China has gone from basketball mad to mad over basketball.
But is all the anger coming from the common man or the communist government?
In case you have missed the crisis consuming the NBA this week, here’s a quick rundown.
It started when the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, published a tweet voicing his support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
The tweet included an image bearing the words: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”
It was quickly deleted, but too late. China was already angry.
Anti-government demonstrators have flooded the streets of Hong Kong for months, first in response to a controversial extradition bill, and then in a broader convulsion of fury at the Chinese Communist Party.
It is, to put it mildly, a sensitive subject for China. And that makes it an equally sensitive subject for the NBA.
Basketball is China’s most watched sport, with a viewership in the hundreds of millions. NBA China is worth more than $4 billion. In other words, a lot of money is at stake for the sport there.
In response to Mr Morey’s tweet, every single Chinese company that usually partners with the NBA announced they were suspending their ties to the league.
China’s state broadcaster cancelled its plans to broadcast pre-season games, as did Tencent Sports, which has the rights to stream them.
And the Chinese Basketball Association, whose chairman is former Rockets star Yao Ming, demanded an apology.
The NBA has spent the subsequent days struggling, and failing, to contain the fallout.
A farcical press conference on Thursday, featuring Rockets players James Harden and Russel Westbrook, summed up the situation, as reporters’ questions about China were abruptly shut down.
It’s an awkward subject, and no one knows quite what to say.
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James Harden and Russel Westbrook at the press conference in question. They were stopped from answering questions on Hong Kong and China. Picture: CNNSource:CNN
What’s unclear is whether the Chinese people are as outraged by Mr Morey’s tweet as their government claims.
In an attempt to find out, The New York Post spoke to some regular people on the streets of Shanghai.
“It’s a crazy time,” one 30-something-year-old fan said. “It’s so complicated. Very, very complicated.”
With undertones that are both social and political, Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China was complex even before the protests started, and certainly long before Mr Morey said anything on Twitter.
“It’s complicated,” echoed a restaurant worker in the Bund area.
“Politicians are always dirty. I don’t want to talk too much, but it’s always about politicians,” he added, in a quiet, conspiratorial tone.
The Post found differing degrees of anger over Mr Morey’s tweet. One local said the Chinese wanted an apology, but didn’t believe Mr Morey should be fired.
“That’s what we want. Well, that’s what our government wants. Quit or not quit, that’s not our business. They just want him to apologise,” said a local calling himself Peng.
“He’s never been to Hong Kong to see how crazy they are. They damage bank machines, the bus, take rocks to the police station.”
One Hong Kong resident, in the Pudong neighbourhood, rued the Chinese government’s decision to shut down the New York Nets’ and Los Angeles Lakers’ public appearances — the teams were in China for a week and played two pre-season games on Thursday and Saturday — and said the fans were the ones caught in the middle.
“It’s a shame. They just want to see basketball. Some people are (mad), but it’s mostly just the government,” she said.
Riot police on the streets of Hong Kong. Picture: Mohd Rasfan/AFPSource:AFP
The NBA banners that adorned the streets of Shanghai are now gone. Chinese TV cancelled broadcasts and sponsors jumped ship.
Some NBA teams are bracing for next year’s salary cap to drop 10-15 per cent from lost revenue.
At the NBA Style shop near Jing’an Temple in the Puxi neighbourhood, Houston Rockets gear had all been plucked off the shelves and tossed in a heap on the floor.
One basketball-loving local’s eyes widened when approached by The Post’s Nets beat writer.
“In time you calm down each part, your part, our government, then recover before next season,” he said.
When The Post approached a fan near the NBA Style shop wearing a Stephon Marbury shirt, he waved him off and hurried away briskly.
And fans who had lined up at the team hotel covered their faces whenever cameras were around, afraid to be seen supporting the NBA.
“It’s not that the police will arrest them. But if their face gets shared on social media people will attack them — and it will get shared,” the restaurant worker said.
“On Weibo (a local social media platform), Chinese people, if you say I watched LeBron James last night, I watched Kyrie Irving, so many people will attack you. Why you go do that, what’s wrong with you? Are you coward? If you like the American basketball, why you don’t immigrate to the America?”
That kind of discord has become common, with some taking grievous offence and others just wanting to watch their team play.
“I cut off all ties with my father after he said that he would continue to support the Houston Rockets,” one fan said on the sports forum Hupu, according to the South China Morning Post.
“The national interest is much more important than family relationships.”
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