The NBA called off scheduled media sessions Wednesday for the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers in Shanghai, and it remains unclear if the teams will play in China this week as scheduled.
The teams were practicing in Shanghai, where at least two other NBA events in advance of the start of the China games were canceled as part of the ongoing rift that started after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet last week that showed support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.
“Given the fluidity of the situation, today’s media availability has been postponed,” the league said. By nightfall Wednesday in China, which is 12 hours ahead of Eastern time in the U.S., the availabilities had not been rescheduled — though having them on Thursday remains possible.
An NBA Cares event in Shanghai that was to benefit Special Olympics was called off, as was a “fan night” celebration that was to be highlighted by the league announcing plans to refurbish some outdoor courts in that city. And workers in multiple spots around Shanghai were tearing down large outdoor promotional advertisements for Thursday’s Lakers-Nets game.
The teams are also supposed to play Saturday in Shenzhen. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver met with players from both the Nets and Lakers on Wednesday in Shanghai, telling them that the league’s intention remains to play the games as scheduled.
Chinese smartphone maker Vivo has joined the list of companies that have suspended — for now, at least — ties with the NBA, and that only adds to the uncertainty over whether the China games will be played. Vivo was a presenting sponsor of the Lakers-Nets games, and on Wednesday there was no reference to the game in Shanghai on the list of upcoming events scheduled at Mercedes-Benz Arena. Other firms such as apparel company Li-Ning announced similar moves earlier this week, as the rift was just beginning.
Silver said Tuesday in Tokyo that he supports Morey’s right to free speech. Several Chinese companies have suspended their partnership with the NBA in recent days, and Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said it will not broadcast the Lakers-Nets games.
“I’m sympathetic to our interests here and to our partners who are upset,” Silver said. “I don’t think it’s inconsistent on one hand to be sympathetic to them and at the same time stand by our principles.”
All around China, stores that sell NBA merchandise were removing Rockets-related apparel from shelves and many murals featuring the Rockets — even ones with Yao Ming, the Chinese great who played for Houston during his NBA career — were being painted over.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich spoke out Tuesday in Miami in support of how Silver is handling the situation.
“And it wasn’t easy for him to say,” Popovich said. “He said that in an environment fraught with possible economic peril. But he sided with the principles that we all hold dearly, or most of us did until the last three years. So I’m thrilled with what he said.”
Other NBA coaches have not been so willing to discuss the situation. Philadelphia’s Brett Brown said he did not wish to get into specifics of the China-NBA rift, though he said he has been to that country many times and is always blown away by how popular the game is there.
“Just massive amounts of basketball courts and you’re looking out and there’s no available court,” Brown said. “It’s just people playing on a court. I took a (lower-level) Australian team to China and the story comes there was 400 million viewers watching not the true national team. You’re just reminded of the popularity of the sport.”
Brown’s 76ers played a Chinese team — the Guangzhou Loong Lions — on Tuesday night, and two fans said they were removed by arena security for holding signs and chanting in support of Hong Kong. The signs read “Free Hong Kong” and “Free HK.”
The sentiment was not different from Morey’s since-deleted tweet last week of an image that read, “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.”
The NBA is not the first major corporation to deal with criticism from China over political differences. Mercedes-Benz, Delta Air Lines, hotel operator Marriott, fashion brand Zara and others also have found themselves in conflicts with China in recent years.
After Morey’s tweet was deleted, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said Morey does not speak for the organization. Joe Tsai, who recently completed his purchase of the Nets and is a co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, has said the damage to the NBA’s relationship with China “will take a long time to repair.”