September 19, 2021

NBA Shanghai game on, but Hong Kong free speech backlash continues


BEIJING (Reuters) – The National Basketball Association (NBA) is pressing ahead with a exhibition game Thursday evening in Shanghai, despite backlash against the league from China after a Houston Rockets executive’s tweet supporting Hong Kong protests.

The NBA on Thursday published a post on Chinese social networking platform Weibo promoting the match between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets, accompanied by a short clip featuring star players LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. The game is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. local time (1130 GMT).

NBA events scheduled on Tuesday and Wednesday were cancelled and Chinese sponsors and partners suspended or severed ties with the league after Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted last week supporting anti-government protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong.

The NBA said in an email on Thursday that players and personnel would not be made available to the media. The league had scheduled a briefing before and after the game, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver had been expected to address the media.

State broadcaster CCTV and Tencent (0700.HK) will not show Thursday’s game or the rematch scheduled for Saturday in Shenzhen on their platforms, underscoring the severity of the backlash.

The Hong Kong protests began in opposition to a bill allowing extradition to mainland China but have since evolved into broader calls for democracy. China has accused the West of stirring up anti-Beijing sentiment in Hong Kong, and Chinese state media has characterised Morey’s tweet as the latest example of meddling in China’s own affairs.

Silver spoke out in support of Morey’s freedom of expression on Tuesday, further angering Beijing. The NBA’s business in China, which took years to cultivate, and estimates is estimated to be worth more than $4 billion, is under immense pressure.

The NBA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Saturday’s Lakers-Nets game would take place.

Staff members clean court floor before the NBA exhibition game between Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, China October 10, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer


Houston Rockets sneakers and other merchandise were pulled from several Nike (NKE.N) and NBA stores in major Chinese cities, with the franchise’s direct association with Morey making it a central target of the furore. Managers at some of the Nike stores said they had been instructed to remove the goods via an internal memo from management.

A specialist NBA store at a major shopping centre in Shanghai removed all Rockets merchandise, as did the basketball-themed NBA Playzone family entertainment centres in Beijing and Shanghai.

“Rockets products were hot before and when you stepped into the store, it was full of red. Now, it is mostly yellow and blue,” the colours of the Golden State Warriors, said a manager at the Shanghai Playzone, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Nike and the NBA did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.

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Other major Chinese retailers, including Alibaba (BABA.N) and (JD.O), also pulled Rockets merchandise off their various platforms. Alibaba and declined to comment.

Chinese state and party-backed media continued to publish items critical of the NBA. The official English newspaper China Daily published an editorial cartoon on Thursday playing on the NBA’s official logo of an athlete dribbling a basketball. The cartoon instead put a bomb labelled “politics” in the athlete’s hand, leaving the basketball fallen by the wayside.

Some Chinese netizens also called on those attending Thursday’s game to carry the Chinese flag into the stadium in a demonstration of patriotic solidarity.

“Those going to watch the game live, remember to bring the national flag,” one user on Weibo wrote. “Hope to see a sea of red, five-starred red flag fluttering in the wind.”

Reporting by Se Young Lee and Ryan Woo in Beijing, Xihao Jiang and David Stanway in Shanghai; Editing by Gerry Doyle

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Se Young Lee