NBA executive Daryl Morey sparked an international incident this weekend, when a Twitter post supporting human rights protesters in Hong Kong was met with swift backlash in China.
Morey, the Houston Rockets general manager who is in Japan with the Rockets for a pair of preseason games against the Toronto Raptors, posted an image to his Twitter account on Friday that bore a simple message: "Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong."
His account was quickly bombarded by angry replies before he deleted the message. Some social media users replied with "NMSL" - Chinese Internet slang that means "your mother is dead" - and called for Morey, who has been with the Rockets since 2006, to be fired. Others replied by hailing his support for the Hong Kong protesters, who began demonstrating in June in opposition to a proposal to a bill that would allow individuals to be extradited from Hong Kong to China.
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta hastily issued a response Friday to the growing criticism. "Listen, Daryl Morey does NOT speak for the Houston Rockets," he wrote on Twitter. "Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization." In a follow-up statement to ESPN, Fertitta clarified that he was merely intending to quell the "huge backlash" with his Twitter post and that "everything is fine with Daryl and me."
But the fallout was just beginning. The Rockets are one of the most popular and highest-profile NBA teams in China, given that they drafted Chinese legend Yao Ming with the top pick in 2002. The franchise has a Chinese-language website and has designed and worn themed Chinese New Year jerseys, among other marketing efforts. Morey wasn't just an American outsider weighing in on what China views as a domestic matter, he was also the prominent face of a high-profile company with longstanding Chinese ties and legions of Chinese supporters.
The Chinese Basketball Association and Tencent Sports, the NBA's rights holder in China, both announced that they would cut ties with the Rockets, in statements translated by reporter Yu Fu. The Rockets's Chinese sponsors reportedly followed suit, as did the Chinese Consulate in Houston, which urged the franchise to "correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact" of Morey's tweet.
Democratic presidential candidates weighed in on the Chinese response, with entrepreneur Andrew Yang calling it a "terrible move" and Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, accusing China of "using its economic power to silence critics - even those in the [United States]." Castro added that the United States "must lead with our values and speak out for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government."
The backlash and ensuing controversy put the NBA and the Rockets in an uncomfortable bind: Were they willing to jeopardize their Chinese relationships by standing up for the pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong, or would they bend to the Chinese position on the protest in an effort to maintain their business partnerships? Would Morey become a sacrificial lamb?
By Sunday, the league appeared to be attempting to thread the needle by acknowledging the negative response to Morey's message while stopping short of disciplining him or weighing in on the protests.
"We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable," the statement read. "While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. 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."
Morey also issued a statement, saying he "did not intend to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends" in China.
"I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event," his statement read. "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 was not my intention."
The NBA has made no secret of its desire to cultivate basketball in China despite the potential for political complications, with Commissioner Adam Silver pointing to the country's large population as an "enormous opportunity." When asked whether he was concerned about rising tensions between the United States and China, which include an ongoing trade war, Silver dismissed the notion.
"I am not concerned at this time," he said. "We are not immune from global politics, so it's something we're paying a lot of attention to. I look to sports, and this is something Yao and I have discussed, where we can use basketball maybe in the way ping-pong was used in the days of Richard Nixon. There could be something called basketball diplomacy, and it is an area where our two countries have excellent history of cooperation."
The NBA launched NBA China to manage its operations in the country in 2008. More than 600 million fans in China consumed NBA content during the 2017-18 season, according to CNBC, and the NBA has announced major new agreements with Tencent and Alibaba this year to serve Chinese viewers. The league has held games in China since 2004, and the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets are set to play preseason games in China on Thursday and Saturday.
Joseph Tsai, a billionaire co-founder of Alibaba, finalized his ownership takeover of the Nets this summer with a pair of transactions that totaled $2.35 billion, the record price for an NBA franchise.