Oct 9, 2019

The basketball tweet that set off a geopolitical firestorm

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Every so often, a sports story breaks into the mainstream, and sportswriters begin to salivate at the chance to write about a topic that's "bigger than sports." The NBA-China story is something else entirely.

The big picture: This is a high-stakes political battle between the world's most populous country and one of America's most visible entities, with its 2 newest owners, Tilman Fertitta and Joe Tsai, playing major roles.

  • Meanwhile, LeBron James — the face of the NBA and one of the most outspoken athletes in all of sports — is literally in China as we speak, preparing to play a set of preseason games (if they don't get canceled).

Why it matters: For years, journalists and politicians have been trying to alert the U.S. public to the China threat. In the end, it may have been a since-deleted tweet from an NBA general manager that finally woke Americans up.

  • "Coverage of [Morey's tweet], and the response to it from China and the NBA, has already earned more attention than dozens of other stories in recent years documenting similar questionable relationships between U.S.-based companies and Beijing," writes CNBC's Jake Novak.

The latest: The Chinese government has canceled the Nets and Lakers fan events, and their 2 preseason games — scheduled for Thursday in Shanghai and Saturday in Shenzhen — could be next, with fans calling for a boycott.

  • "I would be shocked if these Lakers-Nets games happen in China. There's a growing fear of protests and drawing police presence. And I don't see what the upside is for the NBA, at this point," tweets ESPN's Pablo Torre.

What they're saying:

  • On NBA critics: "It's more than a little ludicrous for everyone from Ted Cruz to Beto O'Rourke to suddenly hand the NBA and the Rockets the tab for American toadying to authoritarians in Beijing. ... Yes, the NBA has made a mutually beneficial commercial accommodation with China. … You have a problem with that or consider it gutless? Then you have a problem with literally hundreds of American companies." (Sally Jenkins, WashPost)
  • On Adam Silver: "The long honeymoon between Silver and the media is officially over. ... For sportswriters, it's almost a relief. We can start covering Silver like a sports commissioner, not like our pal." (Bryan Curtis, The Ringer)
  • On Silver's upcoming meetings: "[I]t is wonderful that he is due to be hobnobbing with powerbrokers in Shanghai and Shenzhen over the next few days. This is the equivalent of your warring relatives all sitting down together at the same wedding. Get a little water under the bridge, you know? They need each other and couldn't break up if they tried." (Henry Abbott, TrueHoop)

Go deeper:

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Lakers-Nets game tips off in China

LeBron James during pregame warmups in Shanghai. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

Thursday's game between the Lakers and Nets proceeded as scheduled, but the Chinese government will not allow players or coaches to talk to the media before or after the game. In addition, Adam Silver's pre-game press conference was canceled.

The big picture: This is a high-stakes political battle between the world's most populous country and one of America's most visible entities, with its 2 newest owners, Tilman Fertitta and Joe Tsai, playing major roles.

Go deeperArrowOct 10, 2019

NBA suspends media availabilities for rest of its China trip

The NBA flagship store in Beijing. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The NBA cancelled all media availabilities for the rest of its China trip ahead of this weekend's game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets in Shenzhen, reports ESPN.

"We have decided not to hold media availability for our teams for the remainder of our trip in China. They have been placed into a complicated and unprecedented situation while abroad and we believe it would be unfair to ask them to address these matters in real time."
— The NBA's official statement, per ESPN
Go deeperArrowOct 11, 2019

Major Nike stores in China no longer selling Houston Rockets gear

A Chinese flag is seen placed on merchandise in the NBA flagship retail store this week in Beijing, China. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Merchandise from the NBA's Houston Rockets has been pulled from several Nike stores in China in the wake of a controversy over a tweet by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, Reuters reports.

Why it matters: China is Nike's top source of revenue growth, per Reuters. The Houston Rockets have an especially large following in China thanks to the success of Yao Ming, a former Rockets player who now heads the China Basketball Association.

Go deeperArrowOct 10, 2019