How the Relations Between the NBA and China Fell Apart

Benjamin White '23

On October 4, 2019, Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets owner, tweeted out an image that said: “Fight For Freedom Stand With Hong Kong”. Soon after, China angrily cut off all connections with the Houston Rockets. Out of all teams in the NBA, the Rockets have had the closest connection to China over the past few decades. This was due to Yao Ming, current president of the Chinese Basketball Association, being a former All-Star for the Houston Rockets (It also helps his reputation that he was a 7”6’ monster). Despite that, all it took was one tweet for that connection to be broken, seemingly irreparably.


It wasn’t just Houston who was negatively affected by China’s decision to cut off connections with the Rockets. China also announced that they would stop streaming NBA games in China. This took into account preseason and opening night action. If the issue is not resolved, NBA games likely won’t be able to be seen in China even after the first regular-season games. This put Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, in a tough spot, forcing him to pick sides. If he sided with the Chinese in order to restore the relations between the NBA and China, that would seem unpatriotic and against freedom of speech. If he sided with Morey, he would come across as anti-China, and the relations between the NBA and China would get even worse. Outside of the U.S.A., China has the biggest basketball market. An estimated 300 million Chinese people play basketball. Turning those fans against the NBA would have severe economic results. Despite those economic factors, Silver sided with Morey and freedom of speech, stating that, “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues.  We simply could not operate that way.”


The NBA had two preseason games between the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers taking place in China at the time. After Silver’s comments, it was expected that China would cancel both preseason games. Instead, the exhibition was allowed to take place, but there was an awkward tension that took place during both games. The Chinese didn’t allow media availability in either game, so there were no comments from a Brooklyn Net or Los Angeles Laker during these games. What made the situation tenser was that China pulled back all of its sponsors for the game. That move displayed the world how odd an NBA game would look without sponsors on the court, or in the arena. Quite possibly, the oddest part was the organization’s inability to say anything. Every player, coach, or other part of either the Lakers or Nets organization fully understood how tense things had become between the NBA and China.


The preseason games have ended, yet relations have not been restored. Instead, more information came out. During preseason action, Adam Silver reportedly held a tense meeting with Nets and Lakers players. In said meeting, multiple players voiced their frustration with being thrown right into the middle of this situation. The players felt that they had no involvement in Morey’s tweet, Silver’s response to the tweet, or China’s reaction and as such, they were forced to play in this precarious and unsettling environment. This reportedly upset NBA megastar, LeBron James, who pressed Adam Silver to issue comments defending the players who were placed in the middle of this situation. Silver made no comments, but LeBron did, once returning to the U.S.A. He made it known that he believed that Daryl Morey, “wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke”. This upset Hong Kong protesters to see LeBron side with China to the point where they were willing to burn 100$ LeBron jerseys in order to protest. LeBron may be no stranger when it comes to fans burning his jersey, due to his first Cleveland departure, but those jersey burnings were a terrible look for the NBA and their future in foreign relations.


Back in the U.S.A., the NBA has been in panic mode. Both pro-China and pro-Hong Kong protesters have shown up to NBA preseason games, turning the attention away from basketball. It’s been reported that pro-Hong Kong protesters have had signs reprimanded or been kicked out. Both China and Hong Kong are upset with the NBA. It’s in the NBA’s best interest to fix this as the league is already facing substantial financial losses. The problem is, there’s no easy way for the NBA to fix this. The democratic protesters of Hong Kong are against communist China. If the NBA sides with Hong Kong, they suffer financially, but if they side with China, protests will continue against the NBA. At this point, the NBA can only pray that Hong Kong and China come to some sort of agreement before the NBA can repair their foreign relations. Until then, the NBA will have to suffer the consequences that happen when messy politics cross with sports.