That saga feels like ancient history following the outrage sparked by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong last month. James was pilloried by major American politicians for refusing to criticize China, ignoring the protesters and dismissing Morey’s political statement as inconvenient given its timing right before the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets played exhibitions in Shanghai and Shenzhen. Rockets star James Harden was also condemned for apologizing for Morey’s tweet. All told, that made three NBA MVPs who faced major backlash for comments on international issues since 2017.
For National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts, the size and scope of the China saga provided a wake-up call: Something needs to change, or NBA players will continue to find themselves embroiled in international incidents.
“We don’t have the luxury of confining ourselves to the four corners of the United States,” Roberts told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “As the game is expanding [globally] and the union is interested in having a greater impact outside the U.S., I need to, and the players need to, be more aware of the world around us. [The China standoff brought] difficult days, and the problem hasn’t gone away. We need to address it as a union and as a sport. We’ve got to be a little bit more intentional about how we navigate the world given what happened this past [month].”
Some portion of the criticism directed at James and Durant focused on their perceived ignorance. James acknowledged he hadn’t followed the Hong Kong protests, and Durant spoke at length about how his preconceived notions of India and its culture did not match what he saw during his first trip to the country.
Roberts admitted that the union has not done enough to help prepare players before their international travels and that it is the NBPA’s responsibility to take proactive steps to prevent its members from doing unintentional harm to their reputations and brands.
“For many of the players that went over there, it was their first trip to China,” Roberts said. “Many had no idea what was going on in Hong Kong. Most Americans, let alone most basketball players, are not aware of the politics that have been of concern in China. If we’re going to be sending our guys all over the globe, then we have to make sure they’re armed with the knowledge of where they are going and what’s happening in the locales they’re visiting and playing in.
“That’s a role we’re going to play as a union. It’s a role I don’t think we’ve done a good job of fulfilling to date. We’ve got to be capable of providing information to the players [and assisting them if] they ask for help in formulating a comment.”
As the China issue has shifted to the back burner with the season in full swing, Roberts has started to look ahead to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Her hope is that the competition will be a unifying event and an opportunity to heal. The Olympics will also be another major test for the players, who will be headed abroad for more international exhibitions during the closing months of the 2020 presidential election campaign.
Until then, Roberts offered to be a sounding board for any players who might be struggling to make sense of current events.
“The players are pretty independent,” she said. “They don’t ring my phone off the hook asking me what they should say. I sometimes wish they would.”