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Gary Washburn | On basketball

Adam Silver understands the NBA’s play in China comes with a price

Adam Silver, who was in Japan for a Rockets-Raptors exhibition game, has found himself on a political stage, answering questions about the league, Hong Kong, and China. Jae C. Hong/Associated press/Associated Press

The NBA is good with China and China is good with the NBA as long as politics aren’t discussed. And those conditions were met until Houston general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support of Hong Kong protestors in China, angering many Chinese officials and companies that sponsor the NBA.

The NBA considers China a financial gold mine — as much as $1.5 billion — because of the country’s increasing interest in basketball. The league has played exhibition games in China for several years while NBA players have traveled there for promotional tours with sneaker companies.

It’s almost as if China was another democratic country, but it’s not. And as much as the country accepts and embraces NBA participation, it doesn’t accept any comments that even approach criticism about its political policies or its relationship with Hong Kong.


China has reacted harshly to Morey’s comments, with the Chinese Basketball Association canceling a G-League game between Houston and Dallas affiliates scheduled for China this month. The NBA then released a statement Monday, essentially caving into China’s “don’t mess with our politics or we’ll start divesting money” demands, chiding Morey for his statement, which has since been deleted.

The NBA has prided itself on being the social conscience league, the league that has no issue with its players speaking out on American politics or police brutality, but when a league official criticizes a country that the league desperately wants to continue their fruitful financial relationship with, there’s a problem.

That’s hypocritical.

Commissioner Adam Silver tried to swoop in Tuesday morning and support Morey’s right to free speech, but not exactly what Morey said. The Chinese weren’t buoyed by this hustle. China Central Television then announced it would not televise two NBA preseason games this week and would review its contract with the league moving forward.


Anta, a shoe company that endorses current Celtics player Gordon Hayward and previously sponsored Kevin Garnett, announced it was discontinuing contract negotiations with the NBA.

“We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression. I regret, again, having communicated directly with many friends in China, that so many people are upset, including millions and millions of our fans,” Silver said Tuesday while in Japan for a preseason game between the Rockets and Raptors. “We come with basketball as an opportunity to sell dreams, sell hopes, to increasingly focus on physical fitness, mental health. To the extent that we are causing disruption in people’s lives and that we are causing disharmony, that’s something I regret.

“As I said earlier, I don’t think it’s inconsistent to both be apologetic that that was the outcome of that speech but at the same time support Daryl’s right to his freedom of expression and [Brooklyn owner] Joe Tsai’s right to respond.”

An NBA Cares event Tuesday with Brooklyn Nets players introducing a learning center to a Shanghai school was canceled by the Chinese government. And Silver is headed to Shanghai not to say kind words about the NBA’s wonderful relationship with China but now as a negotiator to attempt to appease a government that feels betrayed by the NBA for criticizing its methods and political philosophies.

It’s complicated. The NBA wants to continue its bond with China, using the country to help popularize its brand, but Morey’s tweet perhaps hinted that not everybody in the NBA is so supportive about the country’s treatment of Hong Kong, which has been under Chinese control since 1997 with promises of a “one country, two systems” plan, according to the Handover of Hong Kong agreement. Morey’s tweet offered support to those Hong Kong protesters who believe they are being mistreated by the Chinese government.


Silver’s personal politics aside, he is going to try to distance the league from those comments and smooth over the relationship because as “woke” as the NBA may appear to be, its owners don’t like losing any money.

The “It ain’t our country, so it ain’t our problem” philosophy makes the most sense for the NBA financially, but the league has lost respect as a champion for social issues. You can’t support human rights in the United States, but back down abroad because it doesn’t serve your financial interests. That’s disingenuous. But Silver has the difficult job of thinking about the wealth and growth of a league that has rewarded its owners and players handsomely.

So instead of political stalwart, Silver has to play mediator.

“I think one of the things that comes with freedom of expression often is very difficult conversations. In any society, that comes with that sort of engagement,” he said. “I think nobody ever suggested that when somebody exercises those rights that it means that people are going to say, ‘Aha, now I agree,’ or that everything will be friendly. And if anything, very much an unintended consequence, but I think what we’re seeing as a result of Daryl’s tweet and Joe Tsai’s response, I can tell you, at least speaking for the United States, that there’s, I think, far more understanding of the complexity of the issues in Hong Kong than there was heretofore. Sports often serves that purpose, that takes people who might not otherwise pay attention to issues in society, and sports shines a light on them. So that’s where we are.”


The NBA took a reputation and perception hit here and it’s Silver’s job to lessen the blow. Standing up for social justice isn’t financially conducive, at least not right now. It’s not morally right, but Silver has to protect the financial interest of the league he’s in charge of.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.