The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reporter shut down after trying to ask NBA players about China: ‘Basketball questions only’

Banners advertising NBA games in Shanghai have been taken down. (Aly Song/Reuters)

The Chinese government did not allow players and coaches from the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets to talk with reporters before or after Thursday’s preseason game in Shanghai, the latest salvo in an increasingly contentious situation between the NBA and China that began last week when the Houston Rockets’ general manager tweeted his support of protesters in Hong Kong.

On the same day, a CNN reporter was shut down when she tried to ask two Houston Rockets stars about this week’s events, with a team official telling her to ask “basketball questions only." The league later apologized and said the reporter should have been allowed to ask her question.

The Lakers-Nets game was played as scheduled, though the Nets’ 114-111 win was not seen on television in China. The country’s state broadcaster announced Tuesday that it would not air any of the NBA preseason games being played in the country this week (the Lakers and Nets play again on Saturday in Shenzhen).

The Houston Rockets' general manager tweeted support for Hong Kong protesters, creating tension between the NBA and one of its biggest supporters — China. (Video: The Washington Post)

A pregame news conference with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver also was scrubbed, according to The Athletic. The Chinese government previously had canceled an NBA Cares event to benefit the Special Olympics in Shanghai along with a fan event ahead of the game. Banners promoting Thursday’s game also were taken down.

NBA players typically speak to reporters both before and after games.

Neither the U.S. nor the Chinese national anthems were played before the game, the AP reported, though the contest did draw a near-sellout to Mercedes-Benz Arena.

The Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors also played in Asia on Thursday, a 118-111 Rockets win in Tokyo. Afterward, CNN international sports reporter Christina Macfarlane attempted to ask Houston stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook whether they would feel differently about speaking out on social issues after this week’s events, which were spurred by a tweet from Houston General Manager Daryl Morey supporting protesters in Hong Kong. Macfarlane’s question was interrupted by a Rockets spokeswoman.

In an interview, Macfarlane said she began the news conference by asking Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni if he had a message for the Chinese people. Afterward she said she felt like she wasn’t called on when she tried to ask subsequent questions before eventually getting the microphone with Harden and Russell at the podium.

“It’s the biggest story of the week so I felt the question needed to be asked,” Macafarlane said. “I didn’t expect to have to defend my question and I didn’t expect the reaction to be so forceful. I said to the Rockets person that this wasn’t a good look for the NBA.”

Macfarlane was told the players had faced similar questions this week and didn’t need to answer them anymore. Later Thursday, NBA Senior Vice President of Communications Tim Frank called Macfarlane to apologize. The league then issued a statement saying “a team representative inappropriately interjected to prevent CNN’s Christina Macfarlane from receiving an answer to her question. We’ve apologized to Ms. Macfarlane as this was inconsistent with how the NBA conducts media events.”

“I appreciated the apology,” Macfarlane said. “They’re doing the best they can in a very difficult situation. It feels like they’re conflicted about how to respond to these kinds of questions.”

On Monday, Harden issued one of the few comments from an NBA player about the China affair.

“We apologize. You know, we love China. We love playing there,” Harden said while standing alongside Westbrook. “For both of us individually, we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most important love.”

Last Friday, Morey’s tweets about protesters in Hong Kong, drawing condemnation in mainland China and leading several Chinese companies to suspend ties with the franchise, even after Morey apologized for the statement.

Reuters reported Thursday that all Rockets gear had been pulled from several Nike stores in mainland China after store managers received a memo dictating the merchandise be removed.

The NBA’s initial attempt to tamp down the issue was viewed as overly deferential to China, with which it has a long and financially fruitful relationship. In a second statement Tuesday, Silver declared his support for the free-speech rights of the league’s players and executives, which drew the ire of the Chinese government.

“We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression,” Silver said Tuesday at a news conference in Japan. “I regret … that so many people are upset including millions and millions of our fans. At the end of the day, we come with basketball as an opportunity to sell dreams, sell hopes. That we are causing disruption in people’s lives and that we are causing disharmony, that’s something I regret.”

Nearly all of the NBA’s Chinese business partners have publicly announced that they are ending or suspending their relationships with the league.

Protests have taken place at several exhibition games in the United States, as well. On Tuesday, a married couple was removed from a game between the Philadelphia 76ers and Guangzhou Loong-Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association after they held up signs reading “Free Hong Kong” and “Free HK” and then shouted the slogans when their signs were taken away by security. Wednesday night, at least five vocal demonstrations broke out before and during the first half of the Wizards’ matchup against the Loong-Lions in Washington.

According to the Los Angeles Times, a man wearing a Rockets jersey was arrested in China for posting a photo of himself about to burn a Chinese flag with a comment: “I live and die with the team.”

Read more:

Gregg Popovich praises Adam Silver for ‘courage’ in China, takes a dig at Trump

Brewer: It took an uncomfortably long time, but Adam Silver got it right on NBA and China

Blackistone: While Adam Silver tries to straddle a line on China, the NBA misses an opportunity

Jenkins: Don’t be mad at the NBA. Hundreds of U.S. companies have sold out to China’s regime.

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