China has reacted with fury after the general manager of basketball team Houston Rockets tweeted his support for the protests in Hong Kong.
Basketball is hugely popular in China, and highly profitable for the US sport’s governing body, the National Basketball Association (NBA). Furthermore, the Chinese Basketball Association president is currently Yao Ming, who played with the Rockets from 2002 to 2011. Yao’s NBA success made the Rockets a favourite among Chinese fans.
Rockets' manager Daryl Morey ignited controversy on Friday by re-tweeting an image which was captioned: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
He deleted the tweet, and the team’s owner, Tillman Fertitta, quickly distanced the team from Mr Morey’s tweet.
Mr Morey - one of the league’s most visible officials on social media, with over 200,000 followers – then backtracked, stating: “I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event” and emphasising that his words were “my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”
1/ I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. 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.
— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) October 7, 2019
His contrition did not quell the anger, however, and Chinese sponsors announced they were withdrawing their support. Shoe company Li Ning and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Card Center both said on Sunday that they were “pausing their partnerships” with the Rockets.
The Chinese Basketball Association said it was suspending cooperation with the team, and the Chinese consulate in Houston issued a statement expressing anger.
The NBA on Sunday night described Mr Morey’s statement as “regrettable” in having “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China”.
The NBA, long known as the most tolerant of sports leagues, defended Mr Morey’s right to freedom of expression.
But in a Chinese-language statement posted on Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese social network, the league took a different tone, saying it was “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment.”
“He has undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans,” the statement read, echoing a common trope seen in the Chinese state media.
The timing is awkward for the NBA, with two of its most celebrated teams, the LA Lakers and the Nets, due to travel to the country this week to play two exhibition games.
Joseph Tsai, the new co-owner of the Nets and the billionaire co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, attempted to make amends, describing Mr Morey as being ill-advised.
He referred to the protests as a “separatist movement,” a common sentiment in China but a label the demonstrators deny, and framed the movement as a matter of “territorial integrity of China,” though most protesters insist they are uninterested in independence.
“I don’t know Daryl personally,” he said.
“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.”