Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted last week, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong." That was enough to create a firestorm between China and the NBA, with the government-backed Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) issuing a strong rebuke and the NBA distancing itself from the tweet.
Thus a league that prides itself on being the so-called "wokest professional sports league" sided with China's communist government.
There is plenty for the Rockets and the NBA to lose financially from a broken relationship with the world's largest nation, as China is arguably the largest market and consumer in the world of the NBA. This summer, Tencent signed a five-year contract to broadcast the league across their digital platform in a deal believe to be worth $1.5 million, triple the value of their last deal.
Nearly one third of China watched NBA programming last year, with the last game of the NBA finals drawing 21 million eyeballs from a country of 1.3 billion. The numbers are ridiculously high in China. So, too, is the potential for more growth.
Sponsorship deals, including individual ones that franchises can now sign in China, are also an important source of revenue for the league.
The Rockets were the first NBA team to tap into the Asian market when they drafted Yao Ming in 2002, the Chinese superstar who now is president of the CBA.
The conundrum is summed up by a late Sunday night statement from Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, who recently bought the franchise. Born in Taiwan and educated in the United States at a prep school in New Jersey, Tsai is an executive with Alibaba, who deals often with the Chinese government.
Given that Tsai was born in a nation birthed as a response to the communist’s takeover of China, conventional wisdom might hold that he would be on the side of the protesters in Hong Kong. Or at the very least, Tsai might sit this issue out.
Instead, with his team in China for the start of the NBA’s preseason, Tsai condemned Morey’s tweet.
"There are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities," he wrote on social media. "Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China."
The Nets will play two games in China, one of which will be against CBA competition.
Morey walked back his comments on Sunday, saying they did not reflect the views of the league.