The controversy caused one of the game’s biggest stars, Rockets guard James Harden, to proclaim, “We love China.” It prompted outrage from politicians on both sides of the aisle and put the league’s focus on China in an international spotlight. Here’s what you need to know about the controversy, and the reaction.
What happened, and why are the Rockets at the heart of it?
Morey got into hot water when he sent a quickly deleted tweet, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” a message in support for protests that have swelled over the summer.
A proposal by Hong Kong to allow extraditions from the semiautonomous territory to China sparked the protests, which stem from a fear that Beijing’s leaders would seek to systematically pick apart the freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the former British colony returned to Chinese control in 1997.
The Rockets, who drafted Chinese legend Yao Ming in 2002, are one of the most popular NBA teams in China, and have marketed themselves to a Chinese audience, and Morey’s tweet caused a backlash in China.
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta seemed to distance himself from his GM, tweeting that Morey “does NOT speak for the” franchise and adding, “we are NOT a political organization.” He told ESPN: “I have the best general manager in the league. Everything is fine with Daryl and me. We got a huge backlash, and I wanted to make clear that the organization has no political position. We’re here to play basketball and not to offend anybody.”
In addition to deleting his tweet, Morey tweeted Sunday: “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives."
Why is the timing especially awkward?
Teams from China are playing preseason games in the U.S. this week, including the Guangzhou Long-Lions, who are playing the Wizards in Washington on Wednesday. The Rockets are about to play two games in Japan, and the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets play Thursday in Shanghai and Saturday in China. ESPN will also be broadcasting programming from China this week.
How has the league reacted?
The NBA, which has an office in China and plans to add a gaming team in Shanghai to the NBA 2K League, moved swiftly.
“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 NBA said in a statement. “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.”
Officials in the U.S. and China say that as many as 500 million Chinese fans watched at least one NBA game last season. “We have great respect for the history and culture of China,” the NBA said in its statement, “and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged Monday that Morey’s tweet had damaged the league’s branding efforts, but defended the GM’s right to free speech.
“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” Silver said in Tokyo. “There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have.”
Silver added that “what I am supporting is his freedom of political expression in this situation.”
A statement posted on the league’s Weibo social media network in China, meanwhile, was translated to say that the league is “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment” and appeared to use the sort of language often used by state media in China. It added that Morey “has undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans.”
The NBA later clarified that it had put out just one statement, in English.
What has been the political response in the United States?
American politicians from both parties criticized the NBA’s response. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), tweeted that the NBA was “shamefully retreating.” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida) tweeted that Morey “made a simple statement of support for freedom for #HongKong and the NBA silenced him.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) tweeted that the NBA “is throwing the GM of the @Houston Rockets under the bus to please the Communist Chinese Govt. Disgusting. They allow #China to punish a U.S. citizen for free speech in order to protect NBA’s market access in China. Grotesque.”
Julián Castro, a Democratic candidate for president, tweeted that the U.S. “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.” Fellow candidate Beto O’Rourke tweeted “the only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights.”
Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) tweeted that the “@NBA = no backbone, apparently.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) retweeted Castro, who had earlier in the day criticized China’s threats in response to Morey’s initial tweet. “Julián, glad to agree with you on this one,” he wrote.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) criticized Fertitta for “siding with communism."
“Listen....some things are more important than money. Like doing the right thing,” he wrote.
How have NBA players reacted?
James Harden and Russell Westbrook, two of the NBA’s biggest stars, were asked about the issue during a practice in Tokyo. With Westbrook standing beside him, Harden said, “We apologize. You know, we love China. We love playing there. For both of us individually, we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most important love.
“We appreciate them as a fan base,” Harden continued. “We love everything there about them, and we appreciate the support that they give us individually and as [an] organization.”
Have other owners weighed in?
Nets owner Joe Tsai, a co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, wrote Sunday night on Facebook that Morey had stepped on “a third-rail issue” in his comment about China and Hong Kong.
“By now I hope you can begin to understand why the Daryl Morey tweet is so damaging to the relationship with our fans in China,'' Tsai wrote. “I don’t know Daryl personally. I am sure he’s a fine NBA general manager, and I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been. But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.''
Silver attempted to support the owner, as well.
“I am also supporting Joe Tsai,” he said on Monday. “I realize, as I said again, these are complex issues they don’t lend themselves easily to social media. I can’t ultimately run the NBA based on trying to satisfy everyone on Twitter.”
What has been the reaction in China?
The Chinese Basketball Association, led by former Rockets star Yao Ming, planned to suspend its relationship with the Rockets because of Morey’s “improper remarks regarding Hong Kong.” Chinese state television and Tencent, a media partner with ESPN and the NBA in China, said they would not show Rockets games. Tencent has a streaming deal worth $1.5 billion over the next five years.
Li Ning, the shoe company, and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Card Center announced they were suspending partnerships with the Rockets.
And the Chinese Basketball Association reportedly canceled planned exhibition games between NBA G League teams scheduled to be held later this month in China because of the controversy.