NBA players have been unusually quiet on China since the nation started severing ties with the league. That may stem from the private advice they are getting from sports agents to tread lightly — or avoid discussing it entirely — if they are asked about the uproar over Hong Kong.
"What I told my guys is, 'Don't even talk about it,'" said one sports agent, who asked not to be identified because of the politically sensitive nature of the issue. "I think it's a fine line, and when you're walking that fine line, it's best to not even play around with it."
NBA players and officials have been walking that line since Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong on Friday, according to interviews with players, league officials and sports agents. The tweet, "Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong," has since been deleted. But it's touched off a political and economic firestorm between the NBA and its partners in China, the world's second-largest economy.
The league stands to lose billions of dollars in revenue, despite mea culpas from Morey and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Silver apologized for upsetting fans in China but not for Morey's right to say what he wanted. The NBA has canceled several events scheduled for Shanghai this week, and state-run television station CCTV has pulled the league's games from its airwaves, including Thursday's game there between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets. All of the NBA's partners in China, including tech giant Tencent and Luckin Coffee, have suspended their relationships with the league.
The controversy could hit closer to home for professional basketball players, many of whom spend part of their summers in China promoting lucrative endorsements there.
Although the league hasn't, and says it won't, attempt to censor team executives or players from speaking their minds, the swift and angry response from China appears to have everyone on edge.
The tension was clear when Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown was asked about China following an exhibition game against the Guangzhou Loong Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association on Tuesday night.
Brown appeared not to hear the question — or at least pretended not to — when asked if this game felt different.
"One more question, sorry," Brown said after finishing a sip of water as he sat at the press conference table inside the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. The Sixers won 144-86, and Brown shook his head abruptly when pressed a second time about whether the game felt any different, given all the commotion over China.
"No," Brown said.
One Western Conference executive, who asked not to be identified because of the politically sensitive nature of the issue, said he also supported Morey's right to free speech. But he didn't think it was Morey's place to take a public stand on the matter, saying the Houston general manager should have been aware of the consequences.
"There is a difference between freedom to speak and license to speak," the executive said in an interview. "Just because you can say it doesn't mean you should say it."
Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, who spends part of his summers in China promoting Under Armour gear, avoided taking a stand on China when asked about it after practice at the Biofreeze Performance Center in San Francisco on Wednesday.
"This one is a league-wide situation and our presence in China is just a different conversation," he told reporters. He said the situation was different when Warriors head coach Steve Kerr talks publicly about gun violence or gender equality because the latter makes a big impact for "people who can't speak for themselves within our communities" in the U.S.
Kerr is an outspoken gun-control advocate, donning a "Vote For Our Lives" T-shirt at the NBA Finals in June after a gunman killed 12 people and wounded four in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
"This situation has a huge weight and gravity to it, and there's going to be some things that need to be sorted out," Curry said of the anti-government protests in Hong Kong over a now-withdrawn bill that would have enabled extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. "But I just don't know enough about Chinese history and how that's influenced modern society today and that interaction to speak on it."
Steph Curry: “This situation, there’s a huge weight and gravity to it. There’s going to need to be some things to be sorted out. But I just don’t know enough about Chinese history and how that’s influenced modern society...This is not going away. So we’ll come back to it.” pic.twitter.com/6h6ZGWHQtq— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) October 9, 2019
The trips to China for players like Curry are sometimes part of multimillion-dollar endorsement deals, selling shoes, jerseys and other merchandise to what was a growing Chinese market before Morey's tweet.
Houston Rockets guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook similarly ignored a question on China at a press conference during the NBA's Japan games in Tokyo earlier this week. A team representative can be heard saying "we're taking basketball questions only" before the two players stared silently at the room.
The NBA-China rift escalated off the court in Philadelphia on Tuesday night when a fan was ejected for causing a stir by holding a "Free Hong Kong" sign during the game. Arena security removed Sam Wachs and his wife after he ignored three warnings from Loong Lions team security, the arena said in a statement.
Before that incident, the NBA issued a statement from Silver saying the league will continue to support "values of equality, respect, and freedom of expression" despite the criticism the league is facing domestically and abroad.
"It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues," Silver said in the statement. "It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.
"However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees, and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way," Silver said.
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump and his policies, called Silver a "progressive leader."
"It wasn't easy for him to say," Popovich told reporters in Miami before Tuesday's preseason game between the Spurs and Heat. "He said that in an environment fraught with possible economic peril, but he sided with the principles that we all hold dearly."