A tweet by the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team supporting the Hong Kong protests has sparked outrage in China, leaving the team and the NBA scrambling to limit the damage in the league’s fastest growing market.
Daryl Morey posted an image on Twitter — which is blocked in China — with the words “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” on Friday evening, echoing a common refrain of the demonstrators whose four-month stand-off with authorities has plunged the city into political crisis.
Mr Morey quickly deleted the tweet and wrote he did not intend “to cause any offence” but that did not stop an outpouring of anger in the country, with commercial partners quickly cutting their ties with the team.
The Chinese Basketball Association suspended all partnerships with the Rockets over Mr Morey’s “improper remarks”, setting off similar moves from the NBA’s two main distributors in China and state broadcaster CCTV.
Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, the Rockets’ main China sponsor, suspended its partnership and sportswear brand Li-Ning cut off all business with the team.
The NBA has aggressively sought to build its presence in China to tap into country’s vast number of diehard basketball fans. Almost 500m Chinese livestreamed games on platforms owned by tech group Tencent last season, with the two sides recently renewing streaming rights for five years.
The NBA distanced itself from Mr Morey’s comment, saying in a statement that the offence it caused was “regrettable” and asserting that it had “great respect for the history and culture of China”.
But the response failed to assuage the outrage in China and drew bipartisan criticism in Washington. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican senator, wrote on Twitter that the NBA was “shamefully retreating” in pursuit of “big $$”. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat congressman, accused Beijing of “using its economic power to censor speech by Americans”, and said the NBA’s response was “shameful and cannot stand”.
Joe Tsai, co-founder of Chinese technology group Alibaba and owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, wrote an open letter on Facebook explaining why Mr Morey’s tweet was “so damaging”.
“The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable,” he wrote.
The Houston Rockets are a favourite among of Chinese fans, in part due to the legacy of former star Yao Ming, China’s best-known player who is now head of China’s basketball association and who spent his entire NBA career with the team.
Mr Morey, who has been the Rockets’ general manager since 2007, is known for his strategic focus on analytics and efficiency. He is nicknamed “Moreyball” in an echo of the “Moneyball” strategy first deployed by the Oakland Athletics baseball team in the early 2000s.
During his tenure, the Rockets have reached the playoffs nine times and he was named NBA executive of the year in 2018.
A hashtag asking whether Mr Morey would be fired was trending on China’s microblog platform Weibo after China’s state broadcaster released a clip on social media saying that the Rockets risked being “taken off the shelves” in the country.
“Morey, this time you have really broken the rules. When you foul, you must pay the price. If you fail to change after the foul, then you’ll be sent from the court,” said CCTV news anchor Kang Hui.