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The NBA faces a geopolitical crisis with China over a single tweet

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A single tweet from Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey escalated into a geopolitical crisis over the weekend, pitting America's democratic ideals and the NBA's progressive brand against the influence of Chinese money.

The backdrop: On Friday night, Morey tweeted an image that read "Fight for Freedom. Stand for Hong Kong" in reference to the pro-democracy protests that have been going on there for months.

  • He quickly deleted the tweet after it caused an uproar, and Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta followed that up by publicly clarifying (on Twitter, of course) that Morey was "NOT" speaking for the Rockets and that the organization was "NOT" political.
  • Morey apologized on Sunday, tweeting that he was "merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event." But the damage had already been done.

The backlash: The Chinese government, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) and multiple Chinese businesses have severed ties with the Rockets.

  • The most shocking: Months after paying billions of dollars to extend its streaming deal with the NBA, Tencent Holdings has "suspended all reports/streaming of Houston Rockets." For reference, nearly 500 million people in China watched the NBA on Tencent last season. It's basically their "League Pass," and now the Rockets are effectively banned.
  • As for the CBA severing ties, that was particularly notable since its president is Yao Ming — one of the best players in Rockets history and the man responsible for making them (and the NBA) so popular in China.
  • Meanwhile, on the Rockets' front, The Ringer reports that ownership has "absolutely discussed" whether Morey should be removed, and 2 people I spoke with said they expect Morey could be gone by tomorrow unless the NBA steps up and supports him.

The stakes: The NBA views China as the key to future international growth and has significant business interests there.

  • At the same time, it has positioned itself as the most progressive of the major American sports leagues by supporting social activism and letting players have their own voice. Will those values be upheld now that the league's bottom line stands to be affected?

B/R's Howard Beck, via Twitter: "I understand financial/political realities at work here. But Morey was simply advocating for civil/humanitarian rights — the same values the NBA regularly espouses and purportedly stands for. If the league allows a team official to be fired for doing so, it undermines it all."

The NBA's response: NBA commissioner Adam Silver will be in China this week to watch the Lakers and Nets play 2 preseason games, so this story could develop quickly. For now, here's the league's official statement:

  • "We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.
  • "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.
  • "We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together."

What they're saying:

  • Texas Sen. Ted Cruz: "As a lifelong Houston Rockets fan, I was proud to see [Daryl Morey] call out the Chinese Communist Party's repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong. ... We're better than this; human rights shouldn't be for sale & the NBA shouldn't be assisting Chinese communist censorship."
  • Nets owner and Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai: "I don't know Daryl personally. 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."

The bottom line: A high-stakes showdown with a foreign government is far beyond anything the NBA has had to navigate in the past, but there's no running from this — and the league's actions over the next few days will speak volumes.

Go deeper: China is searching for NBA success