As the Houston Rockets were losing their preseason game Tuesday morning in Japan, the NBA was seemingly on the verge of losing its once-stranglehold grip on the sport of basketball in China, where controversy has raged out of control following a single tweet fired off over the weekend.
And while conventional wisdom might immediately attribute any misguided tweet with geopolitical implications to the president, this one, believe it or not, was not typed by Trump’s twitter fingers.
Instead, Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey decided to publicize his feelings about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, where hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have been demonstrating against what they say is the Communist government infringing on their civil liberties. On Friday, Morey tweeted, “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”
Those fateful five words in that since-deleted post would go on to ignite an international firestorm as China, being the Communist country that it is, swiftly retaliated by taking deliberate steps to sever its longstanding and very mutually lucrative partnership with the NBA. That, in turn, prompted NBA Commissioner Adam Silver — someone seen as a pioneering visionary for forging and fostering the relationship with China — and Rockets ownership alike to issue apologies saying that Morey only spoke for himself and insisting neither organization had any political agenda.
But it was Silver’s support of Morey’s freedom of speech that seemed to rankle China the most.
China promptly canceled broadcasting NBA games, which has undoubtedly been consistently providing a handsome payoff in exchange for the NBA licensing its rights. With that said, a preseason game was still scheduled to take place in Shanghai this week, showing a glimmer of hope that the relationship could be salvaged — under the righty circumstances.
The Rockets have enjoyed a unique relationship with China, as well. The two-time NBA champions selected Yao Ming with the top pick of the 2002 draft, making the 7’6 hoops basketball star the centerpiece of the franchise until his retirement. The team would go on to host Chinese Heritage Night and celebrate Chinese New Year on a regular basis, likely endearing the organization to Ming’s Chinese handlers.
The entire incident seems to have the entire NBA community shaken to the core. And while Silver has insisted the NBA doesn’t try to muffle anyone’s opinions, Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr — who is always outspoken on controversial topics (remember when he famously rebuffed Trump’s White House invitation?) — coincidentally declined to comment Tuesday morning about the ongoing fray.
Of course, there is one way that Trump could actually factor in this fray: his stiff tariffs imposed in the trade war he waged against China, which has made no secrets of its resentment over the sanctions. With Chinese tempers already flaring from Trump, Morey’s tweet could have been the proverbial straw that broke China’s back, which was already thin with patience worn out by what they probably saw as greedy Americans.
It seems like the only thing that could restore NBA-China ties to where they were pre-tweet is for Morey to lose his job, something that would open an entirely new can of worms for the pro basketball league that has recently stepped its social justice game up.
China, as you may remember, is the same country that was practically holding several UCLA basketball players hostage over a shoplifting incident that also became international news because of the nation’s strict laws. They don’t play.
Even Rockets superstar James Harden, probably realizing some of his own Chinese cash could also be drying up before his eyes, said “we apologize” on behalf of his team and the NBA and declared “we love China.” That was probably because, much like with Trump’s tariffs, (maybe this does have something to do with him after all), this move by China to cut off the NBA comes down to money.
“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” NBA Silver told Japanese news agency Kyodo during a press conference Tuesday. “There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet.”