In his first comments since the Los Angeles Lakers returned from playing two exhibition games in China, James told reporters at Staples Center that Morey was “misinformed or not really educated” when he posted a graphic on Oct. 4 that read “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The tweet was met with immediate anger from Chinese authorities, and the conflict deepened when both Morey and the NBA refused to issue a formal apology.
“I don’t want to get into a … feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke,” James said before the Lakers hosted the Golden State Warriors in a preseason game. “So many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually. Just be careful what we tweet, what we say and what we do. Yes, we have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negatives that come with that as well. … Sometimes social media is not always the proper way to go about things as well.”
James, who has been an advocate of professional athletes expressing their political opinions, said he personally did not feel sufficiently informed about the Hong Kong protests to discuss them in detail last week. He added that the situation in China was “very delicate [and] very sensitive” and that he appreciated NBA Commissioner Adam Silver meeting with the players in China to discuss the unfolding controversy, which included numerous events being canceled and led Chinese broadcasters and sponsors to quickly cut ties with the Rockets.
“I’m not here to judge how the league handled the situation,” James said. “When you’re misinformed or not educated about something, and I’m just talking about the tweet itself, you never know the ramifications that can happen. We can all see what that did, for our league and for all of us in America and people in China as well. Sometimes you have to think through things that may cause harm not only for yourself but for the majority of people. … It was a tough situation for Adam as well, having to put out such a fire that he didn’t create and he didn’t start.”
James is the second NBA superstar to make headlines for commenting on the Morey situation and the second to draw criticism.
Rockets guard James Harden publicly apologized in the wake of the backlash to Morey’s comment, sparking accusations that he was siding with his Chinese business interests rather than American ideals, such as free expression. Similarly, James was criticized for questioning Morey’s thought process while at the same time refusing to offer commentary on Hong Kong.
“Clearly [James] is the one who isn’t educated on the situation at hand,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) wrote on Twitter. “It’s sad to see him join the chorus kowtowing to Communist China and putting profits over human rights for Hong Kong. I was there two weeks ago. They’re fighting for freedom and the autonomy they were promised.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) added: “This kind of garbage is hard to take. … News flash: people are being harmed — shot, beaten, gassed — right now in Hong Kong. By China. By the Communist Party the NBA is so eager to appease.”
In a pair of tweets posted Monday night, James sought to quell the negative reaction by asserting that he was not commenting about the political substance of Morey’s tweet.
“Let me clear up the confusion,” he wrote. “I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet. I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk about that. My team and this league just went through a difficult week. I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it.”
Morey’s initial Twitter post came shortly before the Rockets played two exhibitions against the Toronto Raptors in Japan and the Lakers faced the Brooklyn Nets twice in China. The contests were part of the NBA’s annual preseason pilgrimage overseas, which has included games in China since 2004.
James, who has repeatedly visited China for the 2008 Olympics, various NBA events and to market his Nike sneakers, had nothing but positive things to say about his experiences in the country.
“I’ve always been welcomed with open arms,” he said. “I’ve been to China over 15 or 20 times. The main reason I’ve always wanted to go back to China is the game of basketball. The game of basketball has brought people together, in so many different facets, different countries, different people. … That’s what I’ll continue to do because this sport has done so much for me.”
The reception was much different from a few hundred fans gathered Tuesday night at a basketball court west of central Hong Kong for a protest in support of Morey’s tweet, one of several protests planned this week in the city. Many were in masks, and some wore basketball jerseys of their favorite teams — the Lakers, Raptors and Boston Celtics.
Some directed anger at James and expressed dismay that the NBA — known for taking a stand on causes in the United States such as police brutality — would not do the same for Hong Kong.
“It is so hurtful to us that [James], the face of the NBA, would speak up for freedom of speech in America while dismissing Hong Kong, when we are suffering every weekend,” said James Lo, a 30-year-old who attended the rally in a Lakers jersey. “I know it is about business. I know that China has 1.4 billion and we are just 7 million. But the NBA should be protecting their values, not their money.”
Lo added that the episode has only proved what Hong Kong is up against and how China’s business influence can “control speech all over the world.”
The Lakers spent much of their China trip in limbo, waiting to find out whether Chinese authorities would cancel their games. They ultimately proceeded as scheduled, but the NBA nixed its usual media access periods, meaning James and his teammates did not comment on the controversy while overseas.
“All we kept saying is, ‘S---, we flew all these miles to come over to China; we would love to play the game of basketball in front of these fans,’ ” James said. “We were just hoping that the game wouldn’t get canceled because we wanted to play.”
Shibani Mahtani contributed reporting from Hong Kong.