NBA's China problem deepens as commissioner backs exec

Politicians criticized the league for its original response to the Houston Rockets general manager's post supportive of Hong Kong protesters.

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By Yuliya Talmazan

The NBA's China crisis deepened Tuesday, with Chinese state media and technology company Tencent suspending the broadcast of preseason games and the league's commissioner backing the freedom of players and team executives to speak their minds.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver backed down Tuesday on the league’s criticism of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey who triggered fury in China when he tweeted his support for Hong Kong's protesters.

Silver said "the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues."

“The long-held values of the NBA are to support freedom of expression, certainly by members of the NBA community,” Silver told reporters after issuing the statement, adding that Morey enjoys that right as one of their employees.

A tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of anti-government protesters Hong Kong has sparked a controversy. USA Today / Reuters file

At a news conference in Japan, where the Houston Rockets are playing this week, Silver said he decided to issue a new statement because he thought there was a lot of “misunderstanding” about the NBA's position after it initially called Morey's tweet "regrettable."

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Morey found himself in the middle of a major controversy when he tweeted Friday in support of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong. He promptly apologized Monday for "any offense" caused by the tweet that has now been deleted.

But Morey’s support for the protests in the Chinese-ruled city angered many in Beijing.

The NBA's Chinese partners quickly suspended ties with the franchise, Chinese sponsors yanked their money and Chinese television outlets said they would no longer air Rockets games.

On Tuesday, China went beyond punishing the Rockets. Chinese state-run television announced it had suspended broadcast plans for NBA preseason games in China. Chinese company Tencent also said it would "temporarily suspend" internet streams of preseason games.

Basketball is very popular in China, where the NBA has been building its presence for the past three decades. The Houston Rockets are also widely followed in the country after the franchise drafted Chinese player Yao Ming in 2002.

On Sunday, the NBA said that the views expressed by Morey "deeply offended" many of their fans in China, but the league’s response was criticized by U.S. politicians across the political divide who called out the NBA for “kowtowing” to China.

Silver said he realizes there could be consequences from Morey’s tweet and the NBA’s position on it.

“We will have to live with those consequences,” he said Tuesday.

Chinese state TV said Tuesday it will no longer air two NBA preseason games set to be played in the country, which Silver called “unfortunate."

Chinese state media has cast the Hong Kong protesters as rioters amid months of clashes.

After another weekend of violence that shut down Hong Kong’s metro rail system, the city’s embattled leader Carrie Lam said Tuesday that the Chinese military could step in if the protest movement escalates.

"I still strongly feel that we should find the solutions ourselves,” she said. “But if the situation becomes so bad, then no options could be ruled out if we want Hong Kong to at least have another chance.”

Jason Abbruzzese contributed.