The NBA said it hopes the league can help to unify people and cultural divides while maintaining an openness to a flow of ideas as it weighed in Sunday on the controversy surrounding Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey after he voiced support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
“We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable,” the NBA said in the statement released Sunday night. “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.”
China’s official basketball association, headed by Hall of Famer and Rockets great Yao Ming, said earlier in the day that it would suspend cooperation with the team. Chinese state television and Tencent, a major media partner with ESPN and the NBA in China with a streaming deal that is worth $1.5 billion total over the next five years, then said they would not be showing Rockets games.
The Chinese Basketball Association said on its Twitter-like Weibo account that Morey had made “improper remarks regarding Hong Kong” to which it expressed its “strong opposition.”
Morey’s now-deleted tweet from Friday read: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
“We have great respect for the history and culture of China,” the NBA said in its statement, “and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
In a statement tweeted Sunday, Morey attempted to clarify the matter.
“I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” Morey said in the statement. “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.”
It wasn’t immediately clear if Morey’s new tweets or the NBA’s statement would be enough to salvage the various relationships. Chinese athletic apparel maker Li-Ning also released a statement, saying it was upset with Morey’s tweet.
A statement posted on the league’s Weibo account in China was translated to say the league was “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment.”
“He has undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans,” the statement read, in language similar to what is sometimes seen in Chinese state media. The NBA later clarified it put out one statement — in English.
China’s relationship with the Rockets has been especially close because Yao played his entire NBA career with the team. Yao was appointed as the basketball association’s president in February 2017, in what was presented as a step toward reform for an organization that had in the past been led by government bureaucrats.
“I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided,” Morey tweeted. “And I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”
The reactions to Morey’s tweet underscores Beijing’s extreme sensitivity about foreign attitudes toward the ongoing protests that have lately grown into violence in the semi-autonomous territory. China accuses foreign parties in the United States and elsewhere of encouraging the demonstrations.
On Friday night, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta denounced Morey’s tweet, saying the Rockets are not a political organization.
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. @espn https://t.co/yNyQFtwTTi
— Tilman Fertitta (@TilmanJFertitta) October 5, 2019
Fertitta told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon that he felt compelled, due to the reaction to Morey’s tweet, to publicly clarify that the Rockets do not take political positions, but Fertitta stressed he has no issues with Morey.
“I have the best general manager in the league,” Fertitta said. “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.”
The statements from Morey and the NBA caught the eyes of lawmakers, including no fewer than three U.S. Senators — Ted Cruz of Texas, Rick Scott of Florida and Brian Schatz of Hawaii.
“We’re better than this; human rights shouldn’t be for sale & the NBA shouldn’t be assisting Chinese communist censorship,” tweeted Cruz, who said he is a lifelong Rockets fan.
Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro, a former U.S. Housing Secretary from Texas, tweeted “China is using its economic power to silence critics — even those in the U.S.”
The timing is particularly awkward for the NBA, whose players have often been outspoken on social issues in the United States. China has teams playing preseason games in the U.S. this week, the Rockets are about to play two games in Japan, and the Los Angeles Lakers — with one of the biggest global sports stars in LeBron James — and Brooklyn Nets are set to play Thursday in Shanghai and Saturday in Shenzhen, China.
“We apologize. You know, we love China, we love playing there,” Harden said. “For both of us individually, we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most important love. We appreciate them as a fan base. We love everything there about them and we appreciate the support that they give us individually and as organization.”
Nets owner Joe Tsai is a co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, and posted a 736-word open letter on his Facebook page late Sunday night saying Morey stepped on what he described as “a third-rail issue” when it comes to China and Hong Kong.
“By now I hope you can begin to understand why the Daryl Morey tweet is so damaging to the relationship with our fans in China,” Tsai wrote. “I don’t know Daryl personally. I am sure he’s a fine NBA general manager, and I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been. But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”
Fostering strong relationships with China has been a priority of the NBA for at least three decades. The NBA has a China office, just announced plans to add a gaming team in Shanghai to the NBA 2K League, and officials in both countries say as many as 500 million Chinese watched at least one NBA game last season.
Several NBA players — including major current and former stars such as Stephen Curry and Kobe Bryant — go to China annually to promote their individual brands, and the World Cup held in China earlier this summer saw countless fans attending in NBA jerseys.
The Rockets, largely because of Yao, have an enormous Chinese following. But after Morey’s tweet, even the Chinese government’s consulate office in Houston issued a statement saying it “expressed strong dissatisfaction” with the team.
“We have lodged representations and expressed strong dissatisfaction with the Houston Rockets, and urged the latter to correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact,” the consulate general’s office said in a statement Sunday.
The consulate did not specify what exactly it is seeking from the Rockets, and there was no immediate follow-up statement after Morey’s attempt to clarify his thoughts.
The Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, said in a commentary that Morey’s position was “hurtful to Chinese basketball fans and is also an affront to the Chinese people.”
People’s Daily also noted multinational corporations that likewise tested the line on Hong Kong have “paid a heavy price.” Cathay Pacific lost two executives after China warned the Hong Kong airline that its employees would be barred from flying over or to the mainland if they joined the protests.
After being criticized by Chinese social media users, fashion brands Givenchy, Versace and Coach apologized for selling T-shirts that showed Hong Kong, as well as the Chinese territory of Macau and self-ruled Taiwan, as separate countries.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.