The controversy kicked off by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeting support for Hong Kong protestors on Saturday has shown no sign of dying down. Stateside, the NBA yesterday issued an apology to a CNN reporter “after silencing her question regarding China” during a Houston Rockets press event in Tokyo. According to Daily Caller:
NBA stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who were taking questions at the post-match conference, were not allowed to answer Macfarlane when she asked whether either of them would “feel differently” about discussing political topics “in the future.”
In China, doubts hung over whether yesterday’s pre-season game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets in Shanghai would go ahead as planned, as a press event in the city was postponed at the last minute.
In the end, however, the game went on (though there may still be a question mark over the second game of the series in Shenzhen on Saturday). The Shanghai court was crowded with players, coaches, Brooklynettes and Laker Girls, management and trainers, and ’90s Hall of Famers David Robinson and Gary Payton, who were brought on court during a time out for a segment honoring NBA Legends. The upper deck cheap seats were packed and loud throughout. There was hardly an empty seat in the house.
Despite the tension and a more politicized atmosphere than one would normally encounter in an NBA exhibition game, the predominantly local crowd was fired up. Small displays of national pride could be seen throughout Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena — PRC flag stickers on the cheeks of toddlers, stuck over the NBA logo on some fans’ jerseys — but at the end of the day, most people in attendance were just there to watch a basketball game.
There were some exceptions: sporadic displays of aggressive nationalism that were nipped in the bud by venue staff. Outside the arena, one ticket-holder posed for photos with an evidently homemade sign reading “MOREY FUCK YOU.” Another had a sign reading, “Fuck free speech!! Morey, apologize or fuck off!! Hong Kong belongs to China!!”, which was confiscated by security. A third managed to sneak in a cloth banner reading “Morey must apologize to China” — this, too, was quickly impounded by an usher after being unveiled late in the 4th quarter.
An attempt by one fan to lead a chant of “China’s Hong Kong” (in Mandarin) was roundly ignored by the crowd. A besuited security official went to stand behind the fan’s seat but didn’t eject him from the arena.
The game itself was a nail-biter. The Brooklyn Nets got the home team treatment, with their starting lineup announced second — perhaps appropriate, given that the team last month came into the full ownership of Alibaba co-founder Joseph Tsai. “I hope to help the League to move on from this incident,” Tsai wrote in an open letter earlier this week. “I will continue to be an outspoken NBA Governor on issues that are important to China,” he added.
A sprinkling of Nets jerseys could be seen throughout the stadium, but the clear crowd favorite last night was the purple and yellow #23 — the place exploded every time LeBron James, who put up 20 points in 25 minutes of play, got a touch. Despite a strong showing from James, Rajon Rondo (18 points) and Anthony Davis (16 points), the Lakers lost it in the final moments of the game, as Theo Pinson hit a tie-breaking free throw with 20 seconds to play (to scattered boos from the crowd behind the Nets baseline), and guard David Nwaba sank a jumper to cement Brooklyn’s 114-111 victory.
With the game safely in the books, stadium-wide announcements enjoining fans to file through the exits blared on the PA, and a seemingly satisfied horde spilled out into the night.
At this writing, it’s unclear what the putative success of last night’s match portends. LeBron’s star shows no signs of dimming in China; he was mobbed outside Shanghai’s IFC mall yesterday morning, with an enthusiastic crowd shouting “LBJ, LBJ” in his wake.
Video of mass hysteria outside the Lakers team hotel in Shanghai as Chinese fans chant "LBJ! LBJ! LBJ" at LeBron James. Incredible scene.
Looks like the Chinese government is going to take an L after all. pic.twitter.com/L6kt6OiiZd
— SportsbyBrooks (@SportsbyBrooks) October 10, 2019
Beyond this social media cameo, James was nowhere to be seen on official media or sponsorship junkets, which normally attend exhibition games like this. A Los Angeles Times reporter at last night’s game writes:
“Chinese sponsors pulled out of ancillary events and the exhibition game, forcing the league to remove sponsor logos from the Mercedes-Benz Arena court. Every opportunity for the teams to interact with the media or fans had been canceled by either the NBA or the Chinese government. When the Lakers first arrived in Shanghai, fans at the hotel hid their faces from cameras to avoid recognition.”
The Nets and Lakers are scheduled for a preseason rematch tomorrow in Shenzhen, even as the NBA’s official online streaming partner in China, Tencent, has canceled all preseason broadcasts. Political posturing aside, one thing clear from last night’s match is that the fans themselves have lost no love for the game. Whether NBA diehards in China will be able to continue to pursue their passion, however, might remain an open question until the 2019-20 regular season kicks off on October 22.
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