter when dealing with businesses in authoritarian China. It is already the most sensitive political situation that Mr. Silver has faced in his five years as commissioner.

The early wave of response in the U.S. brought criticism from across the political spectrum. Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) accused the NBA of “shamefully retreating” and said on Twitter that “human rights shouldn’t be for sale” and “the NBA shouldn’t be assisting Chinese communist censorship.” Juli├ín Castro, a Texan running for the Democratic presidential nomination, said “China is using economic power to silence critics” and that the U.S. must “not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government.”

The most forwarded comment on China’s Weibo social-media platform in response to the NBA’s statement featured an emoji of a chicken, meant as a profane euphemism, while a small number of users were calling for cancellation of the China games this week.

The unfolding crisis quickly challenged the NBA’s yearslong effort to position itself as the most progressive of the major American sports leagues by encouraging free speech and spreading basketball around the world.

“I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” Mr. Morey wrote in his public response on Sunday. “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. 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 wasn’t my intention.”

There are billions of dollars at stake for the NBA. The league has long viewed China as the engine of future international growth and spent years courting the country’s massive audience. It often boasts about the country’s basketball population of 300 million players, and nearly 500 million people in China watched the NBA on Tencent’s streaming platforms last season. The deciding game of last year’s finals set a record for the largest streaming audience for an NBA game in China.

China has reciprocated by going crazy for basketball. The 12-hour time difference between the East Coast means fans can watch early NBA games on their phones during their morning commutes and stream West Coast games over lunch. The country’s basketball mania reached a fever pitch last month as China hosted the World Cup.

But the international basketball tournament overlapped with a period of unrest in Hong Kong. The protests erupted in June in an effort to press the city’s government to formally withdraw an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China to face trial under its murky legal system. This was the 18th straight weekend of mass rallies, and there has been growing pressure for ordinary citizens and powerful companies to articulate whether they support the protests or Beijing.

NBA players and coaches have become comfortable in recent years voicing their political opinions about President Trump and issues like police brutality, systemic racism and gun violence, and the league has embraced its reputation for being socially conscious. But a potential showdown with a foreign government over the right to free speech with enormous financial consequences is far beyond the political complexities the NBA is used to navigating.

Mr. Morey is one of the league’s most successful executives. He came to the NBA by way of a management-consulting firm and business school, and he has helped incite the data revolution that has swept professional sports as the public face of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the annual industry convention of sports quants. Mr. Morey was voted by his peers as the NBA’s executive of the year in 2018 after building the Rockets into a perennial title contender.

But what makes the response to Mr. Morey’s tweet even more remarkable is that there is no team in American professional sports as closely linked with China as the Rockets.

Yao Ming, the best player in Chinese basketball history, spent his entire NBA career in Houston, and the Rockets have been the biggest team in China ever since. They have worn special uniforms emblazoned with Chinese characters, and their star player James Harden regularly visits to promote his Adidas sneakers during the summer.

Now the chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association, Mr. Yao has a longstanding relationship with Mr. Morey, who worked for the Rockets for the last five years of Mr. Yao’s career. But on its official Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, the CBA expressed its opposition to what it deemed “inappropriate remarks” about Hong Kong and said it was suspending its ties with the Rockets.

Tencent Sports also took the extraordinary step of suspending its Rockets broadcasts and effectively blacklisted one of the NBA’s most popular teams in China only months after paying at least $1.5 billion to extend its streaming deal with the league. People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, criticized Mr. Morey’s tweet in an editorial. And the Chinese Consulate General in Houston said it was “deeply shocked” and implored Mr. Morey to “correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact.”

James T. Areddy and Lekai Liu contributed to this article.

Write to Ben Cohen at [email protected]

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