There’s Money to be Made in China for the NBA

By Matthew McMullan
Oct 25 2023 |
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While a disgruntled star dredges up a recent history the league would like to forget.

The NBA season started Tuesday night, and I have too many Washington Wizards on my fantasy team. This isn’t a problem that anyone serious about winning their fantasy league has.

Even if my personal team is already doomed, though, there are plenty of other hoops storylines to keep me interested. Will the Jayson Tatum-led Boston Celtics and a new supporting cast get over the ultimate hump and win their franchise another championship? To do so they’ll have to get past the Bucks; This offseason Milwaukee traded for star guard Damian Lillard to pair with the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they’re gonna be really good. The Denver Nuggets, meanwhile, are the defending champs – but the Western Conference is wide open! Can Nikola Jokic get himself to care enough about basketball to be the league’s best player again? What kind of rookie season is Victor Wembanyama and his 8’ wingspan gonna have with the Spurs?

And what’s gonna happen with James Harden?

James Harden, a ten-time All Star who has won the scoring title three times and MVP once, is on his third team in three years. After his current team, the Philadelphia 76ers, didn’t sign him to a max contract this offseason he requested a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers. And, in August, when the Sixers and the Clippers couldn’t come to terms (they’re probably still talking, who knows), Harden did this:

“Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of,” Harden said in China this August to fans and media at an event sponsored by Adidas, the company that makes his shoe line. “Let me say that again: Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of.”

Morey, for those not paying attention to the NBA, is the Sixers’ general manager, and Harden is quite unhappy with him for not offering a contract or orchestrating the trade to LA that Harden wanted. The two of them go back; Morey was the general manager of the Rockets who brought Harden over from Oklahoma City in 2013. Days after making that happen, Morey signed Harden to a five-year $80 million deal. And Harden delivered by playing out of his mind for the next five years.

All that professional success clearly didn’t create much goodwill between the two. Business is business and Harden, who is 34 years old with dwindling chances of landing another big contract, isn’t a dummy. So he laid down a very public marker – he called Morey a liar, for cripes sakes – to force this problem onto the Sixers: Trade him now before he becomes a real locker room issue during the regular season.

And, what’s more, he called Morey a liar in China.

What a coincidence!

The last time the NBA’s business in China was big news in 2019, when Morey, at the time the Rockets GM, tweeted in support of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. That caught the attention of Chinese basketball fans because the Rockets particularly had an established presence in China on account of having signed Yao Ming in 2002. Basketball is wildly popular in China. There’s a well-attended and talented domestic pro league. NBA stars regularly tour the country, inking endorsement deals and soaking in the deep and genuine Chinese fandom. Harden himself just sold thousands of bottles of wine there (yes, he has branded wine – “a wine with swag”) and has publicly toyed with playing in the Chinese Basketball Association.

But following Morey’s tweet the bonhomie dried up. Reaction to it snowballed; the Chinese government is very touchy about what it considers its national security issues – remember, for example, when movie star John Cena recorded an apology in Mandarin for referring to Taiwan as a country so the government wouldn’t ban the release of one of his action movies? – and it encourages nationalism in its population in defense of those issues.  

And so, despite a Morey apology and an apology from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, the league caught an effective ban of its own. It lost all its sponsors on the Chinese mainland and its games were removed from state television for 18 months. It then got dumped on by American politicians from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Donald Trump. An episode of South Park mocked its self-censorship. And then Lebron James, a face of the league and probably the most famous basketball player in the world, got asked about it and immediately put his foot in his mouth, saying Morey was “misinformed.” And then loads of talking heads dogpiled on LeBron for the hypocrisy of basketball stars taking public positions on domestic political issues and then remaining silent on international ones like desperate activists trying to keep street protests going in Hong Kong.

It was a big mess for basketball.

And this – dogpiling on LeBron – is not entirely fair. The “shut up and dribble” pundits who ridiculed him could also be accused of hypocrisy. They don’t want to hear what athletes have to say when it’s an issue they find touchy, like police violence against Black Americans, but demand they speak up when its something they ostensibly care about. Secondly, even if supporting Hong Kong’s democracy movement was a just issue it was also a complex one too, and asking foreign basketball players to weigh in – against a hyper-sensitive authoritarian government that commands an army of online trolls – was arguably asking too much. The league, by which I mean the fabulously wealthy owners of NBA franchises, should have borne that responsibility. After all, we don’t talk about the owners kowtowing to Chinese money; we talk about LeBron.

That said, this doesn’t mean NBA players should be given carte blanche to just take the money that questionable Chinese companies are shoveling at them. American basketball legends signing autographs for appreciative Chinese hoops fans is one thing; Kyrie Irving signing a deal with a Chinese athletic wear brand that celebrates its use of cotton sourced in Xinjiang – where the Chinese state uses forced labor to subdue an ethnic minority – is another. Irving is a world-class guard now with the Dallas Mavericks and do-your-own-research guy who was looking for a new sponsor after Nike dropped him for promoting an anti-Semitic movie on social media. Now, he’s ANTA’s “chief creative officer.”

From a Rolling Stone article detailing Irving’s new deal:

ANTA had previously put itself on the NBA’s radar as a company more loyal to the Beijing government than to the ideals of liberty now espoused by Irving. In 2019, ANTA vigorously denounced then-Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey when he supported Hong Kong protestors, tweeting: “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” In response, on the Chinese social media network Weibo, ANTA said it was “shocked” by Morey’s remarks and declared: “ANTA firmly opposes and resists all actions that harm the interests of the motherland.”

And that brings us back to Morey, Harden and the very unpleasant situation the Sixers now find themselves in.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to assume Harden blasted Morey in China as some kind of three-dimensional chess move to pressure the Sixers GM into sending him to the Clippers. But it drew applause. Harden is well aware aware of Morey’s central role in the costly 2019 flareup – he was traveling internationally as a member of the Rockets at the time – and he’s certainly aware that drawing any attention to it is something the NBA wants to avoid. To the NBA, China is a huge market, and the league is deep in it.

The billionaire who owns the Miami Heat also owns Carnival Corp., the cruise ship operator, and through it he’s got $375 million invested in a joint venture with a Chinese state-owned shipbuilder with deep ties to the Chinese navy.

The billionaire who owns the Brooklyn Nets, a Taiwanese-born co-founder of Alibaba (China’s version of Amazon), donates millions to combat racism in the United States while also investing in surveillance companies that track the movements of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

The league reportedly lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the fallout from the Morey tweet, and as of last year the league has a reported $10 billion invested in China. And with its Chinese business back to a relative normal, I bet it wasn’t happy to hear that James Harden – an incredible basketball talent who once got busted with weed in Paris while hanging out with rapper Lil Baby – was pushing its recent, costly Chinese controversy back into the news, even if just a little.

The NBA season is beginning. The Sacramento Kings, one of league’s smallest-market teams, made the playoffs last season for the first time in roughly 20 years and they’re a good team with good vibes. The Phoenix Suns have completely retooled around Devin Booker since going to the Finals in 2021 and will probably win more than 50 games.

It’s gonna be lots of fun to watch, and the league would much rather you do that than think about how much money it’s got sunk into China.