The NBA canceled community events in Shanghai with both the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers in the lead up to the two teams facing off on Chinese soil this week. Chinese broadcasters have also refused to televise the games, as the list of Chinese companies cutting ties to the league keeps growing.
For now, it seems the NBA will still press on with exhibition games in Shanghai and Shenzhen, amid discussion that the games might get canceled due to the evolving political rift between the NBA and Beijing that threatens the league’s future in China.
The controversy began last Friday, when general manager of the Houston Rockets Daryl Morey tweeted a picture saying, “Fight for Freedom, Fight for Hong Kong,” in support of the anti-government protests in Hong Kong that have been raging for the last four months.
Morey’s original tweet set off an initial firestorm against the Rockets organization, as multiple Chinese companies cut ties to the team, and drew the condemnation of new Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai.
“The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable,” Tsai wrote on Facebook.
Tsai, a co-founder of Alibaba, is the first person of Chinese-descent to own an NBA franchise and the planned preseason games in China involved his Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA’s second-most valuable franchise with the world’s most marketable star, Lebron James. The games would be the most marquee matchup of NBA teams in China, aiming to symbolize China’s growing importance to the game.
China’s backlash to the league as a whole comes in large part after NBA commissioner Adam Silver defended Morey’s right to express his opinions, even as the NBA has been critical (and even more critical in Chinese) of the substance of his comments.
“The long-held values of the NBA are to support freedom of expression, and Daryl Morey enjoyed that right as one of our employees,” Silver said in a press conference from Tokyo on Tuesday. “I also understand that there are consequences from that exercise of his freedom of speech. We will have to live with those consequences.”
In China, these comments were taken as a defense of Morey’s post. In response, major Chinese broadcasters—CCTV and Tencent—decided not to air the games on television and streaming platforms, a grassroots boycott movement sprouted on Chinese social media, and major Chinese sponsors and advertisers pulled out of the events.
After CCTV announced it would not the broadcast the games, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang was asked about the decision. His words did not inspire optimism about the NBA’s future in the country.
“[The relationship] will not work if you have exchanges and cooperation with China,” he said, “but fail to understand the opinions of the Chinese people.”
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