Foreign NBA fans stick to basketball as Lakers take on Nets in a China tweet storm

Patrick Blennerhassett

Amid a sea of red five-star flags and yellow LeBron James jerseys, the National Basketball Association (NBA) wrapped up its two-game preseason excursion to China in the most politically charged atmosphere the American league has encountered.

While the Brooklyn Nets beat the Los Angeles Lakers 91-77 in front of a near-capacity crowd at the 18,000-seat Shenzhen Universiade Centre in the southern Chinese city, basketball took a back seat to political tensions in the fallout from a tweet.

Last weekend, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey created an international political firestorm when he tweeted his support for Hong Kong protesters, prompting the cancellation of a series of public events with the Nets and Lakers in Shanghai. The NBA also cancelled all press conferences and media access to their players, but the planned preseason games in Shanghai and Shenzhen went ahead.

The league initially called Morey’s tweet, which was quickly deleted, “regrettable” but NBA commissioner Adam Silver defended Morey’s right to “freedom of expression”, stirring up public anger in mainland China.

The two teams played under heavy security on Thursday night at the Mercedes-Benz Arena but the atmosphere was more relaxed in Shenzhen on Saturday, where a small contingent of foreign NBA fans came to watch.

Nevertheless, many fans were reluctant to have their photo taken or talk about anything other than sport.

Some of the umbrellas confiscated by security staff at the entrances to the arena in Shenzhen. Photo: Patrick Blennerhassett

Australian Lucas Watt, who made the trip from Hong Kong with wife Singaporean Bernadette Chng, said he was keen to finally see basketball superstar LeBron James in person.

“I’d love to see a LeBron to Anthony Davis ‘alley-oop’,” he said, referring to a specialist dunk.

“Hong Kong is still a really good place. I just hope this all gets resolved and dies down. I’m most definitely not tweeting anything, that’s for sure.”

Outside, security staff at the stadium searched bags for umbrellas – a symbol of the anti-government protests in Hong Kong – and many were piled on the ground at entrances.

Inside, two notable absences were – again – Silver and Chinese Basketball Association president Yao Ming, who played for the Rockets from 2002 to 2011 before injuries forced him to retire.

Without elaborating, NBA representatives confirmed that “meetings” took place between the NBA and Chinese officials at a Shangri-La Hotel in Shanghai on Thursday before the first game.

A fan sports the Chinese flag at the Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn Nets preseason game in Shenzhen on Saturday. Photo: Reuters

As he did in Shanghai, James drew large cheers from the Shenzhen crowd whenever he made a play.

Samir Hifri, who also lives in Hong Kong and saw the game with his son, said they were also excited to catch James in person. Hifri said they were leaving politics out of this trip and just focusing on basketball.

“We’re here for the sport, to enjoy the game,” he said.

Despite the crowd, neither game was shown on state broadcaster CCTV, which withdrew coverage of the tour after Silver voiced support for Morey.

Members of the Brooklyn Brigade fan club outside the stadium in Shanghai. They say they “love China and love basketball”. Photo: Patrick Blennerhassett

In Shanghai on Thursday, one fan was seen holding a “Hong Kong is part of China forever” poster outside the arena before tip-off, but he was quickly surrounded by security and told not to speak to the media.

A Hong Kong-based Briton would only identify himself by his first name Ben, said this was the third time he had gone to the mainland to watch the preseason games.

“It’s definitely a weird atmosphere this time around,” he said in Shanghai. “Of course LeBron James still gets a huge cheer when he comes onto the court, but that is a bit of an abnormality. Hopefully people can put their differences aside for four quarters and enjoy some basketball.”

Californian Zack Jones was also in the stands in Shanghai to watch one of his former students, Jared Dudley, in action. Dudley plays for the Lakers and played for the Nets last season.

Jones, an executive director of an American school, said he was also eager to see the new-look Lakers this season. The Lakers signed one of the marquee players in the league in Anthony Davis, to pair up with James.

“I think they definitely will have an opportunity to win a championship this year,” Jones said. “I think the real motivating factor is LeBron, with him not making the play-offs last year, I know he’s super-motivated to not only make the play-offs this year but be very successful.”

Zack Jones from San Diego was in Shanghai on Thursday to watch his former student, Jared Dudley, play for the Los Angeles Lakers. Photo: Patrick Blennerhassett

Jones said he would need to educate himself more about the controversy between the NBA and China before commenting on it.

“I really don’t have a lot of insight on that and what’s going on so I would probably have to get a little bit more information and do a bit more studying on the history of the dynamics of what is going on between China and Houston.”

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