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LOS ANGELES — It’s still nearly three hours before tipoff of Tuesday night’s season opener between the Lakers and Clippers, and the man in the black surgical mask and backward baseball cap is starting to get antsy.
“You ready?” he asks a fellow volunteer.
Upon receiving a nod, he grabs a bagful of yellow and black “Stand with Hong Kong” T-shirts from the back of a rental truck and walks toward Staples Center in hopes of finding like-minded fans willing to display that message inside the arena.
The man known by the pseudonym “MWG” is one of three activists responsible for organizing the largest-scale protest yet of the NBA’s handling of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s infamous tweet. NBA luminaries have scrambled to appease China ever since, giving the appearance they care more about protecting their financial interests in that lucrative market than defending Morey’s right to speak out on behalf of Hong Kong protesters fighting to avoid total Chinese control.
In the wake of China’s outrage over Morey’s tweet, a Reddit user who goes by the pseudonym of “Sun Lared” posted, “Let’s pass out ‘Free Hong Kong’ T-shirts at Staples Center on Opening Night and make Chinese TV censor the whole audience.” Much to the Northern California resident’s surprise, the GoFundMe page he created to fund his cause raked in $43,000 within 48 hours.
“I thought maybe we could raise enough money to buy a few thousand shirts, but I was blown away by how much support we got,” Lared said. “I think it says a lot about how strongly people feel that American companies shouldn’t self-censor themselves on China’s behalf.
“China thought they could bully the NBA into censoring their employees. To me, that’s something that’s absolutely outrageous and something we should stand up against.”
Overwhelmed by the notion of organizing a demonstration this massive on his own, Lared gladly accepted help from a pair of fellow Reddit users sympathetic to the cause. Los Angeles-area residents “MWG” and “Karpov” helped Lared design and print 13,000 T-shirts, rent a truck to get them to Staples Center and find dozens of fellow volunteers willing to help distribute them.
On Tuesday afternoon, the three men met for the first time in a parking lot across the street from Staples Center. None of the trio revealed their real names to anyone out of fear of harassment on social media or retaliation from the Chinese government against them or friends and family back in Hong Kong. MWG didn’t even tell his mother or girlfriend he was helping to organize a demonstration.
“I don’t want them to worry,” he said.
Lared and Karpov set a conservative goal of at least 1,000 fans wearing the “Stand with Hong Kong” shirts inside the arena, enough to make their presence known and bring attention to their cause. MWG wanted to make an even bigger splash, which is why he spent time earlier in the week scouting the pathways outside Staples Center to identify where the most foot traffic would be.
On Tuesday evening, MWG zipped around the outskirts of the arena, offering encouragement to the teams of volunteers passing out shirts and advising them where to go next. He brought water bottles when the volunteers got thirsty, pamphlets when they ran low or bags of shirts when they were out of a certain size.
“I lived in Hong Kong from 1999-2000 and I loved it,” a man told him after accepting a shirt. “I hope it stays the same.”
Replied MWG, “That’s why we’re here.”
China vs. the NBA
The protest at Staples Center is the largest the NBA has endured since Morey’s tweet, but it’s certainly not the first. Activists have used the league’s arenas for weeks as a platform for their message that U.S. corporations must stop prioritizing making money in the Chinese market over defending the rights of Americans to speak freely on home soil.
Within hours of Morey’s tweet, China countered by attempting to use its economic clout to muzzle not only the Houston Rockets executive but any other outspoken NBA luminaries tempted to speak up on Hong Kong’s behalf. It sent a warning shot, canceling NBA events in Shanghai, halting sponsorship deals and scrapping broadcasts of Rockets games.
Scrambling to protect the hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, the NBA released a statement calling Morey’s tweet “regrettable.” James Harden apologized, the owner of the Houston Rockets publicly rebuked Morey, and LeBron James said Morey “wasn’t educated on the situation.”
In the wake of those comments, several hundred protesters wearing black “Stand with Hong Kong” T-shirts attended the Brooklyn Nets’ final preseason game Friday at the Barclays Center. One fan’s homemade sign targeted LeBron. Another read, “Don’t let China buy our silence. People are dying to be free.”
Among those in attendance that night was Nathan Law, a Yale grad student and former Hong Kong lawmaker who says he was imprisoned for several months in 2017 for his role in pro-democracy protests. According to Law’s Twitter account, the protesters targeted the Nets to “send a signal” to the team’s owner Joseph Tsai, co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, that “the way he followed the CCP’s stigmatization and criticized Morey was disgraceful.”
Supporters of Hong Kong’s democracy movement organized larger-scale protests for the opening week of the NBA regular season, the first of which took place Tuesday night in Toronto before the reigning champion Raptors opened their title defense against the Pelicans. Mimi Lee, a financial adviser who founded the Torontonian HongKongers Action Group, raised enough money to purchase and distribute 7,000 yellow and black T-shirts that read, “The North stands with Hong Kong.”
“We want to make enough noise to show the world what is happening and raise awareness,” Lee said. “I grew up in Hong Kong and I went back to Hong Kong to work for nearly a decade after I graduated, and it’s heartbreaking to see how much things have changed. The majority of our rights have eroded and the Chinese are influencing more and more.”
A similar demonstration is scheduled to take place Thursday in San Francisco when the Golden State Warriors open their new arena. San Francisco resident Lee Bishop raised more than $13,000 via GoFundMe, purchased thousands of blue-and-yellow “Free Hong Kong” shirts and found more than 80 volunteers to help him pass them out.
“I think it’s extremely hypocritical that the NBA and its players are turning a blind eye to human rights violations,” Bishop said. “I just hope that everyone who is going to the game will embrace the message and stand up for what’s right. It will be great to let this broadcast go across the globe and let the world see that America stands with Hong Kong.”
‘You can’t put a price on freedom’
In Los Angeles, the organizers of the Staples Center protest had a lot to smile about as they observed their teams of volunteers handing out shirts. Some Lakers and Clippers fans were apathetic. Others were too excited about the upcoming season not to display team colors or too fashion-conscious to don a free T-shirt. But many people of all ages and races embraced the cause and slipped the pro-Hong Kong shirts over whatever they were wearing.
A hostess at a restaurant adjacent to Staples Center snuck away from her post long enough to grab T-shirts for herself and three colleagues. Moments later, a man in a faded Nick Van Exel jersey asked for an extra large. Up next was a dad who took a shirt for himself and his son and explained, “You can’t put a price on freedom.”
“I think this particular protest has a lot more to do with freedom of speech in the U.S. than anything to do with Hong Kong,” Karpov said. “This is our turf in the U.S. This is our people exercising their most fundamental right of freedom of speech. I don’t know how it happened that a country that has a business relationship with us can now determine what we say.”
For the three organizers of the protest, the confrontation between the NBA and China will impact their basketball fandom in different ways.
MWG remains a diehard Lakers fan, though he’s disappointed in the team’s handling of this issue. Karpov wonders if he can continue to support the Lakers or watch the NBA at all given their attempts to get back in China’s good graces. Lared will remain a Golden State Warriors fan, but he now has a second team he’ll support this season.
“I’m going to be a Rockets fan too this season,” Lared said. “They’ve been blacklisted in China, so I feel like as an American I’m going to try to counteract that a little bit.”
Each time Karpov, MWG and Lared returned to the rental truck throughout the evening, the pile of T-shirts outside kept getting smaller and smaller. At 6 p.m. Tuesday night, the protesters had distributed roughly half the 13,000 shirts they ordered. By tipoff, not many boxes of T-shirts remained.
There was far more Clippers red and blue, or Lakers purple and gold in Staples Center than there were fans clad in “Stand with Hong Kong” shirts, but the smattering of people wearing them was enough for the organizers of the protest to be satisfied. One kid even tricked the Staples Center video board operators into showing his “Stand with Hong Kong” shirt on the dance cam.
“Even if they don’t all wear them at the game and they wear them at the mall or the park, that’s spreading awareness,” Karpov said. “Hopefully the impact will be felt days and weeks after.”
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