LeBron James has come under fire among Hong Kong protesters for quotes in which he appeared to side with China, rather than the anti-government supporters currently demonstrating in the country.
Around 200 people gathered to chant obscenities about the LA Lakers star, set fire to replica jerseys and stick a picture of him to a backboard before shooting basketballs off it. They also sang support for Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, whose tweet supporting them led to James’ comments.
Speaking to reporters in Los Angeles on Monday, James said: “I don’t want to get into a feud with Daryl but I believe he wasn’t educated about the situation at hand and he spoke.
“Just be careful what we tweet ... even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech. But there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.
“I’m not here to judge how the league handled the situation. I just think that, when you’re misinformed or you’re not educated about something – and I’m just talking about the tweet itself – you never know the ramifications that can happen. We all see what that did, not only did for our league but for all of us in America, for people in China as well.
“Sometimes you have to think through the things that you say that may cause harm not only for yourself but for the majority of people. I think that’s just a prime example of that.”
William Mok, one of the group protesting, said: "Please remember, all NBA players, what you said before: 'Black lives matter.' Hong Kong lives also matter.”
Last week Morey tweeted support for the protesters on his personal account. It read: "Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong".
It was swiftly deleted, but caused a rift within the NBA because of their commercial interests – regarding broadcast and sponsorship deals – in China.
A number of NBA teams, including the Rockets and Lakers, were in China to play pre-season games, but players were banned from speaking before or after in press conferences. Authorities in the country also banned the broadcast of the games on state television and canceled publicity events, all as a result of Morley’s tweet.
The sport is big business in China. According to Bloomberg, there are 500 million basketball fans in the country.
It’s estimated that this current dispute with China could in fact affect the league’s salary cap, depressing it down by up to 15%, thereby potentially decreasing player wages. At least five NBA teams are having their salary cap team plan for a scenario in which the cap for the 2020-21 season could drop as a result.
The NBA’s official response was to call it ‘regrettable’, despite its commissioner, Adam Silver, vowing that the NBA won’t regulate speech. Prominent stars within the league, such as James or Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, have often been allowed to speak on political matters, but have declined to speak about the current protests happening in Hong Kong.
James’ comments also brought about a response from the Senate. Republican Senator Josh Hawley tweeted: "Having just been in Hong Kong – on the streets & with the protestors – this kind of garbage is hard to take. LeBron, are YOU educated on 'the situation'? Why don’t you go to Hong Kong? Why don’t you meet the people there (sic) risking their lives for their most basic liberties."
He added: "This statement is unbelievable. 'So many people could have been harmed'? By Daryl Morey daring to express sympathy for democracy? News flash: people ARE being harmed - shot, beaten, gassed - right now in Hong Kong. By China. By the Communist Party the NBA is so eager to appease."
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