The general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team apologised for a tweet in support of the Hong Kong protest movement amid growing backlash and anger in China, where business partners halted work with the NBA team.
Daryl Morey posted an image with the words “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong,” according to screenshots of the deleted tweet shared on social media.
He was referring to the four-month-old anti-government protests that have rocked the self-governing territory.
The Rockets quickly came under fire in mainland China as sportswear brand Li-Ning and team sponsor Shanghai Pudong Development Bank (SPD Bank) Credit Card Center said on Sunday they were suspending cooperation with the NBA team.
“I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event,” Morey tweeted on Monday, adding that he had now considered other perspectives.
“My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA,” he said.
2/ I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.
— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) October 7, 2019
Team owner Tilman Fertitta went on Twitter to distance the team from Morey’s initial tweet.
“Daryl Morey does not speak for the Houston Rockets,” he said on Saturday. “Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the NBA internationally and we are not a political organisation.”
In a separate statement on Sunday, the NBA said it recognised that Morey’s views have “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable”.
“We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together,” it said.
Protests have rocked Hong Kong for nearly five months in response to a now-defunct extradition bill widely seen as the most recent erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement meant to preserve the city’s high degree of autonomy as a Chinese territory.
As the situation in Hong Kong intensifies, businesses have been increasingly caught in the crosshairs.
The Rockets are widely followed in China, partly because they drafted Yao Ming in 2002, who became a star and helped build the NBA’s following in China.
In response to Morey’s post, Tencent’s online sports channel and state-owned broadcaster CCTV Sports announced they would suspend broadcasting of Rockets games.
The Chinese Basketball Association, chaired by Yao, also cut ties with the Rockets in response to the “improper remarks” as stated on Weibo.
Basketball fans in China criticised the Rockets on Weibo.
“I watched the Rockets for 21 years, but I’m still a Chinese person first and foremost,” said one user in response to the basketball association’s announcement.
Meanwhile, US politicians joined a chorus of criticism of the NBA’s response, calling it “shameful”.
“As a lifelong @HoustonRockets fan, I was proud to see @dmorey call out the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of protesters in Hong Kong,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, said on Twitter. “Now, in pursuit of $, the @NBA is shamefully retreating.”
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) October 7, 2019
Other legislators accused the NBA of double standards when it comes to China.
NBA stars and some coaches have been outspoken in their criticism of US President Donald Trump, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has encouraged players to speak out on issues of concern, including questions of police brutality and gun violence.
New Jersey Congressman Tom Malinowski, a Democrat, said China was using its economic power to censor speech by Americans in the United States.
“And the #NBA, which [correctly] has no problem with players/employees criticizing our gov’t, is now apologizing for criticizing the Chinese gov’t. This is shameful and cannot stand,” he said in a tweet.
The Rockets are in Japan for a pre-season exhibition against the Toronto Raptors.
Star player James Harden said after a practice on Monday the controversy had not affected the players.