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NBA executive’s Hong Kong tweet starts firestorm in China

The general manager of the Houston Rockets sought to quell an outcry in China on Sunday night after the support he expressed on Twitter for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong upset sponsors, media outlets and basketball officials in a country that invests billions in the NBA.

[NEW YORK] The general manager of the Houston Rockets sought to quell an outcry in China on Sunday night after the support he expressed on Twitter for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong upset sponsors, media outlets and basketball officials in a country that invests billions in the NBA.

The initial and quickly deleted message by the general manager, Daryl Morey, on Friday night to "stand with Hong Kong" put the NBA at odds with its largest and highest-priority international market. But he tried to mitigate the damage with two clarifying tweets from Tokyo, where the Rockets are scheduled to play two exhibition games against the Toronto Raptors.

"I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China," Mr Morey wrote, adding that his view did not represent the Rockets or the NBA. "I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives."

By walking back his comments, Mr Morey and the Rockets have exposed themselves — as well as the league — to a potential backlash domestically, since the apology runs counter to the NBA's reputation as a sports league that encourages free speech and commentary on politics and other social issues.

Mike Bass, a spokesman for the league, said in a statement on Sunday night that it was "regrettable" Mr Morey's views "deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China" but he suggested he had a right to say them.

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"While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them," Mr Bass said. "We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together."

The Rockets do not plan to discipline Mr Morey, according to one person with knowledge of the ownership's thinking who was not authorized to discuss the situation publicly. Yet it remains to be seen how much Mr Morey's apology will mollify the various entities in China that expressed such loud dismay about Morey's original Twitter post, in which he shared an image that read, "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong" — referencing to the protests that have raged for months.

In addition to Chinese sponsors such as the shoe company Li Ning and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Card Center, which both announced that they were pausing their partnerships with the Rockets, team officials faced an immediate backlash from the Chinese Basketball Association and the Chinese consulate in Houston. The basketball association announcement on Sunday that it was suspending cooperation with the Rockets was particularly jarring, since the federation president is Hall of Fame center Yao Ming, who starred for the Rockets from 2002 to 2011.

The timing of the controversy could scarcely be more awkward for the NBA, with the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the league's marquee franchises, set to play two exhibition games in mainland China this week against the Brooklyn Nets, whose new owner, Joseph Tsai, is the billionaire co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is scheduled to hold news conferences in both Japan and China later this week.

Basketball has long been China's most popular sport and the NBA has made great efforts to cultivate the audience there, with a market that features hundreds of millions of fans.

The league's biggest stars routinely travel there during the offseasons to promote their sponsorships and in July the league announced a five-year extension of a partnership with Tencent Holdings, a Chinese tech conglomerate, to stream games and other league services in China. This deal is reported to be around US$1.5 billion — although Tencent responded to the controversy on Sunday by announcing that it would not broadcast Rockets games.

Shortly after Mr Morey's initial post, Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the Rockets, rebuked his general manager — also on Twitter — in a post that said: "Listen....@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization."

Mr Fertitta later told ESPN: "I have the best general manager in the league. Everything is fine with Daryl and me. We got a huge backlash, and I wanted to make clear that the organization has no political position. We're here to play basketball and not to offend anybody."

Still, Mr Silver in June acknowledged the complexities in trying to expand the league's presence in China while navigating tricky geopolitics.

"We are not immune from global politics, so it's something we're paying a lot of attention to," Mr Silver said. "I look to sports, and this is something Yao and I have discussed, where we can use basketball maybe in the way Ping-Pong was used in the days of Richard Nixon. There could be something called basketball diplomacy, and it is an area where our two countries have excellent history of cooperation."


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