SHANGHAI — The NBA’s relationship with basketball-mad China is frayed. Now the league has to see if it’s permanently broken.
Clearly U.S.-Sino relations are going through some drama, from trade wars to tariffs to tweets. The fundamental rift between communism and the American bedrock of free speech has bled over into basketball, threatening this week’s Nets-Lakers games, and much more.
China’s communist government is up in arms after Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted a meme urging people to “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong,” and was further incensed by NBA commissioner Adam Silver backing Morey’s freedom of speech.
And after the government shut down community appearances by both the Nets and Lakers in Shanghai on Wednesday, over 200 media members packed into the lobby of a luxury hotel waiting for the Nets and Lakers to speak, only to have both press conferences scraped. It left their games Thursday here and Saturday in Shenzen in doubt.
That doubt was best summed up by cranes taking down NBA banners throughout the city and a huge poster that was wrapped around a building in front of the teams’ hotel being removed.
As Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie walked into the Ritz Carlton in the Pudong neighborhood, he looked up and saw the towering poster half-gone, with likenesses of himself, Joe Harris and Caris LeVert having been stripped off by workers.
It was emblematic of the NBA’s fractured relationship with this country that just a week ago loved the league.
But that was before Morey, who may well have fired off the single most expensive tweet in history.
Houston had been the most popular U.S.-based team in China, thanks to Yao Ming. But that’s past tense.
The Rockets went right from popular to pariahs in China, with Houston murals being painted over in Shanghai, their merchandise being yanked off shelves and sponsorships getting pulled.
Even the Chinese Basketball Association suspended its cooperation with Houston, despite being led by Ming himself. There have been reports that Silver and Ming were meeting to try to iron out the situation, but it’s unclear if that ever happened or even if it will.
And caught in the middle is Nets owner Joe Tsai, who lives in Hong Kong and is on the board of NBA China, but also owns an NBA team – one whose preseason games have been taken off Chinese TV and are in jeopardy.
“Chinese Central Television just said they’re not going to broadcast our game. It’s unfortunate. It’s kind of a day-to-day (situation),” Tsai told The Post during a lengthy one-on-one interview.
“It’s definitely a third-rail issue for Chinese people on the mainland.”
Tuesday saw a Nets community event at a school cancelled by the government and the Shanghai Daily front page blared “Rockets in flames over HK comments.” It just got worse Wednesday, with a Lakers event and both teams’ planned media availability scrapped.
The NBA has earned a reputation for fostering free speech among its employees, and is viewed as the most woke of the U.S. leagues. But it’s finding out that free speech doesn’t mean consequence-free.
While many in China seem to want Morey fired, the obvious stance stateside is that the league can’t and shouldn’t censor Morey or apologize for his words. Even players who’ve been political before like LeBron James have been quiet, perhaps aware of hurting their brands.
Despite the best efforts of Tsai, the Rockets’ problem has become an NBA problem. And a costly one.
After all, China is the NBA’s top international market. It’s getting $1.5 billion over five years from Tencent to stream games in China, which has more NBA fans than the U.S. has people. It’ll add more from merchandising, shown by the fact Kevin Durant sells more shoes here than in the U.S.
“We’re here to play basketball,” Tsai told The Post. “We’re here to entertain the fans and develop our affinity with the Chinese fans.”
It remains to be seen if they’ll get that chance.