N.B.A. Commissioner: China Asked Us to Fire Daryl Morey

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The Chinese government asked the N.B.A. to fire a team executive who posted on social media in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, said on Thursday in his first public appearance in the United States since returning from a contentious trip to Asia.

“We said there’s no chance that’s happening,” Silver said. “There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”

The executive, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, set off the international firestorm with a Twitter post using a slogan used by the protesters in Hong Kong, just as the league was preparing to stage games in Shanghai and Shenzhen between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Nets. Morey later deleted the post.

The request illustrates how quickly and how deeply the relationship fractured between the powerful economy and a league that has spent decades building inroads for expanding in the world’s most populous country.

The financial fallout for the league has “already been substantial,” said Silver, speaking at the Time 100 Health Summit during an interview with the network anchor Robin Roberts to promote the league’s mental health initiatives.

“Our games are not back on the air in China as we speak, and we’ll see what happens next,” he said.

Morey’s post touched off a flurry of backlash on two continents, inviting criticism and sharp scrutiny of the N.B.A.’s business dealings and relationships in China.

Now, after just two weeks of scandal, the future of the N.B.A. in the country is uncertain, Silver said.

“I felt we had made enormous progress in terms of building cultural exchanges with the Chinese people, and I have regret that much of that was lost,” Silver said. “And I’m not even sure where we’ll go from here.”

The backlash to Morey’s post was swift: Several Chinese companies denounced him and cut ties with the Rockets, one of the most popular teams in China. Morey’s own boss, the owner of the Rockets, publicly rebuked him.

But the anger didn’t just come from China. The league also came under fire at home for its initial written response that said it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” American politicians across the spectrum and many stateside fans accused the N.B.A. of bowing to China’s government to preserve profits.

Silver expressed mild frustration with that characterization, saying he was confused by the reaction and felt he was misinterpreted. “I had thought we had taken a principled position,” he said. “I thought we hadn’t so-called acquiesced to the Chinese.”

Even so, Silver two days later stood up more forcefully for Morey and his free speech rights — much to the ire of the Chinese government. The state-run television network, China Central Television, canceled its broadcasts of the games between the Lakers and the Nets and several other related events and promotions.

“We wanted to make an absolutely clear statement that the values of the N.B.A., these American values — we are an American business — travel with us wherever we go,” Silver said. “And one of those values is free expression.”

Silver also stood up for Joe Tsai, the Taiwanese-born owner of the Nets and of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group. Tsai posted a lengthy Facebook statement that criticized Morey and referred to the Hong Kong demonstrators as a “separatist movement,” further incensing many fans in the United States.

“In fact, Joe Tsai, the new owner of the Brooklyn Nets, here in New York, also wrote a piece in which he wanted to give a Chinese perspective — on how they saw the activities in Hong Kong — and I thought that’s perfectly appropriate too,” Silver said.

Silver was not asked about the reactions of other top basketball figures, like Lakers forward LeBron James, who said this week that Morey was “misinformed” when he sent his tweet, or Rockets guard James Harden, who apologized to China last week while on an exhibition tour in Japan. A typically outspoken coach, Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors, received his own blowback, including mockery from President Trump, when he declined to weigh in on the situation.

James has faced significant criticism following his comments, both on social media in the United States and from some protesters in Hong Kong who burned jerseys and turned images of the superstar into memes. Part of James’s complaint was that Morey should not have put players in the position of playing in China amid backlash toward his tweet.