Houston Rockets GM apologizes for Hong Kong tweet after China consulate tells team to 'correct the error'

Key Points
  • One tweet from the Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey set off an international crisis with China for the National Basketball Association.
  • Morey apologized on Twitter over a now-deleted tweet that spoke in support of Hong Kong protesters.
  • Morey's apology underscores the challenges American companies face when they want to do business in China's massive economy, but can't run the risk of saying anything that will upset the country's autocratic government.
  • Thousands of Hong Kongers have for months protested China's rising influence in the city.
General Manager Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets.
Bill Baptist | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tried Sunday to defuse the rapidly growing international fallout over his deleted tweet that showed support for Hong Kong anti-government protesters, saying he did not intend to offend any of the team's Chinese fans or sponsors.

Morey apologized on Twitter over a now-deleted tweet that spoke in support of the Hong Kong protests, after his remarks were attacked by the Chinese Consulate-General in Houston and the Chinese Basketball Association.

Morey's apology underscores the difficulty American companies face when they want to do business within China's massive economy, but can't run the risk of saying anything that will upset the country's autocratic government.

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"I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention," Morey tweeted on Sunday. "I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives."

"I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China," he added.

Morey tweet

According to the Associated Press, Morey's original, deleted tweet read: "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong."

His apology had drawn more than a thousand replies as of 10 a.m. Monday Hong Kong time (10 p.m. Sunday ET), most of them urging him not to apologize.

Thousands of Hong Kongers have protested for four months over anxiety about Beijing's creeping influence over the city, which the British handed over to China in 1997. Those protests have become increasingly violent.

The National Basketball Association is now China's most popular sports league and has formed partnerships with some of the country's biggest tech companies. It also opened NBA retail stores there.

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China consulate to Rockets: 'Correct the error'

A Chinese Consulate-General spokesperson in Houston attacked the tweet and urged the Rockets to "correct the error."

"We are deeply shocked by the erroneous comments on Hong Kong made by Mr. Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets. We have lodged representations and expressed strong dissatisfaction with the Houston Rockets, and urged the latter to correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact," the spokesperson said on Sunday.

The Consulate-General in Houston is an extension of the Chinese diplomatic mission in the United States.

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Morey's initial tweet also drew condemnation from the Chinese Basketball Association. "The Chinese basketball association has expressed strong opposition to the remarks, and will suspend communication and cooperation with the Houston Rockets club," the organization said on Sunday on its Twitter-like Weibo account, per a CNBC translation.

The current chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association is Yao Ming, who used to play for the Houston Rockets.

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta publicly rebuked Morey for the tweet. He said on Twitter that Morey "does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets" and that they are "NOT a political organization."

NBA issues separate statements in China, USA

The NBA released the following in a statement in English on Sunday:

We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have offended so many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.

Within China on popular social network Weibo, however, the NBA released a statement in Chinese that varied somewhat from the English version, according to a CNBC translation:

We are extremely disappointed by the inappropriate remarks made by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, who has undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of our Chinese fans. Morey has now clarified that his comments do not represent the position of the rockets or the NBA. Under the values of the NBA, people can examine topics they find deeply interesting and share their own opinions on matters. We have great respect for China's history and culture, and hope that sports and the NBA, can be used as positive energy for unity, and continue to be help build a bridge for international cultural exchanges and bring people together.

The NBA was not immediately available for a follow-up request for comment from CNBC.

China uses 'economic power to silence critics'

Prominent Texans from both the Republican and Democratic parties criticized the NBA on Twitter.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said: "As a lifelong @HoustonRockets fan, I was proud to see (Daryl Morey) call out the Chinese Communist Party's repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong. Now, in pursuit of big $$, the @nba is shamefully retreating."

Former Texas Rep., Beto O'Rourke, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, added: "The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights. What an embarrassment."

Former Secretary of Housing, Julian Castro, who also is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, said China "is using its economic power to silence critics—even those in the U.S."

Castro added that the U.S. should speak out for the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong and "not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government."

The Associated Press and CNBC's Grace Shao contributed to this report.

— Correction: This report has been updated to correct an editing error and show that Morey deleted his original tweet before the Chinese consulate publicly objected.