China denies it pressured NBA to sack Houston Rockets’ Daryl Morey

Sarah Zheng

Beijing denied on Friday that Chinese officials demanded that Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey be sacked for posting a tweet in support of protesters in Hong Kong.

The tweet, which read “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong”, was later deleted but not before setting off a storm between the National Basketball Association (NBA) and China.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said on Thursday that Chinese parties dealing with the league, both in government and business, had asked for Morey to be sacked over the tweet.

“We were being asked to fire him by the Chinese government,” he said at a conference in New York. “We said, there’s no chance that’s happening – there’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”

However, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the Chinese government “has never made this kind of request”.

“We especially went to the relevant departments to check on this claim,” Geng said.

The NBA row comes after more than four months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, sparked by a now-shelved extradition bill. The protests have since expanded to include calls for universal suffrage and an independent investigation into allegations of police violence.

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The controversy has also sparked a wider debate about Chinese influence on foreign businesses such as the NBA, which was criticised for initially describing Morey’s tweet as “regrettable”. Silver said on Thursday that the wording referred to the impact on Chinese fans rather than a stance on the Hong Kong protest movement.

“I don’t know where we go from here,” Silver said. “The financial consequences have been and may continue to be fairly dramatic.”

Angered by Silver’s comments that Morey had a right to “freedom of expression”, Chinese basketball fans threatened to boycott the league and the Houston Rockets.

The controversy came at an awkward time, with the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers in Shanghai for scheduled preseason matches and events.

The matches went ahead as planned. Live broadcasts of the NBA preseason games in China were initially suspended but have since resumed, except for matches with the Rockets.

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Back in the United States, Lakers’ star LeBron James added fuel to the controversy by saying that Morey “wasn’t educated on the situation at hand” when he spoke out on Hong Kong, and his remarks put many at risk of financial, physical, emotional, and spiritual harm.

“My team and this league just went through a difficult week,” James added on Twitter. “I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen.”

Hong Kong protesters rallied on Tuesday in support of Morey, and denounced James for his remarks.

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