LeBron James’ comments fan the flames of the NBA-China conversation

On the 11th day of a firestorm that the NBA could never have foreseen, LeBron James gave his thoughts on the Daryl Morey/Hong Kong Twitter saga. In an instant, the whole issue was back in the sporting spotlight once more.

In less than a week, the new NBA season — one of the most anticipated in history — will tip off. By the time Opening Day rolls around, will the basketball world still be talking about the fallout of Morey’s tweet and its impact on everything from the league’s Chinese fan base, to television deals, salary caps and United States-China politics? With the way things have blown up ever since Morey tapped out seven words in support of Hong Kong protestors, don’t bet against it.

“Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” was the extent of Morey’s since-deleted social media post on Oct. 4. Let’s just say that a lot has happened since then. If you were ever looking for proof of the power that can be wielded by a single tweet, then this is it.

The issue has become so tense (and intense) that anyone who dips their toe in the water is essentially inviting some kind of backlash, no matter which side of the fence they sit — of if they’re not taking a side at all. This is a sports newsletter, not a political one. Frankly, the specific intricacies of a matter with deep historic roots that affects billions is a little above my pay grade.

However, the ways in which a sports league — and a sports executive, and now a sporting superstar — have become embroiled in something with such a large scale is a telling insight into a few things. Not least of which: how passionately the Hong Kong issue elicits feelings on both sides of the argument, and how much a part of NBA mindset the Chinese market really is.

“I don’t want to get into a verbal feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke,” James told reporters on Monday, after the Los Angeles Lakers returned from a preseason trip to China that quickly became fraught.

Chinese authorities canceled publicity events and press conferences and banned the broadcast of the Lakers’ exhibition against the Brooklyn Nets in Shenzhen last weekend, all in the wake of Morey’s message. NBA commissioner Adam Silver toed a fine line, apologizing to China while supporting Morey’s right to have a point of view.

“And so many people could have been harmed not only financially, physically, emotionally, spiritually,” James continued. “So just be careful what we tweet and say and we do, even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too.”

James’ comments drew a fierce response. USA TODAY’s Dan Wolken described it as the most “disgraceful moment” of James’ career, insisting he put Morey’s right to free speech behind his own desire to “sell shoes and market Space Jam 2 in a country of 1.4 billion.”

“The thing is, LeBron, we’ve come to expect more of you,” Wolken wrote. “You’re obviously an intelligent person, a compassionate person and a socially conscious person. At this point in your life and career, it’s part of your brand. But to present that face to an American audience while essentially admitting that all you care about when it comes to the rest of the world is cashing those big checks — well, let’s just say it doesn’t look very good on you.”

James later tried to clarify his comments by stating he and his team had been through a “difficult” week and stating that he was not passing judgment on the content of Morey’s tweet. That clarification didn’t slow the criticism, including from those in the political sphere.

Sen. Josh Hawley, (R – Mo.) tweeted: “Having just been in Hong Kong — on the streets & with the protestors — this kind of garbage is hard to take. LeBron, are YOU educated on ‘the situation’? Why don’t you go to Hong Kong? Why don’t you meet the people there risking their lives for their most basic liberties?”

And so the controversy rumbles on. It’s important to remember that while this has been for the most part a sports story in the United States, for the people of China and Hong Kong, this is something deeply relevant to their lives. Months of protests in the semiautonomous territory of Hong Kong have seen increasing violence between police and demonstrators. Tensions began to rise following a proposal that would allow extradition from Hong Kong to China.

As for the NBA, things remain in flux. The NBA is wildly popular in China, and hundreds of millions of people aren’t going to suddenly stop watching basketball as a result of these comments. But the Chinese government has shown it is determined to make a stand on the matter, and surely knows full well that the NBA covets its market and broadcast reach.

The fallout continues. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, teams began to call the league office last week to ask about potential ramifications of lost revenue due to the Chinese government’s stance.

As of Tuesday, Deadspin was reporting that NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski had his Chinese show “Woj In The House” canceled by Chinese broadcaster Tencent, an apparent response to Wojnarowski liking Morey’s tweet before it was removed. If true, that would be a mightily significant “like” — the show was reportedly the most-watched basketball program in the world.

This remains as explosive an issue as you can imagine — one that the NBA could never have pictured becoming the overriding and overwhelming storyline heading into the new season. It started with one tweet and with the political situation no closer to resolution and feelings still raw, who knows where (or when) it’s going to end?