Daryl Morey tweeted a simple enough message: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” What followed was an absolute fiasco that, by Monday, had morphed into a full-blown international incident involving U.S. senators and presidential candidates.
Morey is the longtime general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, a team that developed a large presence and fanbase in China after drafting Chinese star Yao Ming in 2002. Morey was voicing his support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, who for months have been demonstrating for months against Beijing’s encroaching power in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
China brought the hammer down on the Rockets after Morey’s tweet, which he quickly deleted. The Chinese Basketball Association and Tencent Sports, which streams NBA games in China, cut ties with the Rockets. Sportswear brand Li-Ning, sponsor SPD Bank, and other Chinese businesses suspended their relationships with the franchise as well. Chinese fans posted angry messages in response to Morey’s tweet, which quickly went viral in China.
Morey tweeted the Hong Kong message as the team was in the middle of a preseason trip in Japan. Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta quickly tried to walk it back.
“Listen, Daryl Morey does NOT speak for the Houston Rockets,” he wrote on Twitter. “Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.”
The NBA walked the line carefully, throwing mild support behind Morey while also making sure to placate China.
“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,” read a statement from the league on Sunday.
But folks were quick to point a Chinese language version of the statement said the league was "extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment.”
It’s a sign of the NBA’s reluctance to piss off China, a huge market with millions upon millions of basketball fans. The league is focusing on growing its presence in the country, and the NBA’s biggest stars often spend a good portion of their offseason in China, making inroads with fans and hawking sneakers. As a result, the full-court press from the Chinese government and Chinese fans put a lot of pressure on Houston.
Morey apologized for the tweet on Sunday, saying he “did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China” and that he was “merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event.”
But Morey’s apology didn’t solve anything, and by Monday, the firestorm had only grown in scope. The two-sentence, mostly generic tweet from Morey had taken on a life of its own. U.S. senators like Ted Cruz, Ben Sasse and Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer, for instance, all rushed to condemn the NBA for not standing up to China.
“No one should implement a gag rule on Americans speaking out for freedom,” tweeted Schumer.
Houston star and former NBA MVP James Harden tried to smooth things over on Monday, saying to ESPN that the Rockets appreciates their Chinese fans. And that means saying they’re sorry for his own GM’s support of pro-Democracy protesters.
"We apologize,” Harden said.“You know, we love China. We love playing there.”
Cover: Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) gets by Los Angeles Clippers shooting guard Jerome Robinson (1) during the first quarter of an NBA preseason basketball game, Thursday, Oct 3, 2019, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)