Before the Wizards’ 137-98 victory, members of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation stood outside two arena entrances handing out “Free Hong Kong” T-shirts and holding signs admonishing the NBA for its initial handling of the fast-moving story that has mushroomed into a political battleground involving free speech and the league’s financial interest in China.
“We basically and totally support the original message that Daryl Morey sent out in support of the protesters in Hong Kong that sparked this NBA crisis,” said Marion Smith, the executive director of the Victims of Communism organization. “I think the fallout has revealed how [NBA Commissioner] Adam Silver has put their eggs in the Chinese party’s communist basket.”
Before the game, a group of men wearing “Free Hong Kong” T-shirts who were not affiliated with the organization, according to Smith, stood in the lower bowl of the arena as one held a sign reading “Google Uyghurs,” referring to an ethnic minority in Asia. A Twitter user posted a video of the sign being confiscated. Capital One Arena has a policy stating signs “may not be commercial or political in nature.”
Following the singing of the Chinese national anthem, the first of the disruptions started.
With the arena lights still dark and images of the Chinese flag aglow on the overhead scoreboard, a single protester in Section 217 held a handwritten sign and shouted for freedom of speech and freedom for Hong Kong. His shouts cut through the silence in the arena, and he left his seat by his own volition while followed by an arena usher.
During the game, more protesters, sometimes in groups of two, scattered in various sections around the arena, shouted in support of Hong Kong or other causes.
A pair of pro-Tibet protesters stood near the front seats of Section 103, off to the left of the Wizards’ bench. While one held a “Free Tibet” sign, the other raised a Tibetan flag. The men left the lower bowl after a security guard entered the stands where they were standing. The guard followed the men up the stairs as several Wizards players and staffers turned to watch the scene. According to a Wizards spokesperson, no protesters were asked to leave the arena Wednesday night.
“I didn’t hear it,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said of the protests during the game. "I heard the one during the end of the national anthem. Other than that I didn’t hear. I was focused on the game. The focus just right now is just on the team and how we need to keep playing and improving, and I have things that I need to worry about and be concerned of right now. I did hear the first part. I didn’t hear anything else.”
The NBA and Silver have faced criticism over the past week as the league tried to respond to Morey’s tweet and its aftermath. On Sunday, the league released a statement in English in which it expressed a recognition that Morey’s tweet “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.” Silver later offered another statement, declaring the league “will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”
For Smith, the statement was not enough, and he has called for Silver’s resignation.
“I think it’s extremely disappointing that Silver and NBA leadership came down like a ton of bricks on Morey to issue an apology and delete his original tweet,” Smith said. “This is not what the greatest sport in America is supposed to do, and I think Adam Silver is responsible for this. … We are calling for his resignation because we have been following this for a few years."