Just over a year ago, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sent a tweet supporting Hong Kong protesters that put the NBA at odds with China, its largest foreign market. This week, Morey announced he is stepping down, and many users on the Chinese Internet feel vindicated.
On Thursday, Morey said in a statement that he decided to leave the Rockets organization after discussing his “thoughts with family and friends.” Morey has not indicated whether the fallout from his tweet influenced his decision to quit the organization, but he abruptly left an interview with the New York Times after a reporter asked about it.
On Monday morning, many netizens in mainland China celebrated Morey’s departure on China’s Twitter-like Weibo. “Today is a day for celebration,” wrote an account for a mainland basketball–focused publication with over 2 million followers on the platform. The news also became the third-most-searched topic on Chinese search engine Baidu.com on Friday morning.
An anchor for CCTV sports, a state-backed television station in mainland China, spoke about Morey’s departure on Friday morning.
“We have learned of Morey’s resignation and will not comment on this,” the anchor said on Friday. “[But] we hereby reiterate that any attempts to hurt the feelings of Chinese people would have to pay the price.”
In early October 2019, Morey shared a picture on his Twitter account stating, “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” At the time, the Hong Kong protest movement was in full force, with regular demonstrations opposing Beijing’s increasing influence over the city’s affairs. American brands like the coffee chain Starbucks, tech giant Apple, and shoe retailer Vans struggled to stay out of the fray since Beijing viewed any perceived support for the protests as a direct affront to its national sovereignty. Meanwhile, Hong Kong protesters lashed out at companies that appeared to support Beijing.
Beijing immediately condemned Morey’s remarks; Chinese sponsors left the NBA in droves; and television stations and streaming services dropped NBA games. In total, the NBA estimates that it lost $400 million due to the fallout from Morey’s tweet.
Morey’s tweet carried extra weight because the Houston Rockets, in large part, are responsible for the NBA’s enormous China fanbase. The Rockets’ onetime star Yao Ming, a China native, helped inspire a new generation of Chinese basketball fans and paved the way for NBA players to make annual trips to the mainland. On its own, the team lost roughly $20 million in Chinese sponsorship revenue.
In response to the controversy, the NBA said in a statement that it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet offended fans in mainland China, but it also said it values the right of employees to weigh in on “matters important to them.”
Chinese sponsors have been slow to return to the NBA, but there are signs that the two sides are beginning to repair their relationship.
In February, the NBA publicly demonstrated support and donated medical equipment to Wuhan while the city was in the throes of the first COVID-19 outbreak. CCTV also decided last week to resume airing NBA games with two games remaining in the NBA Finals.
For now, it’s unclear whether Morey’s departure will spur a return of Chinese sponsorships and other deals.
NBA league commissioner Adam Silver says he remains adamant that the league will not compromise its values as it continues to pursue business in China.
“What came from the NBA with those last two finals games on CCTV were images of players wearing T-shirts that say ‘vote’ and ‘equality’ and ‘liberty,’ not necessarily values people have traditionally associated with China,” Silver told Fortune in a story published Thursday. “We are who we are. We are exporting American values.”
In bidding a farewell to Morey, a CCTV sports anchor used a four-word phrase that state media translated to “we wish Mr. Morey well on his journey.”
Observers noted the phrase’s more common meaning: “Rest in Peace.”