Looks Like the General Manager of the Houston Rockets Has Deeply Offended China

By Matthew McMullan
Oct 07 2019 |
Getty Images

Now the NBA is really sorry about it.

Basketball season is almost here!

We are two weeks away from the first game of the NBA season. The Los Angeles Lakers, led by Lebron James and human block machine Anthony Davis, will play the Los Angeles Clippers, led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. It's gonna be basketball rapture. Hoops bliss. Very exciting stuff! 

But … basketball news has already happened. 

There is Bad News: The Indiana Pacers say there is no timetable for Victor Oladipo’s return from last season’s knee injury. This is bad news, because I love Oladipo.

There is Good News: Portland Trailblazers guard Damian Lillard and Shaq (who hasn’t played in the NBA in a decade) are trading diss tracks. This is clearly good news for everybody. More diss tracks please!

And Crazy News: Houston Rockets star James Harden apologized to the Chinese government because the Rockets’ general manager sent out a tweet in support of the Hong Kong protesters. Because nothing gets a NBA fan ready for a season of b-ball action like the NBA’s 2019 scoring leader saying sorry to an authoritarian regime.

This is indeed Crazy News. Explain it!

Okay! To explain why Harden is saying sorry to China, you need the recent history: A couple of days ago Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted an image that read “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” This referred to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that have become violent, and Morey quickly caught flack for it from pro-Chinese government NBA fans from China … and then he heard from his boss, the team’s billionaire owner who also owns a few restaurant chains and has a problem with raising the minimum wage.

The owner rebuked Morey's pro-democracy tweet. Sending that tweet was apparently so bad that there have even been discussions inside the Rockets organization about firing Morey. Over a tweet!

They’re gonna fire the manager of the Houston Rockets over a tweet that made China mad?

Well, they considered it at least. And that’s because the Rockets (and by Rockets, I mean the owner) and the NBA (the other owners) know there’s lots of money to be made in China. Chinese people love NBA basketball. There are a lot of Chinese people. And their government is super touchy about any perceived foreign criticism of its handling of the Hong Kong democracy protests.

They haven’t been handling them very well!

This is clearly about money, isn’t it.

Yeah, it’s about money. It’s all about money. The NBA issued a public apology, and the Rockets’ general manager even deleted his tweet and put up a new tweet saying he was sorry for the first one. But it was too late: In a sudden response to this natural wellspring of popular outrage, a number of Chinese companies have cut ties with the Rockets. Lucrative ones. For example: Tencent, the Chinese internet conglomerate that is the NBA’s “exclusive digital partner” in China, announced it was suspending live-streaming of Rockets games on its platforms. The NBA just extended its partnership with Tecent for another five years for a reported $1.5 billion.

Joseph Tsai, a Taiwanese-Canadian businessman who just bought the Brooklyn Nets last month, posted an “open letter to NBA fans” on Facebook to explain why China is so upset by this. Tsai didn’t say China is embarrassed because Chinese people demanding access to a fair court system and open elections are being beaten by cops. He said it’s because western criticism reminds Chinese people of episodes of foreign intervention during the 19th and 20th centuries:

“The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland.”

Of the Rockets general manager he wrote:

“I don’t know Daryl personally. I am sure he’s a fine NBA general manager, and I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been. But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”

Wait, I thought this was about money.

Oh it is. Tsai is a co-founder and vice chairman of Alibaba, an absolutely enormous company that is like Amazon if it was tightly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. So maybe he’s speaking for the “1.4 billion Chinese citizens” who “stand united,” but this is also the kinda thing that could greatly affect Alibaba's bottom line and Tsai's fortune.

He's got extra motivation, because when a company stumbles into something that is politically sensitive to the Chinese government, it costs them. Offend the Chinese government, and lose access to the Chinese market:

The Gap said sorry after some dumb t-shirt it was selling featured a map of China without Taiwan.

Swarovski and a bunch of other luxury brands said sorry for calling Hong Kong a separate country on their websites.

Marriott Hotels said sorry last year for doing the same thing.

The Daimler automobile corporation said sorry after it promoted its Mercedes-Benz line with a quote from the Dalai Lama.  

And the founders of the long-running TV show South Park said sorry today because the show has been banned in China for mocking the government for its censorship. But I don’t think they mean it.

So what you’re saying is: The Chinese government throws its weight around to silence political dissent outside of China too?

Yes! This whole NBA episode makes that very clear. It even denied Amnesty International, the human rights organization that has been critical of the Chinese government's human rights abuses, a lease in a Manhattan office building because a Chinese state-owned enterprise owns the place.

And the fabulously wealthy people who own the NBA are worried about losing access to the lucrative Chinese market?

Yep, that's it.

And James Harden, a real good player but definitely a “regular season champ” kinda guy, should be embarrassed for saying sorry because the Chinese government is mad about the Houston Rockets’ general manager’s pro-Hong Kong protest tweet?

Yes, definitely saying that. This is embarrassing: