China Conflict Mutes N.B.A.’s New-Season Buzz

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This embryonic N.B.A. season has already given us Trae Young dribbling through J.J. Redick’s legs, Ben Simmons swishing a 3-pointer as if he always makes them and Zion Williamson rumbling for 29 points in his second pro game — with only one miss in 13 shots.

The problem with preseason basketball, of course, is that none of it actually counts. The problem with this preseason, in particular, is that the tension and chaos emanating from China all week very much counts.

It won’t show up anywhere in the standings once the N.B.A.’s highly anticipated regular season begins Oct. 22, but the fallout from the league’s sudden conflict with its second-most important market is sure to linger. The pros and cons of doing business in China are a matter of public debate like never before, with cultural, political and potential multimillion-dollar financial implications and far too much heft to fade as quickly as gaudy preseason statistics.

Perhaps under different circumstances, a Twitter post supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters wouldn’t have sparked such fury. But the message from the Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, to “fight for freedom” and “stand with Hong Kong” landed amid the animus of a monthslong trade war between the United States and China. Morey also decided to press send right before the Brooklyn Nets, the Los Angeles Lakers and a cadre of league officials, led by Commissioner Adam Silver, headed to China for the league’s annual exhibition series there.

An extensive sponsor and media boycott of the Rockets soon spiraled. China’s punitive response could cost the Rockets around $25 million in sponsorship losses this season, according to one person with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to discuss it publicly. It didn’t take long for a number of rival teams to start besieging the league for estimates of how much they stand to lose, too. Yahoo Sports reported Wednesday that at least five unnamed teams fear that the $116 million salary cap projected for the 2020-21 season could drop by as much as 10 to 15 percent.

The league, hopeful as it is that the conflict is indeed thawing, understands all too well how fragile its relations with China are after nearly 40 years of harmony. That was evident on Thursday, when local officials let the Lakers and the Nets play an exhibition in Shanghai — but only after scrubbing all Chinese sponsors from the event and removing the broadcast from state-run television.

The Rockets, largely because of Yao Ming, were essentially China’s team throughout the Hall of Fame center’s career. Various factions in China, in response to Morey’s tweet, initially sought two conciliatory gestures they appear increasingly unlikely to get: a public apology from Silver and/or Morey’s ouster (or resignation).

Yet there were some signs, leading into the Nets-Lakers rematch on Saturday in Shenzen, that outrage from the Chinese government had begun to soften. The Chinese authorities, typically relentless in coercing American businesses to publicly apologize in such disputes, no longer appear quite so determined to make the N.B.A. grovel and squirm in fear of losing what has been conservatively estimated at $500 million in annual revenue.

As The New York Times’ Keith Bradsher and Javier C. Hernandez reported Thursday, government officials in China had begun to “tamp down public anger” aimed at the N.B.A. “after three days of fanning nationalistic outrage.” Chinese officials apparently fear that too much rhetoric could damage the country’s image ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics outside Beijing. The dispute has spread awareness in the United States of the ongoing Hong Kong protests; one player on the China tour who requested anonymity estimated that “90 percent of the league didn’t even know what was going on a week ago.”

The whole league is aware now. But deciding how to handle questions about China is merely one matter for players to contemplate.

While front offices fret over potential lost revenue, star players inevitably wonder how the N.B.A.’s fraught relationship with China will affect shoe sales and promotional summer tours there that the likes of Stephen Curry (Under Armour), LeBron James (Nike) and James Harden (Adidas) are known to make. Curry said that he was not yet sure, after six consecutive off-season trips, how soon he will return — while further uncertainty surrounded the handful of players who endorse Chinese shoe manufacturers.

That group includes Curry’s teammate Klay Thompson, who earns an estimated $9 million per season from the Chinese brand Anta. Several players command between $2 million and $10 million annually from Chinese companies such as Anta, Li-Ning and Peak, according to two people familiar with shoe contract negotiations who were not authorized to discuss them publicly.

“The presumption that there’s been an immediate loss — I think that number is much lower than the crazy numbers that have been thrown around,” said Rick Burton, a professor of sports management at Syracuse University’s Falk College. “The fact that a preseason game was pulled from being on air in China, or the fact that some sponsors have temporarily pulled out, I think that amount is relatively small. The bigger question is what’s the long-term ripple effect here.”

How soon Chinese media outlets will resume their blanket (and lucrative) coverage of the league is a primary issue diverting attention from on-court matters. Discourse about widespread silence in a league that prides itself on its social activism and awareness is another.

Curry and Warriors Coach Steve Kerr are among the high-profile N.B.A. personalities who have absorbed considerable domestic criticism for curbing their usual willingness to speak out on social issues — prompting cries that they are doing so to avoid further damage to the league’s business interests.

The National Basketball Players Association has likewise opted for silence since the controversy unspooled. Notably quiet are the shoe company giants Nike and Adidas, who rely on robust sales in China for a healthy chunk of revenue.

“Our presence in China is a different conversation than Coach talking about gun violence or gender equality or things that for us are being spokespeople for people who can’t speak for themselves,” Curry said when asked about Kerr’s reluctance to discuss the China controversy in depth. “Within our communities, that makes a huge impact.

“This situation has a huge weight and gravity to it and so many things that need to be sorted out, but I just don’t know enough about Chinese history and how that’s influenced modern society enough to speak on it. That’s where we’re at today. I’m sure this is not going away, so we’ll come back to it.”

Burton, more than most, may understand the complicated factors at play, and the diplomatic needle Silver is trying to thread. Burton was the commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League for four years and the chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

“Somebody at the highest levels of the Chinese government is angry with the N.B.A., so this is not like dealing with an owner, where you’ve got to deal with Mark Cuban or Steve Ballmer,” Burton said. “This is having to figure out: ‘Can I reach the people in charge of the country and assure them that this will never happen again?’”

These are the sorts of questions suddenly smothering this league. Opening night is less than two weeks away, but Simmons’s quest for his first official N.B.A. 3-pointer and the Zion phenomenon are not yet primary sources of curiosity. Neither is the most wide-open championship chase in years — not even after the wildest off-season of roster upheaval ever.

As close as we are to the games that do count, geopolitical questions dominate the floor.

N.B.A.-China Spat Shows Sports Isn’t (and Shouldn’t Be) Just About Games

The myth of sports sticking to sports died this week, from self-inflicted wounds and a global outbreak of compromised values.

In the end, it never had a chance — even though some fans have trouble letting go of the idea.

Memorial services were held at an N.B.A. news conference where a reporter asked a timely question of two stars from the Houston Rockets.

“The N.B.A. has always been a league that prides itself on its players and coaches being able to speak out openly about political and societal affairs,” the reporter said. “I just wonder if after the events of this week, and the fallout we’ve seen, whether you both would feel differently about speaking out in that way in the future?”

A team representative chimed in immediately, saying they were accepting “basketball questions only.”

Irony died on the spot. (The league later apologized.)

Just days before, the two players, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, stood in front of reporters as Harden said “We love China” and apologized after the team’s general manager, in a post on Twitter, expressed support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.

This time, Harden and Westbrook looked down blankly from the dais, as if someone had unplugged them.

Confused? You must be new to the sports world.

The fragility of the N.B.A.’s courtship with China — like many fraught relationships, built on desire, mostly of money — has been exposed. Suddenly the N.B.A. has gone as tongue-tied as middle-schoolers at their first dance.

It is a global story, complicated by philosophical notions like “morals,” “rights” and “courage,” and other things that can’t be neatly calculated on a scoreboard.

But it is not a rare story. It is just another week in sports.

The flap highlights the collisions that regularly occur at the busy intersection of sports and politics, where no one has figured out a reliable system of traffic lights. (And forget four-way stops — let’s take turns! — because no one truly understands four-way stops.)

There have been plenty of other wrecks at this spot, just in the past week or two, reminding fans why sports is such rubbernecking fun.

The state of California crashed into the N.C.A.A.’s controlled view of college amateurism, threatening to upend the model entirely.

Rihanna confirmed that she turned down a Super Bowl halftime spot in the name of Colin Kaepernick, telling Vogue: “I just couldn’t be a sellout. I couldn’t be an enabler.”

The Atlanta Braves canceled plans to give out red foam “tomahawks” for a playoff game after St. Louis pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of Cherokee Nation, criticized the related gesture and chant.

In Doha, Qatar, the safety of marathoners running in the heat (even at midnight) was a subplot to a broader geopolitical question over how and why Doha held the world track and field championships, and how and why it was awarded the 2022 World Cup.

Similarly, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo threaten to become a story line of deadly heat, pitting television ratings against safety, with a sidebar on climate change. Prepare to sweat and stick to everything but sports there.

Oh, and look over there this week: Iran let women attend a national soccer game for the first time since 1981. (Other matches? Not so fast.)

The mess of the moment involving the N.B.A. stretches from Washington to Beijing, with stops including Hong Kong and New York. That is how you get the president insulting Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, two top basketball coaches often critical of Trump, during a discussion of trade policies amid an impeachment inquiry.

All of those examples are not sports stories soiled by politics or other distracting themes. Those are real issues with a sports angle.

That is not new. Americans have never really stuck to sports. The timeline of American history is dotted with revolutions in sports that speak to culture and politics, from racial integration to worker rights, war protests to civil rights. Sports have a history of bringing troubling aspects of our culture into the conversation. Sometimes it starts on the playing field and expands; sometimes it bleeds into sports from other areas of society.

Which is just what happened this week. Most Americans probably have no idea who Daryl Morey is. His pro-democracy tweet — “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” — was innocuous by the standards of Twitter.

But Morey is general manager of the Houston Rockets. The league is deeply invested in China, and the Rockets are one of the most popular teams there.

Things went haywire. Chinese officials expressed outrage. Chinese companies suspended partnerships with the N.B.A. State-run television pulled coverage of two preseason games in China between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets.

The N.B.A., usually more progressive than any major sports league, was caught flat-footed on defense, tangled up by all the crossover dribbles and cross-culture passes. The league initial’s response, expressing regret and hope “that sports and the N.B.A. can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides” offended many in China. The commissioner, traveling in Asia, gave his support of free speech. The effect was as unfulfilling as a Game 7 being declared a tie.

Conscience wrestled capitalism. In the United States, fans showing support for Hong Kong protesters were escorted from N.B.A. games. In China, the first game went on (the second is scheduled for Saturday), but pregame and postgame interview sessions were canceled.

Beijing sent the N.B.A. into a corner to think about what it did. “We have decided not to hold media availability for our teams for the remainder of our trip in China,” the N.B.A. announced in a statement Friday. “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 result: No one is speaking meaningfully about the issue. Sticking to sports appears to be the best way to appease the Chinese.

That might be the most damning thing to say about keeping the conversation to sports: China is all for it. An editorial for the English-language South China Morning Post came with the headline, “Sport loses out when politics enters play.” The newspaper is owned by Alibaba Group, the Chinese e-commerce giant led by Joe Tsai, the billionaire owner of the Brooklyn Nets.

Expressing a desire to stick to sports is, itself, a political act.

It carries a bit of disingenuousness, an unwillingness to see the issues beyond the scoreboard. It is a silent declaration, like the one Harden and Westbrook made by declining to talk anymore about China, or the one that ESPN reportedly made this week, instructing its on-air talent to avoid the sticky, non-basketball parts of the topic. (You will never guess who has broadcast rights to the N.B.A. worth billions of dollars.)

The drama of sports depends on cultural context — otherwise the Miracle on Ice would be just another game. And the N.B.A. is hardly alone in the sports world with its debatable dalliances in places like China, where morals, rights and courage are viewed from much different prisms.

The International Olympic Committee, persistently presenting itself as a global do-gooder, handed Beijing the 2022 Winter Olympics, 14 years after the city hosted the Summer Games.

International sports federations routinely stage championships in China, hoping to mine the market while whistling past the open shafts of differing values. FIBA, basketball’s governing body, held its world championships in Beijing last month. Just this week, as all this was going on with the N.B.A., the men’s and women’s tennis tours held top-level events in China.

Somehow, unlike the N.B.A., others have quietly avoided being entangled in geopolitics. But mixing sports and politics is not something that has to be said to make it exist.

It is always there. Sometimes it takes a tweet to remind us.

Colliding With China, the N.B.A. Retreats With a Bruised Spine

I got off a plane Sunday afternoon and checked my phone and saw a statement from the N.B.A. apologizing to China for something that Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey had tweeted. What line, I wondered, had Morey transgressed? Had he slurred a player? A team?

From the perspective of the N.B.A., the answer was much worse: Morey had slurred a great pile of money.

With a single tweet, quickly deleted, Morey had expressed support for the democracy movement in Hong Kong. The Chinese government and the gilded companies that act as its shadows proclaimed their immediate outrage, fury and hurt, so much hurt. Companies canceled games, and a billion-dollar contract perhaps fell into doubt.

For the N.B.A., which has been on woke roll these past few years, it was a head-on collision with not-so-woke global politics and finances. And Commissioner Adam Silver and his marketing team crumpled into a fetal position.

“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,” the N.B.A. said in a statement Sunday night. (The league’s Chinese-language apology went further, calling Morey’s message “inappropriate” and saying he had “seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans.”)

On Monday, Silver tried to rediscover his spine, claiming the league’s statement was supportive of Morey’s speech, which was true if you held it up to a reading lamp and took the most generous interpretation possible. Silver added that he also supported the Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai, a partner in China’s wealthiest e-commerce company, who in a Facebook post claimed that “all citizens of China” opposed the Hong Kong protests and blasted Morey for a poorly informed tweet that did not take into account China’s hurt feelings over the Opium Wars of the 19th century.

For now, why don’t we leave Silver alone to sort out his thinking?

The N.B.A. faces an existential problem. For the better part of a decade, the league’s leading players and coaches have spoken out, often eloquently, on issues like police brutality, gay rights, guns and the president of the United States. They even toppled the retrograde racist owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

The league capitalized handsomely. Its audience was young, hip and politically liberal, and the N.B.A. marketed itself as the most woke of pro leagues.

And then one of its general managers decided to tiptoe beyond the boundaries of this nation.

“The league enjoys LeBron James being a spokesman back in Akron and Cleveland and speaking out on American politics,” noted Victor A. Matheson, an economist of sports and a professor at College of the Holy Cross. “Where it messes with you is that the N.B.A. does not necessarily want its folks to be outspoken on China.”

The pro leagues, in fact, run like bloodhounds after the scent of their fan bases. The N.F.L. is the N.B.A.’s doppelgänger. Its fan base, although diverse racially, tends toward cultural and political conservatism. When the lords of the N.F.L. boycotted Colin Kaepernick for the crime of silently taking a knee during the national anthem, they could do so in the reasonable expectation that their fans would either applaud, or grumble but still buy another sausage or team jersey.

The N.B.A.’s challenges are complicated after a different fashion. To read some of its press clippings is to guess that the league is on an inevitable march to the top of the sports mountain. The conductor should toss the brakes on that train. The N.F.L. stands as the undisputed champ of the American sports, and Major League Baseball remains in comfortable, if sleepy, second place.

The N.B.A. has those brilliant demographics, but further rapid growth in the United States is not assured. The league’s genius instead was to extend its tentacles around the world, the first American sports league to lay plausible claim to becoming a global business. Its stars hail from many continents, and its television contracts extend from Europe to Tencent in China, which this year signed a five-year, $1.5 billion deal.

The N.B.A.’s challenge, its headache, comes encoded in this dynamic. Social justice marketing is grand for the hoop audience in the United States but looks far less attractive to an authoritarian power in Beijing.

“This is the vulnerability for the N.B.A.,” said Matheson, the sports economist. “Social justice and free speech does not sell well in China.”

That international businesses go supine when human rights collide with marketing opportunities is desultory but hardly surprising. Last year, Mercedes-Benz cast itself to the ground and apologized to the Chinese government for having the temerity to quote the Dalai Lama in a corporate Instagram post. (It showed one of its luxury cars by the ocean alongside this bit of Dalai wisdom: “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.”)

“We know,” Mercedes wrote to China in contrition, “that this has hurt the feelings of people of this country.”

So the N.B.A. has arrived at a woke juncture. Silver on Monday suggested that in time this brouhaha would pass. Tsai, the Nets’ owner and a man who has become wonderfully wealthy thanks to his acumen and his closeness to the Chinese government, hinted that redemption might come slowly for those who flap their lips too much.

“The N.B.A. is a fan-first league,” Tsai wrote. “When hundreds of millions of fans are furious over an issue, the league, and anyone associated with the N.B.A., will have to pay attention.”

The sight this weekend was of N.B.A. owners nodding eagerly. Woke finances after all take one but so far.

Nets Owner Joe Tsai Didn’t Seem Political. Until Now.

The owners of major American sports franchises generally do not dive headlong into geopolitical firestorms.

But not many owners have the background of Joe Tsai, a Taiwanese-born billionaire who recently became the primary owner of the Brooklyn Nets. This weekend, Tsai surprised many when he weighed in after the N.B.A. responded to a Twitter post by a league executive supporting Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters, just as a furor over the tweet reached a fever pitch.

Tsai replied on Sunday night — roughly 48 hours after Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, had tweeted, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” a comment that sent a shudder through N.B.A. headquarters, as well as the league’s partners at the highest echelons of Chinese basketball.

Morey’s boss, the Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, rebuked him on Twitter, and Morey deleted the post. The N.B.A. issued a statement saying that it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet had offended people, but that “the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.”

Then, as denunciations of the N.B.A. rolled in from the Chinese mainland, American politicians from both parties rallied behind Morey, condemning the league for not standing more firmly behind the executive.

Tsai — known in China as the man behind Jack Ma, the founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group — posted a lengthy open letter on Facebook, referring to the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong as a “separatist movement,” an echo of language from Beijing.

Tsai also criticized Morey, calling his Twitter post “damaging to the relationship with our fans in China.”

For months, Tsai has not been outspoken as protests against the central government in Beijing roiled Hong Kong. Demonstrators have accused the ruling Communist Party of trying to curtail civil liberties in the semiautonomous territory. “Fight for Freedom” and “Stand with Hong Kong” are often chanted at the protests.

As a team owner, Tsai, who declined to comment for this article, has emphasized helping the N.B.A. make inroads in China, where basketball has become the most popular sport. While the letter may have helped his efforts, it also crystallized the league’s decision to bow to economic pressure from its partners in China over support in the United States for Morey and the Hong Kong protesters.

“All the Americans on Twitter are criticizing NBA for not supporting freedom of speech,” Kai Qu, a tech blogger, wrote on the online platform WeChat. “On Weibo,” he wrote, referring to China’s equivalent of Twitter, “the Chinese are all criticizing NBA for not openly condemning and punishing. It’s a great cultural clash. Anybody who was caught in between will have no way to get out of it.”

Before this weekend, Tsai, 55, was not known as a political figure. Only as a businessman.

In China’s tech industry, Ma is considered the creative force, and Tsai the one who turned ideas into action. Ahead of Alibaba’s initial public offering in New York in 2014, Tsai worked long hours with bankers and investors to help pull off the biggest-ever public offering.

The offering made Tsai one of the world’s wealthiest people. Forbes ranks him as the 147th richest person with a net worth of $9.5 billion. The son of a lawyer, Tsai came to the United States at the age of 13 to attend the Lawrenceville School, a private boarding school in New Jersey. He attended college at Yale and earned his law degree there, too.

While working at the Swedish investment company Investor AB in 1999, he went to check out an internet start-up called Alibaba in Hangzhou, in eastern China. Investor AB passed on the opportunity to invest, but Tsai decided to quit his job to join the start-up.

Ma, who worked out of his apartment with about 20 young associates, was surprised. Tsai was making around $700,000 a year, and Ma said he could afford to pay him only about $7,000. Tsai would help bring in key investors, such as Goldman Sachs and SoftBank, and pave the way for Alibaba to become a conglomerate that transformed how the Chinese shop.

Tsai was in charge of Alibaba’s overall investment and growth strategy until earlier this year. He still holds the title of executive vice chairman. He and Ma, who retired as executive chairman last month, are the only lifetime members of the Alibaba Partnership, a group of a few dozen employees with tremendous power over the company’s board and leadership, as well as its bonus pool.

Those who know Tsai describe him as smart and low key, someone who intentionally stayed in the shadow of the eloquent and high-profile Ma because he believed that a company needed only one spokesman.

In recent years, Tsai gradually drifted out of Ma’s shadow. He has appeared at tech conferences and given talks at Lawrenceville and Yale, but has rarely spoken about politics.

By Monday afternoon, Alibaba’s Taobao, a sales website, had essentially taken Houston Rockets products off the platform. The official Weibo account of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, quoted an Alibaba spokesman as saying that Morey’s Twitter speech had severely hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.

Tsai’s foray into professional American basketball was unusual. The vast majority of professional sports franchises in the United States are owned by white men, not people of color. Also, the acquisition was a rare example of an American sports team being acquired with mostly foreign money — although in this case, the franchise’s previous owner was a Russian billionaire. But Tsai seemed like an ideal fit for the N.B.A., especially to tap into the rabid basketball fan base in China.

In October 2017, Tsai paid a little more than $1 billion to acquire 49 percent of the Brooklyn Nets from Mikhail D. Prokhorov; the team had achieved mostly middling results on the court since he offered to buy the franchise in 2009. That deal came on the heels of several Chinese entrants into the sports market, such as a $650 million acquisition of the Ironman competition in 2015 by the Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda.

Tsai played lacrosse at Yale, and just months before the announcement of the Nets acquisition he purchased the San Diego franchise of the National Lacrosse League. At Yale Law School, Tsai occasionally played pickup basketball with a future Supreme Court justice, Brett M. Kavanaugh. Both of Tsai’s children also play basketball.

Earlier this year, Tsai purchased a W.N.B.A. team, the New York Liberty, from the Madison Square Garden ownership group. In April, the Liberty drafted Han Xu, a 6-foot-9 center, a Chinese national with enough of a following in her home country to draw comparisons to Yao Ming’s journey to the United States.

Tsai clearly saw the Nets as an opportunity to use basketball to bridge what he saw as a divide between China and the United States.

In May, before an exhibition game between the Liberty and the Chinese national team, Tsai told reporters: “I’m steeped in this discussion and find myself having to explain China to Americans a lot. This game, by bringing the national women’s team from China, is a platform for the two cultures to see how each other compete. You learn a little more about each other’s cultures. This is absolutely important. If there were more opportunities for me to support these kinds of changes, I’d do more of that.”

This summer, the N.B.A. announced that Tsai had acquired the entire stake of the Nets, valued at roughly $2.35 billion, a league record. The league — as well as Tsai — has a great deal riding on his investment in the Nets. The team made several expensive free-agent acquisitions this off-season, including Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. The Nets’ brass hopes the team will draw more fans after having some of the worst attendance numbers in the league last season.

And if all goes well for the N.B.A., and this controversy eventually blows over, many of those eyeballs will come from outside the United States.

In the news release announcing the approval of the Nets sale, the N.B.A. commissioner, Adam Silver, said, “In addition to being a passionate basketball fan, Joe is one of China’s pre-eminent internet, media and e-commerce pioneers, and his expertise will be invaluable in the league’s efforts to grow the game in China and other global markets.”

China Blows Whistle on Nationalistic Protests Against the N.B.A.

BEIJING — After three days of fanning nationalistic outrage, the Chinese government abruptly moved on Thursday to tamp down public anger at the N.B.A. as concerns spread in Beijing that the rhetoric was damaging China’s interests and image around the world.

For days, China’s state-run news outlets and tightly controlled social media platforms had been alight with criticism of the N.B.A. after a Houston Rockets executive expressed support for Hong Kong’s antigovernment protesters on Twitter. Plans to broadcast two N.B.A. preseason games were canceled and some Chinese companies suspended partnerships with the league.

Now, the Chinese government appears to be reassessing its campaign against the N.B.A. and dialing down the clamor. The government is already in a bruising trade war with the United States, and a backlash against China could hurt its image in the sporting world ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics near Beijing. The dispute with the N.B.A. was also quickly politicizing an audience of sports fans who would not normally focus on issues like the protests in Hong Kong.

Editors at state news outlets have told reporters to avoid emphasizing the N.B.A. issue for fear that it might become overheated, according to interviews with three journalists on Thursday.

The controversy soon fell off the government-guided list of top 10 trending topics on Weibo, the country’s Twitter-like microblogging service. The authorities did not cancel Thursday’s preseason N.B.A. game in Shanghai.

And even the highly nationalistic Global Times tabloid stopped pushing populist indignation over the tweet.

“I think this issue will gradually de-escalate — Global Times will not push to keep it hot,” Hu Xijin, the newspaper’s top editor, wrote in an electronic response to a request for comment. “I also hope the American side won’t make any moves to escalate it.”

China’s foreign ministry spokesman refused to say anything further about the dispute at Thursday’s news briefing.

The Chinese backlash sought to pressure the N.B.A. to be more critical of the Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, who had since deleted the pro-Hong Kong tweet. The N.B.A. initially apologized for the remarks but took no further action and its commissioner later defended the league’s employees’ right to free speech.

For many observers, the issue quickly became a reminder that navigating commerce in an increasingly political China can be a minefield for international companies.

Beijing officials worry that a highly politicized struggle over the Hong Kong protests might hurt the two days of high-level trade talks starting on Thursday in Washington. Vice Premier Liu He is leading the Chinese negotiating team in Washington, and two people familiar with the talks said that the Chinese side was eager to conclude a partial deal with the Trump administration.

The protests may cause high-profile athletes and their fans around the world to pay attention to the Hong Kong protests for the first time, and their sympathies might lie with the protesters instead of Beijing, one of the two people said. Both of them insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the trade and nationalism issues involved.

Tying sports very closely to Beijing’s handling of the Hong Kong protests may increase the risk of an international boycott of the Winter Olympics to be held in China in 2022, at a town just outside of Beijing. China has been wary for many months of a possible boycott.

Chinese officials have been quick to point out in recent months that China did send its athletic teams to the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 despite a Soviet-organized boycott that year in retaliation for the American-led boycott of the Moscow Games four years earlier. China itself did not send a team to the Moscow Olympics, however, but supported the American boycott in 1980.

The campaign against the N.B.A. also put in an awkward position the many retailers that have large stocks of merchandise carrying various brands of the N.B.A. Businesses are reluctant to write off the value of this inventory.

The basketball issue was also drawing unflattering attention to Alibaba, a Chinese electronic commerce giant that is trying to expand in the United States to compete with Amazon. Joseph Tsai, a co-founder of Alibaba, also owns the Brooklyn Nets and issued a strongly worded statement on Facebook calling for respect and understanding for China’s desire to oppose any form of separatism after a long history of intervention by foreign powers.

For the N.B.A., a Sticky Situation in China Will Linger

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This was supposed to be a time when the mere mention of the Houston Rockets would inspire questions about their polarizing plan to reunite James Harden and Russell Westbrook and ask them to share one basketball for the next seven or eight months.

You can’t help but wonder now how long it will be before we can return to that debate.

A tweet late Friday from Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey containing seven words and one image, in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, has plunged the N.B.A. into the most complicated crisis faced by Adam Silver, who is beginning his sixth full season as commissioner.

What began as mostly a China vs. Houston conflict morphed into a full-blown China vs. N.B.A. battle after Silver, at a news conference on Tuesday in Saitama, Japan, reiterated that the league office would not punish or censure Morey — no matter how badly the N.B.A.’s Chinese business partners want that to happen.

“I’m sympathetic to our interests here and our partners that 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.”

Chief among those principles, Silver stressed after failing to spell it out clearly in his first round of comments on the matter, is the right to free speech. “What I also tried to suggest,” he said, “is that I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences.”

The full scope of those consequences may not be known for weeks or months. Fallout from the Morey scandal continued to mount on Tuesday, when China’s state-run CCTV announced that it would not broadcast exhibition games scheduled for this week in Shanghai and Shenzhen. LeBron James’s Los Angeles Lakers are scheduled to face the Brooklyn Nets, who are owned by Joe Tsai, the billionaire co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.

In discussions I’ve had over the past few days with a number of well-placed observers, who are familiar with both the Chinese landscape and N.B.A. dealings, there are growing fears that government officials will cancel the two games. Various sponsors, media outlets and the Chinese Basketball Association itself — led by the former Rockets great Yao Ming — have already vowed to have nothing to do with the Rockets for the foreseeable future.

Silver is scheduled to arrive in China on Wednesday to begin face-to-face damage control with some of the aggrieved entities. Among them is Yao himself; Silver has acknowledged that the Hall of Fame center is “extremely” angry.

“And I understand it,” Silver said.

That’s because the N.B.A. has always known that its efforts to cultivate a foothold in China, which began more than 30 years ago, exposed a league that has long championed social justice to precisely this sort of philosophical quandary. As the great Jack McCallum, one of my foremost mentors, wrote in a 2006 Sports Illustrated article on David Stern, then the N.B.A. commissioner: “China presents an even greater conflict for Stern because it has both colossal business potential and a terrible human rights record.”

“Believe me, the China situation bothers me,” Stern told McCallum at the time. “But at the end of the day, I have a responsibility to my owners to make money. I can never forget that, no matter what my personal feelings might be.”

If all of this strikes you as hypocritical, given the N.B.A.’s reputation as the sports league that encourages freedom of expression and activism more than any other, you are absolutely right. Just don’t forget that there is a long line of American businesses that similarly refuse to publicly back the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and instead focus on mining profit from China’s estimated population of 1.4 billion.

I was just in China for eight days covering the United States men’s national basketball team at the FIBA World Cup. Mere steps from my hotel in Beijing, I had access to Walmart, Starbucks and Kentucky Fried Chicken. McDonald’s outlets are everywhere. The N.B.A. is hardly alone in chasing China’s disposable income at the risk of impinging on its democratic ideals.

The rub for the N.B.A., of course, is that tag it carries as the “wokest league” on Earth. That is not an identity, contrary to legend, invented by the league’s marketing machine — but Silver and other top officials, as well as some marquee players, have undoubtedly embraced and celebrated it.

Every company that boasts purchasing power, everywhere in the world, will flex that muscle upon vendors. Every vendor, everywhere in the world, will eventually yield to its biggest customers. The resulting challenge for Silver’s league — more so than for most American businesses, because of its social footprint and the tremendous visibility of its stars — is how to protect those financial interests without trampling on what Silver on Monday termed “values that have been part of this league from its earliest days.”

The N.B.A., to this point, is struggling mightily to thread that needle and has been roundly bashed on both sides — crushed by segments of the American news media for not supporting Morey’s pro-democracy tweet with more gusto, while a growing number of Chinese institutions appear in a rush to distance themselves from the league. The subsequent geopolitical storm has proved so uncomfortable that Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, one of the most forthright voices in basketball, essentially declined to comment Monday night when invited by Bay Area reporters to wade into the discussion.

“This isn’t the end of the Rockets or the N.B.A. in China,” Witold Henisz, a management professor and director of the Wharton Political Risk Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “But it reflects the need for companies to have a political strategy — even companies that you wouldn’t think of as having political strategies.”

Talking about Hong Kong, Henisz continued, “is not the same as talking about race relations in the United States.” Or speaking out in favor of stricter gun control domestically, as Kerr often does, inspired by lingering torment from the assassination of his father, Malcolm, while serving as president of the American University of Beirut in 1984.

There’s a sense that the storm is just beginning, too. Is the cancellation of this week’s two scheduled games in China as inevitable as it feels? Will broadcasters such as CCTV and Tencent extend bans of N.B.A. coverage into the regular season? How many millions will this whole saga ultimately cost the N.B.A.? And how will a typically outspoken superstar like James, given how closely connected he is to Nike and how significant the China market is to both brand and endorser, handle the uncomfortable questions sure to come his way this week when the Lakers meet the media in Shanghai?

Another question teams back home have rather predictably started asking in the information-gathering conversations so prevalent around the league this time of year: What impact will the lost revenue have in terms of lowering the league’s salary cap for next season?

We could surely keep going. So dissecting the potential pros and problems awaiting Houston on the floor — with Harden and Westbrook unexpectedly thrown together again by a July trade that capped perhaps the wildest off-season in league history — will simply have to wait.

“I’m a realist, as well,” Silver said at his news conference in Japan. “And I recognize that this issue may not die down so quickly.”

Oct. 6

Echoing what @sam_amick just tweeted, one source with knowledge of the situation tells @NYTSports that Houston has “no discipline” planned for Rockets GM Daryl Morey in the wake of this weekend’s Hong Kong/China Twitter controversy

Oct. 2

The deal with @PUMAHoops that the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma finalized last week will pay him in the $3 million range annually over the next five seasons, industry sources say

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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)

Q: How much, if at all, did expansion dilute the N.B.A. talent pool in the 1990s? — Dino Papaz

STEIN: As a teenager for most of the 1980s, I have great memories of the league in its 23-team iteration. The best teams in that decade were so ridiculously deep that Michael Jeffrey Jordan, remember, needed seven seasons after he arrived from North Carolina to break through as a champion.

Such was the depth of the Eastern Conference that Dominique Wilkins’s Atlanta Hawks couldn’t even sniff the conference finals in that era. Milwaukee and Dallas likewise had loaded squads at various points in the ’80s that simply could not crack the dominance of Boston, Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Lakers — and later Detroit.

Yet I look back on that period now as confirmation that the N.B.A. was more than ready to start expanding as it did late in the ’80s. There were seasons when Hall of Famers such as Bob McAdoo (Lakers) and Bill Walton (Boston) could be deployed as sixth men, illustrating that the league could indeed handle a wider distribution of talent.

The influx of top players from abroad also began with the 1989-90 season, when the likes of Vlade Divac, Sarunas Marciulionis and Drazen Petrovic were imported to open the Europe-to-N.B.A. gateway that put us on a path that has led to, some 30 years later, an annual count of 100-plus players who were born outside the United States. The time was right to expand the league’s footprint.

Q: I grew up in St. Louis with no real affiliation to an N.B.A. team. I’m 28, so the Hawks, Bombers and Spirits were all in existence long before my time. But with St. Louis boasting so many talented players who call it home, is there even a remote possibility that the league will go to The 314? — Joey Aguirre (Des Moines, Iowa)

STEIN: Sorry, Joey. Don’t see it. And I promise this is not some bitter response from a long-suffering Buffalo Sabres fan who is admittedly jealous of the magical championship run St. Louis Blues fans reveled in last spring.

N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver, for starters, said as recently as the finals in June that “we are just not in expansion mode at this time.” Silver acknowledged that expansion would “inevitably at some point” resurface as a priority for the 30-team league, but even then I would still put several cities ahead of St. Louis in a theoretical queue.

Mexico City, Las Vegas and, of course, Seattle have all been mentioned regularly in recent years as potential destinations for expansion — or franchise relocation should any current team move. Vancouver, Louisville and Kansas City are three more cities vying for consideration. I can’t put them all in a firm order beyond listing Seattle at No. 1, but I can safely advise you that there’s a considerable crowd ahead of your beloved STL no matter how well Washington’s Bradley Beal and Boston’s Jayson Tatum are doing.

And this would have been my read, for the record, even if I had not received a news release (while compiling this answer) from Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, in which he implored the N.B.A. to cancel its two scheduled exhibition games in China this week in the wake of the Daryl Morey Twitter controversy.

Q: Do you think this could finally be the year when a team from the Utah/Denver/Portland trio seriously joins the title hunt? I feel like I’ve been waiting forever to see one of them make the true jump into contention. — Sam Chadwick (Manchester, England)

STEIN: After I tweeted last week that I fear Portland is still asking too much of its star guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, it won’t surprise anyone to hear that I don’t see it happening for the Blazers this season with three new starters — barring a splashy trade, unforeseen dominance from Hassan Whiteside or a monster breakout from Zach Collins or Anfernee Simons.

Utah’s off-season business intrigued me as much as anyone’s, because the Jazz are not known for big, pricey swings. Trading for Mike Conley (with two seasons and $67 million left on his contract) and then signing Bojan Bogdanovic away from Indiana (for $73 million over four years) both qualify.

Of the three teams you cited, I am highest on Utah’s ceiling with a Rudy Gobert-Donovan Mitchell-Conley core. I also wrote at length in July about Denver’s potential continuity edge over the rest of the field in a Western Conference rife with change, but the reality is that both the Jazz and the reigning Northwest Division champion Nuggets, like it or not, are going to be regarded as mere regular-season forces until they do some real playoff damage.


The Los Angeles Clippers, who have generally held the highest or second-highest odds from Las Vegas bookmakers to win the championship this season since acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, have never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs in the franchise’s 50-year history.


The coming season, in fact, is the Clippers’ 50th, but only if you include the eight seasons that the franchise was based in Buffalo. As regular (and patient) readers are undoubtedly aware, I was a resident of Western New York throughout the Buffalo Braves’ existence and loved them. Which should explain why I naturally applaud the Clippers’ decision to unveil a retro line of Braves gear this season to commemorate the milestone.


Of course, as any self-respecting Braves fan would tell you, their old white-black-and-orange color scheme does not compare to the Columbia blue-and-white look that the Braves adopted for their final five seasons in Buffalo. (For the curious: I have blue retro jerseys honoring Bob McAdoo’s No. 11 and Randy Smith’s No. 9 in my personal collection.)


The Sacramento Kings had to travel an estimated 8,353 miles for their two recent exhibition games in India against the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers traveled an estimated 8,159 miles from Indianapolis.


Kyrie Irving’s recent fracture on the left side of his face was the new Nets guard’s fourth facial injury of his career. According to data maintained by, Irving broke his maxilla during the 2012-13 season and his nose the following season. He also suffered a facial fracture in November 2017 with Boston that required surgery to repair a deviated septum.

Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@marcsteinnba). Send any other feedback to

Asked About N.B.A., China Spat, Trump Instead Blasts Kerr and Popovich

President Trump declined to criticize China’s handling of a free speech dispute with the N.B.A. on Wednesday, instead opting to blast two basketball coaches who have spoken out against the president in the past.

“They have to work out their own situation,” Trump said of the escalating dispute between the league and China, where two exhibition games were in danger of being canceled because of the country’s anger over a tweet from a Houston Rockets executive who expressed support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

The issue touches on a familiar situation for American businesses trying to prosper in China: working with a government that does not tolerate dissent. When asked about the situation, Trump instead called out Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr and San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, both of whom have been highly critical of Trump throughout his presidency.

“I watched this guy, Steve Kerr, and he was like a little boy who was so scared to be even answering the question,” Trump said, referring to Kerr declining to take a stance on an issue that could threaten the N.B.A.’s business in China, where the Warriors are the most popular team. “He couldn’t answer the question. He was shaking. ‘Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know.’ He didn’t know how to answer the question. And yet he’ll talk about the United States very badly.”

Trump then targeted Popovich, who criticized Trump when asked about the dispute on Tuesday night.

“I watched Popovich. Sort of the same thing but he didn’t look quite as scared actually,” Trump said. “But they talk badly about the United States, but when it talks about China, they don’t want to say anything bad. I thought it was pretty sad actually. It’ll be very interesting.”

Trump accused Kerr and Popovich of “pandering to China,” and suggested that they didn’t “respect” the United States. Popovich, a former member of the Air Force, was the head coach of the U.S.A. men’s basketball team this summer, when it played in the world championships in China. Kerr was his assistant.

“And yet to our own country, they don’t — it’s like they don’t respect it,” Trump told reporters in an event from the Roosevelt Room, following the signing of an executive order. “I said, ‘What a difference?’ Isn’t it sad?”

Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, was more critical of China during an interview with PBS Newshour that aired on Wednesday.

“I think American businesses have the right to make the decisions that they make, as long as they’re lawful,” Pompeo said. “They will have to make their own business decisions, but I think not only what we saw this week, but this has been going on for some time; I think American businesses are waking up to the risks that attend to their company.”

Pompeo continued: “It may seem that it makes profit in the short run, but the cost, the reputational cost of these companies, I think, will prove to be higher and higher as Beijing’s long arm reaches out to them and destroys their capacity for them.”

Representatives for the Warriors, the Spurs and the league did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump became the highest profile politician to weigh in on an unusual international row that began last Friday, when the general manager of the Rockets, Daryl Morey, posted and quickly deleted an image on Twitter that carried a slogan used by Hong Kong protesters, right as the league was preparing to play two exhibition games there a week later. For several months, demonstrators in the region have accused the Communist government of attempting to limit civil liberties. Backlash from the mainland came quickly.

Several Chinese companies began to cut ties with the Rockets, as did the Chinese Basketball Association, which is led by Yao Ming, the former Rockets star. On Sunday, the league issued a written statement that was roundly condemned by several politicians in the United States, both Republicans and Democrats. The league called the reaction to Morey’s tweet “regrettable” and said that “the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.” Critics in the United States accused the league of caving to an authoritarian government.

The N.B.A. found itself in a defensive position — having to balance its public image as a sports league that encouraged political expression with the millions of revenue dollars at stake in China. Morey tried to clean up his comments, saying that said he did not intend to “cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China.” On Tuesday, Adam Silver, the N.B.A.’s commissioner, issued a new statement and spoke at a news conference where he more firmly stood behind Morey, saying the league would not hinder the free speech rights of players and employees, even if it meant consequences for the sport.

Several community events with the league and Chinese television broadcasts of the game were canceled and the fate of the two contests — scheduled for Thursday and Saturday between the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers — is up in the air.

On Wednesday, several lawmakers sent a letter to Silver calling on the N.B.A. to “suspend NBA activities in China until government-controlled broadcasters and government-controlled commercial sponsors end their boycott of NBA activities.” The signees included a bipartisan group of lawmakers who rarely agree, including Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Democrats like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

The backlash extended to other basketball figures. James Harden, one of the best players in the N.B.A and a Rockets star, apologized to China and was criticized. Other figures, like Kerr, who is typically outspoken on politics, declined to comment. “It’s a really bizarre international story and I don’t know what to make of it,” Kerr said. “So it’s something I’m reading about just like everybody is but I’m not going to comment further than that.”

Popovich, however, praised Silver’s response on Tuesday, saying: “He came out strongly for freedom of speech today. I felt great again. He’s been a heck of a leader in that respect and very courageous.”

Popovich followed up by throwing a shot at Trump. “Then you compare it to what we’ve had to live through the past three years, it’s a big difference. A big gap there, leadership-wise and courage-wise,” Popovich said.

Stephen Curry, the Warriors star, joked to reporters that he had to “welcome Steve to the club.” Curry himself has been a past target of Trump’s ire. But besides that, Curry declined to weigh in, calling it “an interesting situation” and adding, “I don’t know that history well enough to kind of speak on it or to form an opinion yet.”

Trump’s own comments on Hong Kong have been limited. In August, Trump said in a tweet, “China is not our problem, though Hong Kong is not helping.” He followed up with, “Of course China wants to make a deal. Let them work humanely with Hong Kong first!” He also referred to President Xi Jinping of China as a “great leader” and the next day said, “If President Xi would meet directly and personally with the protesters, there would be a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem. I have no doubt!”

Last week, Trump tweeted a congratulatory message to China: “Congratulations to President Xi and the Chinese people on the 70th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China!”

It is not surprising that Trump, known for punching at his critics harshly, would bash Kerr and Popovich, given their past comments about him.

In July, Kerr tweeted, “Come on members of Congress, call out the president for his racist tweets this morning. Show some leadership. It’s the job you were elected to do,” in reference to Trump’s social media posts telling four Democratic congresswomen of color to go back to their own countries.

Popovich has also repeatedly criticized Trump, referring to him as a “bully” shortly after the 2016 election, and adding, “You can’t believe anything that comes out of his mouth.”

Adam Silver Offers Defense of Daryl Morey as Chinese Companies Cut N.B.A. Ties

The main state television broadcaster in China announced Tuesday that it would not broadcast two N.B.A. preseason games scheduled for this week in Shanghai and Shenzhen, as the firestorm over a team executive’s Twitter post supportive of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong continued to escalate.

In its statement, the broadcaster, China Central Television, chided Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, for expressing support for the free speech rights of Daryl Morey. Morey, the Houston Rockets general manager, posted a supportive message about protests in Hong Kong on Friday night that drew an angry response from Chinese officials and set off debate about how corporations should balance their public images with their eagerness to do business in China.

“We voice our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Adam Silver offering as an excuse the right to freedom of expression,” C.C.TV said in its statement announcing the cancellation of the N.B.A. broadcasts. “We believe that no comments challenging national sovereignty and social stability fall within the scope of freedom of expression.”

In a news conference before a separate preseason game between the Rockets and the Toronto Raptors being held in Tokyo on Tuesday, Silver said the cancellation was unexpected, and a community outreach event scheduled to take place at a school in Shanghai also had been canceled.

“I think it’s unfortunate,” Silver said. “But if that’s the consequences of us adhering to our values, we still feel it’s critically important we adhere to those values.”

Silver said that he would still travel to Shanghai on Wednesday and that it was his hope to meet with Chinese government officials to try to defuse the conflict.

“But I’m a realist as well, and I recognize that this issue may not die down so quickly,” Silver said.

The N.B.A. has found itself in a position familiar to other global companies seeking to do business in a country with 1.4 billion people and a powerful economy. Many American politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, castigated the league for its initial reaction to the situation on Sunday, which said it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet had offended people in China, but that “the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.”

Silver issued a new written statement on Tuesday morning which said in part: “It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the N.B.A. to adjudicate those differences.”

It continued, “However, the N.B.A. will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”

Silver was more blunt during his news conference: “We will protect our employees’ freedom of speech.”

Morey’s tweet, which was deleted shortly after being posted Friday night, said “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” a reference to the pro-democracy protests that have raged for months in Hong Kong. The phrase is a slogan of the pro-democracy protests, and it is has been chanted at demonstrations.

Chinese government and basketball officials and Chinese companies were furious about the post, and they have pressured the N.B.A. to be more critical of Morey, and even to go beyond a version of the league’s statement that appeared on Chinese social media platforms on Sunday. In that statement, the league called Morey’s tweet “inappropriate.”

Multiple Chinese companies, including Luckin Coffee, a coffee chain, and Anta, a sportswear brand that sponsors N.B.A. players, announced Tuesday that they were suspending partnerships with the league.

“The N.B.A. has been in cooperation with China for many years,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a briefing on Tuesday. “It knows clearly in its heart what to say and what to do.”

Criticism of the N.B.A. also has come from pro-Hong Kong activists as well as their supporters in the United States, who have accused Silver of capitulating to an authoritarian government.

“It’s morally reprehensible that the N.B.A. is apologizing for one of its general managers standing with the beleaguered people of Hong Kong,” Marion Smith, the executive director of the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, said in a statement. “We understand that millions of dollars may be at stake, but there are some things not worth compromising. One’s moral compass is among them. It’s clear that under Adam Silver’s leadership, the N.B.A. has lost their way in service to Beijing.”

Silver acknowledged that Morey, an outspoken executive who has routinely weighed in on political issues, had particularly incensed Yao Ming, the former Houston Rockets star who now leads the Chinese Basketball Association. The association said it was suspending a partnership with the Rockets.

“I think Yao is extremely unsettled,” Silver said. “I’m not sure he quite accepts sort of how we are operating our business right now, and again, I accept that we have a difference of opinion. I’m hoping that together Yao Ming and I can find an accommodation. But he is extremely hot at the moment, and I understand it.”

‘Stand With Hong Kong’? Not When N.B.A.’s Chinese Fortune Is on the Line

HONG KONG — The N.B.A. is widely seen as the most permissive of the major American sports leagues when it comes to freewheeling speech, allowing its athletes and other representatives to speak out on thorny political matters without fear of retribution.

Unless, apparently, the autocratic leaders of a lucrative market raise a stink.

On Sunday, the N.B.A. became the latest international organization to struggle in a tiptoe act with China, a country with a fan base worth billions of dollars but a hair-trigger tolerance for comments that offend its political sensibilities.

The league suddenly found itself in the middle of an intractable political conflict over the future of Hong Kong, caught between maintaining its image at home and saving crucial business interests abroad.

The episode began Friday night, when Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, posted an image on Twitter that included a slogan commonly chanted during Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” He quickly deleted the tweet, but the damage was done.

Chinese fans, who see the Hong Kong protesters portrayed as violent rioters in the state-run news media and largely regard them as such, were furious. Sponsors paused their deals with the Rockets, and the country’s main broadcaster said it would remove the team’s games from its schedule.

The league issued an apology for Mr. Morey’s comments Sunday night. That inflamed fans back home, where the protesters are generally seen as pro-democracy fighters battling a repressive government. Democratic and Republican politicians found agreement in calling the league gutless, accusing it of prioritizing money over human rights.

The N.B.A. is far from the first company to find itself forced to choose sides on geopolitical issues it never intended to be involved in, and to ultimately bow to China’s economic might.

In recent years, several companies have apologized or made concessions after angering China, including Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline. Cathay fired employees who wrote posts on social media in support of the protests, in an effort to avoid losing access to Chinese airspace.

But the stakes are particularly high for the N.B.A., which has looked to China, a rapidly prospering country of 1.4 billion people, as a growth market.

Tencent Holdings, a Chinese tech conglomerate, reported that 490 million people watched N.B.A. programming on its platforms last year, including 21 million fans who watched Game 6 of the 2019 N.B.A. finals. By comparison, Nielsen measured 18.34 million viewers for the game on ABC.

The league recently announced a five-year extension of its partnership with Tencent to stream its games in China for a reported $1.5 billion.

“This is a massive indicator for the perceived value and enormous potential of the China market,” Mailman, a sports digital marketing agency, wrote in a recent report.

The N.B.A. has been similarly successful on Chinese social media. The league has 41.79 million followers on Weibo, a popular Chinese social network, compared with 38.6 million followers on Facebook and 28.4 million on Twitter.

The involvement of the Houston Rockets is particularly troublesome for the N.B.A., given the franchise’s longtime status as among the most popular in China. Yao Ming, considered the crown jewel of Chinese basketball, played for the Rockets from 2002 to 2011.

The team has maintained its Chinese fan base, making it the second-most-popular in China behind the Golden State Warriors last year, according to Mailman. The team had 7.3 million followers on Weibo, compared with 2.9 million followers on Twitter.

Echoing China’s worldview, especially as it relates to its sovereignty over disputed territories, is considered a cost of doing business there, for both entertainers and companies.

Gap was forced to apologize in 2017 after selling a shirt that featured a map of China without including Taiwan, a self-governing island off its southern coast. The Marriott International hotel chain apologized in January 2018 for listing Tibet, a region of western China, and Taiwan as countries in a customer survey.

In February 2018, the German automaker Daimler apologized for using a quote from the Dalai Lama, who is widely viewed as a Tibetan separatist in China, in a social media post from its Mercedes-Benz brand.

In March 2018, China demanded that international airlines refer to Taiwan as part of China in their online booking systems, a request mocked by the White House as “Orwellian nonsense” but eventually obeyed by all major carriers.

For its part, the N.B.A. has weathered outrage in China before. Last year, J.J. Redick, then of the Philadelphia 76ers, recorded a video for the Chinese New Year in which he appeared to use a racial slur for Chinese people, which he later said was an unintentional verbal slip. He apologized, but was roundly booed when he touched the ball during preseason games in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

The discussion around Hong Kong, though, is a much more passionate topic for Chinese fans. Joseph Tsai, the billionaire co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and owner of the Brooklyn Nets, said in a statement late Sunday that Hong Kong was a “third-rail issue” in China, calling the protesters’ efforts a “separatist movement.” (Most protesters deny they are interested in independence, but the Chinese state media has at times depicted them that way.)

“If we said we supported 9/11, what would American pigs think? Put yourself in others’ shoes,” one commenter on Weibo wrote.

In Hong Kong, many supporters of the movement criticized the N.B.A.’s backtracking and thanked Mr. Morey for his original sentiment.

Claire Fu contributed reporting.

N.B.A. Executive’s Hong Kong Tweet Starts Firestorm in China

The general manager of the N.B.A.’s Houston Rockets has touched off a firestorm in China after expressing support on Twitter for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, putting the professional basketball league at odds with its largest and highest-priority international market. The league’s marquee franchise, the Los Angeles Lakers, is set to play two exhibition games in mainland China this week.

In a post to Twitter on Friday night, Daryl Morey, the longtime general manager of the Rockets, shared an image that read, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” a reference to the protests that have raged for months. The Rockets have been training in Tokyo ahead of a two-game exhibition series against the Toronto Raptors in Saitama, Japan, this week. The team also has a long history with Chinese fans who followed Yao Ming’s career with the franchise.

Within hours, the owner of the Houston Rockets, Tilman Fertitta, rebuked his general manager — also on Twitter — in a post that said: “Listen….@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.” He later told ESPN: “I have the best general manager in the league. Everything is fine with Daryl and me. We got a huge backlash, and I wanted to make clear that the organization has no political position. We’re here to play basketball and not to offend anybody.”

Listen….@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization. @espn

— Tilman Fertitta (@TilmanJFertitta) October 5, 2019

Morey deleted his post, but the fallout had already begun.

On Sunday, the Chinese Basketball Association announced that it was suspending cooperation with the Rockets. The president of the C.B.A. is Yao Ming, the Hall of Famer who starred for the Rockets from 2002 to 2011. According to the China Global Television Network, a state-run Chinese outlet, several Chinese companies, including the sports brand Li Ning and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Credit Card Center, denounced Morey and said they also would pause partnerships with the Rockets.

The timing could scarcely be more awkward for the N.B.A., which has promoted itself as a supporter of free speech and political expression but is focused on further cultivating an audience in China and expanding its business relationships there.

This week, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets are set to play preseason games in Shanghai and Shenzhen. The league’s biggest stars routinely travel there during the off-seasons to promote their sponsorships. Chinese shoe companies like Li Ning and Anta sponsor N.B.A. players, including a few Rockets. In July, the league announced a five-year extension of a partnership with Tencent Holdings, a Chinese tech conglomerate, to stream games and other league services in China. This deal is reported to be around $1.5 billion.

Spokesmen for the Rockets and the N.B.A. did not immediately return requests for comment.