The general manager of the N.B.A.’s Houston Rockets has touched off a firestorm in China after expressing support on Twitter for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, putting the professional basketball league at odds with its largest and highest-priority international market. The league’s marquee franchise, the Los Angeles Lakers, is set to play two exhibition games in mainland China this week.
In a post to Twitter on Friday night, Daryl Morey, the longtime general manager of the Rockets, shared an image that read, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” a reference to the protests that have raged for months. The Rockets have been training in Tokyo ahead of a two-game exhibition series against the Toronto Raptors in Saitama, Japan, this week. The team also has a long history with Chinese fans who followed Yao Ming’s career with the franchise.
Within hours, the owner of the Houston Rockets, Tilman Fertitta, rebuked his general manager — also on Twitter — in a post that said: “Listen….@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.” He later told ESPN: “I have the best general manager in the league. Everything is fine with Daryl and me. We got a huge backlash, and I wanted to make clear that the organization has no political position. We’re here to play basketball and not to offend anybody.”
But the fallout was unlikely to abate.
On Sunday, the Chinese Basketball Association announced that it was suspending cooperation with the Rockets. The president of the C.B.A. is Yao, the Hall of Famer who starred for the Rockets from 2002 to 2011. According to the China Global Television Network, a state-run Chinese outlet, several Chinese companies, including the sports brand Li Ning and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Credit Card Center, denounced Morey and said they also would pause partnerships with the Rockets.
On Sunday night, Morey and the N.B.A. issued statements expressing regret for the offending fans and business partners in China.
The timing could scarcely be more awkward for the N.B.A., which has promoted itself as a supporter of free speech and political expression but is focused on further cultivating an audience in China and expanding its business relationships there.
This week, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets are set to play preseason games in Shanghai and Shenzhen. The league’s biggest stars routinely travel there during the off-seasons to promote their sponsorships. Chinese shoe companies like Li Ning and Anta sponsor N.B.A. players, including a few Rockets. In July, the league announced a five-year extension of a partnership with Tencent Holdings, a Chinese tech conglomerate, to stream games and other league services in China. This deal is reported to be around $1.5 billion.