Over the last few months, Hong Kong’s Southorn Playground has been both a contested protest zone and a continued favorite spot for Hong Kong’s pick-up basketball players. On Tuesday evening, basketball and the protests became one, as hundreds gathered in protest of basketball superstar Lebron James’ recent criticisms of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.
The previous week, James played in two preseason games in China in the wake of Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong protests—which included an image that read “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The tweet kicked off a crisis between the NBA and China that has now risen to a focal point in relations between the U.S. and China.
James had previously declined to comment on the Hong Kong protests or Morey’s tweet supporting them, but he spoke to reporters from the Lakers practice facility on Tuesday.
“I believe (Morey) wasn’t educated on the situation at hand. And he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially but emotionally, physically and spiritually.” James said. “Yes, we all do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, and you’re only thinking about yourself.”
Those remarks reached Hong Kongers on Tuesday morning, and activists almost immediately lit up social media channels and Hong Kong message boards with calls to take to the streets.
By Tuesday evening, hundreds of protesters had gathered in Southorn Playgrounds. Clad in basketball jerseys and the now-banned face masks, they stood amidst pouring rain on the courts to spell out Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s name while holding up their hands to signify the movement’s five demands.
The protesters chanted also slogans like, “Thank you, Morey, thank you (NBA Commissioner Adam) Silver, F*** off James,” and “Stand with Morey, Stand with Hong Kong.” Some of them later even burned James’ jersey on the courts.
Even though Morey backtracked from his initial comments, Hong Kong protesters now view him as squarely aligned with their movement. And James, while careful to criticize the timing and ramifications of Morey’s remarks without discussing the protests themselves, is now viewed by many in Hong Kong as being entirely on Beijing’s side.
Tangible financial consequences
James explicitly referred in his remarks to Morey’s lack of consideration of the “financial ramifications” of his tweet. These consequences were apparent in James’ recent trip to China, and threaten to jeopardize the multitude of business interests dependent on the NBA’s relationship with China.
James seemed to be particularly peeved at the timing of Morey’s remarks, given that it was published just as his Los Angeles Lakers were set to face off against the Brooklyn Nets.
Players for both teams in the preseason games appeared to have had little idea that they would be entering an international firestorm when they boarded their planes to Shanghai last week. “We had zero knowledge of it before we took off,” James said.
Upon landing, the players received news of cancelled community events, pulled sponsorships with the league, and uncertainty of whether the games would even be played.
According to a new ESPN report, one Lakers player even learned upon landing in China that his one-million dollar endorsement deal with a Chinese company would be pulled.
James’ comments have also brought to light the degree to which American companies affiliated with the NBA are also intricately involved in the Chinese market.
James currently holds a lifetime sponsorship deal with Nike, reportedly worth over a billion dollars, and in recent years the company has counted on China for continued growth.
Though Nike’s sales in the U.S. are still more than double those in China, in the last quarter Nike’s China sales grew 22% compared to only 4% in the U.S. Nike’s penetration into the Chinese market is such that the secondary retail market for Nike sneakers is both a growing cultural phenomenon and a booming business.
Nike chief executive Mark Parker even recently said, “Nike is a brand of China for China, and the results continue to prove it out.”
Nike’s main rival in lucrative NBA sponsorships, Adidas, also now depends on China for 25% of their business. Similarly, Under Armour, which sponsors Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, has deeply invested into China in the last few years. The company does not release China-specific earnings, but reported the Asia-Pacific region as growing by 29% in the last quarter, making up for an otherwise meager period.
In recent days, shares for Chinese apparel companies like Li-Ning and Anta have spiked in anticipation of having to fill a void if the NBA becomes further distanced from the Chinese market.
As the NBA’s feud with China drags on, the league’s regular season is set to tip-off next week. In the meantime, NBA players, companies, and the league itself will almost certainly be pondering their futures in the country.
“This is new territory… I don’t think anyone knows how it will play out,” said Brook Larmer, author of Operation Yao Ming: The Chinese Sports Empire, American Big Business, and the Making of an NBA Superstar.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—China’s emotional past with the NBA sheds light on the Hong Kong crisis today
—Why you can’t (easily) stream the MLB playoffs without cable—Two top college basketball coaches differ on ‘Fair Pay for Play’
—Broadcasting rights, ticket sales, sponsorships: NBA’s Hong Kong crisis risks its massive China business
—Will paying student athletes save college sports—or kill the NCAA?
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