The 70-year-old coach’s comments continued a back-and-forth of sorts between himself and the president, one that has its roots in China’s outrage over a since-deleted tweet by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey that expressed support for protesters in Hong Kong.
On a trip to China and Japan at the time to promote his league, Silver clarified an initial reaction from the NBA in which the league said it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.”
The commissioner subsequently issued a statement last week in which he said, “Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA — and will continue to do so. … It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”
“However,” Silver continued, “the NBA 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.”
Silver followed up that statement by telling reporters in Tokyo, ahead of a trip to Shanghai, “I want this to be clear, and I think there’s been some confusion around this: We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression."
He added that while the protests in Hong Kong are a “third-rail issue in China,” there exist values “that are deeply rooted in the DNA of the NBA, and that includes freedom of expression for our employees.”
Of the possible financial harm the league might suffer for that stance, Silver said, “I do know there are consequences from freedom of speech; we will have to live with those consequences."
Those comments earned the admiration of Popovich, who declared last week that Silver “came out strongly for freedom of speech.”
“He’s been a heck of a leader in that respect and very courageous. Then you compare it to what we’ve had to live through the past three years, it’s a big difference,” Popovich said. “A big gap there, leadership-wise and courage-wise. It wasn’t easy for him to say. He said that in an environment fraught with possible economic peril. But he sided with the principles that we all hold dearly, or most of us did until the last three years. I’m thrilled with what he said. The courage and leadership displayed is off the charts by comparison.”
Asked at the White House the following day about China’s threats to greatly curtail the NBA’s presence in its lucrative market, Trump took the opportunity to jab at Popovich and Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, both of whom have been outspoken critics of the president.
Trump asserted that Kerr, who had said that he was “reading about [China and Hong Kong] just like everybody” but was “not going to comment further than that,” was “so scared to be even answering the question.” The Warriors coach, according to the president, was “like a little boy” and “shaking” at the thought of responding to a question about the NBA’s predicament.
Popovich, on the other hand, “didn’t look quite as scared” to Trump. However, he was linked with Kerr as having a tendency to “talk badly about the United States.”
“But when the talk’s about China, they don’t want to say anything bad,” Trump added. “I thought it was pretty sad, actually.”
Presented with a follow-up question about his own thoughts on the NBA-China situation, which emerged just before a resumption of trade talks between the president and representatives from that country, Trump declined to offer a strong opinion.
“They have to work out their own situation,” he said. “The NBA knows what they’re doing.”
Once in Shanghai for the first of two exhibition games between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets, Silver found his freedom of speech temporarily taken away by Chinese authorities, who reportedly canceled a news conference the commissioner was set to hold Thursday. Media sessions that day involving the two teams’ players and coaches were also scrubbed, and the NBA went on to preemptively make its own cancellations for the second game, which was played on Saturday.
“We have decided not to hold media availability for our teams for the remainder of our trip in China,” the league said Friday. “They have been placed into a complicated and unprecedented situation while abroad and we believe it would be unfair to ask them to address these matters in real time.”
Back in the United States, Kerr was first to respond to Trump’s remarks, telling reporters before a Warriors preseason game Thursday, “I realize the horse was out of the barn a long time on this, but for me personally, this was my experience with, ‘Wow, has the office sunken low.’
“My hope is that we can find a mature unifier from either party to sit in that chair and try to restore some dignity to the Oval Office again, and I think it will happen.”
On Sunday, Popovich praised the way he thought Silver “stood by our nation and its principles.”
“That’s pretty huge these days,” the coach continued. “Sometimes it’s kind of Orwellian. We think we are living in a place where, ‘Is this really happening?’
“But that comparison is pretty stark, when you put our president up against those leaders when he is with them or talking to them and how he reacts compared with the way Adam Silver reacted. I was proud of him. It was great.”