The NBA season officially began Tuesday night, but the league’s China controversy didn’t end, with Shaquille O’Neal passionately defending free speech on TNT’s broadcast, protests in Los Angeles and a reduced availability of the league’s product in China.

State television chose not to air the first night’s games and Tencent, the streaming partner of the league and ESPN, showed only the Lakers-Clippers game, according to the sports network. CCTV has shown no games since Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets general manager, tweeted in support of Hong Kong residents who have been protesting the repressive regime for months, causing an international furor. Outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles, protesters chanted and gave away T-shirts that read: “Fight For Freedom Stand for Hong Kong.”

Led by O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson jumped right in with a heated conversation during the “NBA on TNT” show.

“We as American people do a lot of business in China,” O’Neal said. “They know and understand our values and we understand their values. One of our best values here in America is free speech. We’re allowed to say what we want to say and we are allowed to speak up about injustices and that’s just how it goes. And if people don’t understand that, that’s something they have to deal with.

“It was unfortunate for both parties and you’ve got people speaking when they don’t what they’re talking about. Daryl Morey was right. Whenever you see something wrong going on anywhere in the world, you should have the right to say, ‘That’s not right.’ That’s what he did. When it comes to business, sometimes you have to tiptoe around things, but again, they understand our values. … We have the right to speak, especially with social media. We’re going to say whatever we want to say, when we want to say it.”

Added Smith: “If we don’t allow Darryl Morey — even if you believe him or not — to speak, it would be like telling LeBron [James] to shut up and dribble. … [for those who disagree], you have the opportunity to combat it with valid information and valid points. … The same way [as] when LeBron was speaking about social justice. And Chris Paul. And Carmelo Anthony. … The same as when the kneeling [during the national anthem] was going on in football. You have the right to speak about it.”

Barkley pointed out that Morey’s tweet was especially sensitive because the Rockets were the NBA home of Yao Ming, who is now deeply involved in trying to expand the game in China.

“If anybody else had sent a tweet, it would have raised some eyebrows, but because it was the Houston Rockets and their affiliation with Yao Ming — they’re the most popular team in China,” Barkley said. “That was the first thing he should have thought about. ‘I’m not just speaking for myself, I’m speaking for the entire Rockets organization.' Because of Yao Ming, the Rockets are by far and away the most popular team in China. You can’t come to my country and make money and insult me. We don’t get to impress our values on other countries.”

Johnson recalled that the same sort of issue came up in 1991 when he traveled to Cuba to broadcast the Pan American Games for ABC and required restraint. “The last thing I was going to do when I got there was say, ‘Man, this Fidel Castro has got to go,’ “ he said “ … I think there’s a responsibility when you’re in your country to say, ‘That’s an injustice. I’m calling you out on that.’ But I think there has to be some restraint when you go overseas. You’re not there to change the political system.”

The same thing happens often during international competitions such as the Olympics and World Cup, when politics briefly are set aside, whether for the benefit of sportsmanship, good manners, capitalism or some combination of all three. O’Neal agreed that visitors, even those with a financial stake, aren’t there to change the world.

“However, China can’t tell us what to do and we can’t tell them what to do,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. We can send tweets, we’ve got free speech, we can say what we want to say when we want to say it.”

Barkley jumped in to add, “But we all have a responsibility to our employer, too, whether you want to call it selling out or whatever. I can’t come on TV and say anything I want to politically.”

Countered Shaq, “Well, you’ve been doing it.”

Indeed, Barkley has been one of the more outspoken political and social commentators in sports. Johnson pointed out that Morey could have added nuance by writing an opinion piece rather than publishing a tweet that landed while NBA players were in China, One of those players was James, who questioned the timing of the tweet.

“He did it from the confines of his little friendly home while the NBA players were over there. That’s what LeBron said,” Barkley said. “He tweeted and then we had to go over there.”

For the most part, NBA officials, coaches and players have been happy to start the regular season, hoping it overtakes the China controversy. Many were reluctant, at least initially, to talk about the issue that engulfed the NBA’s preseason games in China. Golden State’s Steph Curry and Steve Kerr at first claimed that they didn’t know enough to talk about the geopolitical issues involved and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich brought up President Trump as he defended Commissioner Adam Silver, who tried to balance the NBA’s economic interests in China with the country’s repressive regime.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, authorities in Hong Kong’s semiautonomous legislature withdrew the unpopular extradition bill that has sparked five months of violence and protests, but there was no indication that the protests would end, with pro-democracy protests flaring again this week with growing calls for universal suffrage and an investigation into allegations of police abuses.

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