SHENZHEN, China (Reuters) – The National Basketball Association (NBA) kept quiet on Friday, postponing media events for the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers in China amid a furor over a tweet by a Houston Rockets executive supporting Hong Kong’s protesters.
The teams had been scheduled to address the media Friday afternoon, and the league did not elaborate on why the sessions were postponed indefinitely. The league said Saturday evening’s exhibition game between the Lakers and the Nets in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong, will proceed.
No NBA players or executives have been allowed to speak to the media this week in China as the league grapples with severe backlash. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s quickly deleted tweet last weekend in support of Hong Kong anti-government protests has damaged business prospects in a market estimated to be worth more than $4 billion for the NBA.
China has accused the West of stirring up anti-Beijing sentiment in Hong Kong, and Chinese state media has characterised Morey’s tweet as the latest example of meddling in China’s affairs. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver defended Morey’s freedom of expression in a statement issued Tuesday, further angering Beijing.
Fan events were cancelled this week and partners have cut ties with the NBA, underscoring the severity of the situation for the league.
The first of the two exhibition games scheduled in China took place Thursday night, which the Nets won 114-111, was well-attended and saw little in the way of patriotic protest. The crowd waved Chinese flags in the arena before the game started, but the packed stands gave the players a huge welcome on court and shouted enthusiastically throughout the game.
But Chinese fans who did not have a ticket could not watch: state television CCTV and Tencent , who hold the rights to show the NBA in the country, are not carrying any of the China games on their platforms.
Houston Rockets sneakers and other merchandise have been pulled from several Nike and NBA stores in major Chinese cities, with the franchise’s direct association with Morey making it a central target of the furore. Managers at some of the Nike stores said they had been instructed to remove the goods via an internal memo from management.
In a Facebook post on Sunday, Nets owner Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, attempted to play mediator. But his post invited more controversy in the United States after he labelled protesters in Hong Kong as “separatists.”
Chen Minqi, a 20-year-old Chinese Lakers fan, said outside the hotel in Shenzhen where the Lakers were staying that Morey shouldn’t interfere in other countries’ affairs.
“Still, sport is sport and we shouldn’t punish the Lakers and the NBA for his mistake,” Chen said.
Reporting by David Kirton and Joyce Zhou in Shenzhen, China; Writing by Se Young Lee and Gerry Doyle