As China fumes, NBA’s vision of a lucrative expansion dims

The NBA’s decadeslong push to develop China into its biggest overseas market appeared increasingly in jeopardy Tuesday as the league’s commissioner stood firm in the face of criticism from Beijing and the Chinese threatened financial repercussions.

China’s state-run television announced it would not broadcast two NBA preseason games scheduled for this week in Shanghai and Shenzhen that will feature basketball’s biggest star, LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers. Hours later, the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, issued his most emphatic defense of the right of its employees to speak out on political issues, after days of criticism saying that the NBA was caving to one of its most important business partners, which has a history of cracking down on dissent.

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“We will protect our employees’ freedom of speech,” Silver said during a news conference in Japan.

The NBA has made global expansion — particularly into China — a core part of its mission. The preseason games are part of a set of events designed to promote the league in the country — including basketball clinics, fan gatherings and various public appearances by players.

But the league’s trip was upended by a single tweet from a Houston Rockets executive who Friday night posted a supportive message about protests in Hong Kong. Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Rockets, wrote, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” a reference to the pro-democracy protests that have raged for months. The phrase is a slogan of the protests and has been chanted at demonstrations.

The tweet put the league in a situation familiar to many other global companies seeking to do business in the communist country, which has a population of 1.4 billion: Any misstep could mean swiftly losing access to a powerful economy.

In its statement, the broadcaster, China Central Television, chided Silver for expressing support for Morey’s free speech rights.

“We voice our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Adam Silver offering as an excuse the right to freedom of expression,” CCTV said in its statement announcing the cancellation of the NBA broadcasts. “We believe that no comments challenging national sovereignty and social stability fall within the scope of freedom of expression.”

In a news conference before another overseas preseason game — between the Rockets and the Toronto Raptors near Tokyo on Tuesday — Silver said the broadcast cancellation was unexpected, and that a community outreach event scheduled to take place at a school in Shanghai had also been canceled.

“I think it’s unfortunate,” Silver said. “But if that’s the consequences of us adhering to our values, we still feel it’s critically important we adhere to those values.”

The Lakers are scheduled to play the Brooklyn Nets, a team owned by Joe Tsai, the billionaire co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. In a lengthy Facebook post this week, Tsai criticized Morey’s tweet as damaging to the NBA in China, and an editorial in the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba, carried the headline: “Sports loses out when politics enters play.”

Silver still planned to travel to Shanghai on Wednesday and said he hoped to meet with Chinese government officials to try to defuse the conflict.

“But I’m a realist as well, and I recognize that this issue may not die down so quickly,” Silver said.

Many American politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, castigated the league for its initial reaction to the situation: A statement Sunday that said it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet had offended people in China but that “the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.”

Silver issued a new written statement Tuesday morning, which said in part: “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.”

It continued, “However, 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 was more blunt during his news conference: “We will protect our employees’ freedom of speech.”

Chinese government and basketball officials, as well as Chinese companies had pressured the NBA to be more critical of Morey and to go beyond a version of the league’s statement that appeared on Chinese social media platforms Sunday. In that statement, the league appeared to call Morey’s tweet “inappropriate.” (The league denied the difference in translation was intentional and said the English version should be considered its official response).

Multiple Chinese companies, including Luckin Coffee, a coffee chain, and Anta, a sportswear brand that sponsors NBA players, announced Tuesday that they were suspending partnerships with the league.

“The NBA has been in cooperation with China for many years,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a briefing Tuesday. “It knows clearly in its heart what to say and what to do.”

Criticism of the NBA also has come from pro-Hong Kong activists and their supporters in the United States, who have accused Silver of capitulating to an authoritarian government.

Silver, in an interview with CNN after his news conference Tuesday, hinted at frustration over the way the league’s actions have been received.

“I will say I’m a bit surprised that CCTV canceled the telecasting of preseason games and specifically named me as the cause,” Silver said. “It’s interesting, while at the same time in the U.S. media, there is some suggesting I am not being protective enough of our employees. Clearly, they’re seeing it the other way in China, but I think, at the end of the day, we have been pretty consistent.”

The backlash hasn’t been limited to Silver and Morey. Rockets superstar James Harden was criticized on social media for offering an apology to China while standing next to his teammate Russell Westbrook.

Other basketball figures have steered clear of the topic. Steve Kerr, the typically outspoken coach of the Golden State Warriors, declined to comment Monday, telling reporters, “It’s a really bizarre international story, and a lot of us really don’t know what to make of it.”

One notable exception was another outspoken coach, Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs. He praised Silver’s remarks, saying: “He came out strongly for freedom of speech today. I felt great again. He’s been a heck of a leader in that respect and very courageous.”

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Silver acknowledged that Morey, an outspoken executive who has routinely weighed in on political issues, had particularly incensed Yao Ming, the former Houston Rockets star who now leads the Chinese Basketball Association. The association said it was suspending a partnership with the Rockets.

“I think Yao is extremely unsettled,” Silver said. “I’m not sure he quite accepts sort of how we are operating our business right now, and again, I accept that we have a difference of opinion. I’m hoping that together Yao Ming and I can find an accommodation. But he is extremely hot at the moment, and I understand it.”

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