“Off the Rim” is a column by Sarah Ko about basketball.
3, 2, 1 … Liftoff in China … System failure.
Much like a failed rocket launch, NBA Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was under fire for tweeting a picture in favor of Hong Kong’s protest against China. The since-deleted tweet read, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” This seemingly harmless statement could mean the cultural and economic demise of the NBA by the hands of the Chinese.
Morey deleted the tweet after receiving Chinese backlash. He issued an apology, stating that his intention wasn’t to harm Rockets fans or his “friends” in China and he has since considered the Chinese viewpoint.
The wave of criticism caused Adam Silver to comment on the tweet. He claimed that Morey does not share the NBA’s sentiment on the matter but also defended him by supporting his freedom of expression. The NBA has now canceled its NBA Cares charity events, press conferences and preseason games in China.
While Morey was practicing his first amendment right, the Chinese have not taken the post lightly due to the high tensions following the anti-Chinese extradition bill protests occurring in Hong Kong since June. After the tweet, the Chinese Basketball Association ended its relationship with the Texas team, despite having former Rockets legend Yao Ming as its president.
Several Chinese businesses have also pulled their sponsorships, while television broadcasting networks announced to stop streaming NBA games. Even the American company, Nike, has pulled all sales of Rockets apparel from its website and stores in China.
The redaction of Rockets merchandise is absurd to an outside viewer, especially because China’s most famous NBA player competed on the team. After Yao’s hall-of-fame-worthy nine seasons with the Lone Star team, Chinese viewership statistics have been out of this world. Five hundred million Chinese citizens watched last season. They are crazy about the NBA because, unbeknownst to most, basketball has been ingrained in their daily life since the YMCA brought the sport to China in the 1890s.
Even before the NBA came to China in the 1990s, basketball had grown to be a Chinese sport. Kids would play pickup matches in school and factory workers would brawl with each other after a long day of assembly, creating a community that bonded over the love of hooping.
This feeling of pride has since changed, and the Chinese are ashamed to be fans of the NBA. When NBA players traveled to China for their preseason games, floods of fans would wait outside the airport and hotel. The likes of Steph Curry and James Harden would host numerous Asia tours, stopping in Shanghai to meet mobs of fans.
In contrast, the number of fans rushing to them were in the mere dozens this year. And shockingly, those Chinese fans covered their faces in front of NBC cameras because they didn’t want to be displayed as NBA fans.
This feeling of shame associated with basketball is unheard of. Chinese fans were historically vocal for their love of the game and support any Chinese player that made it in the NBA. People who couldn’t afford much would still buy knockoff jerseys just because Ming was spelled out on the back. But now, people won’t dare to spend a dime on them.
Chinese NBA fans not only considered the NBA as a component of their cultural identity, but their fandom also brought an earth-shattering amount of money to the league.
After NBA China’s establishment a little over a decade ago, it was reported to bring in $400 million a year. Additionally, Tencent, the main NBA streaming service for Chinese fans, signed a five-year $700 million contract. In the wake of the controversial tweet, both have severed its ties with the NBA.
Without these Chinese sponsorships, the NBA’s profitability is in jeopardy. And it also affects several NBA players’ finances directly.
Major sporting goods companies like Li-Ning and Anta sponsor several players in the NBA, but they have announced their desire to withdraw contracts. This could possibly end relationships with NBA megastars such as Dwayne Wade, Klay Thompson and CJ McCollum, who would have to seek other companies to sponsor them. It’s also important to note that none of those players have ever been affiliated with the Rockets.
As a Chinese American, it is a bit sad to see that China has left the NBA. While I accept China’s desire to stand by its beliefs, I also understand the valuable American right to stand by your own opinions. I am left torn, wanting to justify the Chinese’s actions and support the NBA. But when it comes down to reality, bantering about who is “right” or “wrong” holds absolutely no meaning.
Here are the facts: Without Chinese support, the once skyrocketing and star-studded NBA is now lost in space.
“Off the Rim” runs every Thursday.