So the NBA has spent the week swallowing its castor oil and acting as if it likes the taste. The league is receiving a spanking from China, which has invested as much as $1.5 billion into the NBA for television rights and marketing.
Two NBA Cares events were canceled, the media was prevented from talking to players for the two-game Nets-Lakers series in Shanghai, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver didn’t comment publicly while in China. All because of a tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who offered support to Hong Kong protesters, who have been rebelling against treatment by the Chinese government.
Former NBA player and Hall of Famer Yao Ming, president of the Chinese Basketball Association, and Joseph Tsai, the new owner of the Brooklyn Nets, denounced Morey’s tweet, which has since been deleted.
Several Chinese companies, including the sneaker manufacturer Anta, have either divested from the NBA or threatened to, while a Chinese television network decided not to broadcast the Nets-Lakers games.
It was a difficult week for Silver, who has the unenviable job of trying to appeal to a major NBA sponsor and cash cow and also defend his employees’ right to free speech. Meanwhile, many coaches have stayed clear of the issue, including the Celtics’ Brad Stevens, who offered full support of Silver but nothing else. Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich have expressed support for human rights but not spoken directly on the Chinese issue. There is a collective hush around the NBA. Silver, representing the NBA’s best interests, is hoping this situation blows over and the league’s relationship with China can be mended.
“Of course I would like people who are associated with the NBA to be sensitive about other people’s cultures,” Silver said in Japan this past week. “I think saying that by no means suggests that we’re going to regulate their speech. But I think that it is appropriate, as a business that operates globally, I think we always have an eye on being sensitive to local mores, local customs. But again, that’s not prescriptive. That’s just a general sense. And I try to be sensitive to other cultures as I travel.”
The NBA can’t go half in on social issues. The league can’t simply support social justice in the United States but claim ignorance with other countries, regardless of how much it will cost. If the NBA isn’t going to get involved as a league in these issues, it has to allow its players to speak out, if they so choose.
Understandably, many players have refrained because of their lack of knowledge of the relationship between China and Hong Kong, a topic they probably weren’t even familiar with until Morey’s tweet. For many NBA players, China is a summer spot to hold clinics, promote a new sneaker, and plug your brand to an enthusiastic audience. The politics there, the fact China isn’t a democratic country and its sensitivity when its policies are challenged wasn’t even an issue until that tweet.
Morey did more for the quest for equal rights for Hong Kong with his seven-word tweet, “Fight for Freedom, Stand for Hong Kong” than he has in getting the Rockets to the NBA Finals. He has since apologized and his job was salvaged, but in no way should Morey be ashamed even though he’s not getting the proper support from his contemporaries or from the league.
Morey made this an international issue and if the NBA has to swallow some humility and reassess its stance on social issues, then so be it. It’s ridiculous for the NBA, which is growing exponentially abroad, to kowtow to a government over a simple tweet.
But it should serve as an education to fans and observers that the NBA isn’t as “woke” or fearless as it claims to be. Maybe the situation with China will blow over and be nothing more than a financial hiccup, but it has definitely changed the perception of the league and of Silver. And those perceptions will take more than a couple of quiet weeks to change.
Fultz is hoping he can regain magic
He’s played in four preseason games for the Orlando Magic and Markelle Fultz has had no setbacks. What’s more, the former No. 1 overall pick is playing with more confidence, especially since the spotlight has decreased from his difficult tenure with the 76ers.
It’s a second chance for Fultz, who experienced shoulder issues, mental blocks, and a series of mishaps while in Philadelphia. The 76ers shipped him to the Magic, who allowed Fultz to spend the last two months of last season and all of the summer to rehabilitate.
He was averaging 6.7 points and 4.3 assists in his first three appearances entering Friday’s game against the Celtics. His shooting will continue to be a work in progress (32.1 percent), but there have been no health setbacks and nothing but positive steps forward.
“It’s like any player, what excites you is the more you get to know him — his approach, his attitude — he has a love for the game,” Orlando coach Steve Clifford said. “He likes to be in the gym. He picks things up very quickly. For a young player, whatever you work on, he immediately applies it when you play five-on-five.”
Fultz is only 21 years old and still can become a frontline point guard. But he will always be compared with Jayson Tatum, whom he was traded for prior to the 2017 draft. Tatum flourished during his first two seasons, while Fultz struggled to even get on the floor. Small things such as hitting a jumper or a breakaway dunk against Detroit are significant steps for Fultz.
“It feels great, just to be out there having fun again, being able to go out there and play freely through our system and just have fun playing the game,” he said. “It’s just stuff I work on during the summer and it shows. They’ve done a great job of supporting me and that’s the biggest thing. I feel like all my teammates have my back.
“A lot of my family and friends were praying, happy for me to be back on the course.”
Clifford said he has been impressed with Fultz’s basketball IQ and his desire to improve.
“You spend time talking to him, he hasn’t played a lot of games however, sit down and ask him questions about the Sixers’ [playoff series last season] and he’s a student of the game,” Clifford said. “I watched the games he played in Washington, I watched the games he played in Philly. The only way you can coach a guy well is you have to be an expert on what their strengths are. There are really no shortcuts with that.
“He’s old school. I recruited D.C. for years and he plays like a D.C. kid. He’s tough. He’s high IQ. He likes to be in the gym.”
Clifford said coaches in today’s NBA have to show a level of patience with younger players because they don’t come into the league as equipped to contribute as their predecessors.
“There’s two ways we can do this: You can say these young guys come in our league, they don’t play as hard and they’re not ready to play in the NBA like they used to be,” he said. “That’s all true. Or you can try to figure out a way because they can play just as well, they’re just not nearly as ready.”
Finally, a crown for Delle Donne
It was a great week for Washington sports as the Nationals upended the Dodgers in the National League Division Series, and the Mystics won their first WNBA championship with a Game 5 victory over the Connecticut Sun.
Elena Delle Donne, perhaps the best women’s player in the world, played through a herniated disk in the championship series and finally got her long-awaited title. Essentially, Delle Donne winning is the equivalent of Kevin Durant getting his first title with the Warriors. It adds a major accomplishment to her résumé, which includes an Olympic gold medal.
“I mean, it feels phenomenal. I’ve like asked Panda [Kristi Toliver] about it, like how does it feel? What’s it like? Panda, how can I get one?” Delle Donne said after the Game 5 win. “But my goodness, this feels so good. It’s hard to even put it to words, but to win this and win this with such a great group of people, I think that’s what makes this so special. We wanted to win this for the person next to us. It wasn’t about winning it for ourselves, and to get this done and to get this for somebody like Toya [LaToya Sanders], who’s an absolute anchor for this team, that’s what means the most, and that’s what we’re going to take away, and that’s what we’ll remember forever. We’re going to remember this season because we were around such incredible people, and we absolutely adore being together.
“So I’m kind of sad, like the season is about to be over, I’m going to miss everybody, but my goodness, we sure ended this on a high note.”
Delle Donne played four seasons for the Chicago Sky before demanding a trade, wanting to be closer to her Delaware home and her special-needs sister. She reached the WNBA Finals in her second season with the Sky, but they were swept by the Phoenix Mercury as Delle Donne left Game 1 with back issues.
Last year, the Mystics made a spirited run to the Finals, only to be swept by the Seattle Storm.
This season, Washington was the best team in the WNBA from opening night, only to have Delle Donne be felled with back issues during the Game 2 loss to the Sun. She devised an interesting theory as to why injuries have played such a part in her Finals experience, reverting back to college days when she sat out a season after leaving UConn.
“I’ve contemplated long hours over why every time I get to a Finals something happens, and I think it’s because I [ticked] the basketball gods off years ago when I decided to step away,” she said. “So I’m hoping this ends this little drama that I’ve been having in the Finals. But yeah, to be on a team that could carry me when I wasn’t 100 percent really means a lot to just get over this hump and to be able to push through when not feeling great.”
Delle Donne was the best WNBA player never to win a title before Thursday, and forcing a trade to Washington didn’t exactly endear her to fans, especially coming off the Sky’s recent success. But in Washington, she became a leader and a franchise cornerstone, bonding with coach Mike Thibault.
“Coach and I, we’ve had this little thing through the playoffs where we go up to each other and say, ‘Have I told you lately that I love you,’ even in bad losses where we’re kind of angry at each other,” she said. “We do that to keep ourselves going and to realize how much we do love each other, and how much I’ve trusted in him in coming to D.C. and believing in his dream, and him putting together this team that is just so great on the court and off the court. So I also said I was very happy that I am one of the players and this is the team that was able to bring him something he hasn’t done yet.”
Thibault, a three-time WNBA Coach of the Year but with no championships in his previous 16 seasons, 10 of which were with the Sun, was grateful for Delle Donne’s fortitude.
“Well, I always knew she had grit, it’s sometimes you need the opportunity to display it,” he said. “You know, she was injured in the Chicago Finals that year and a lot more injured, I think, than she was here. I credit our medical staff and our physical therapists for doing an unbelievable job with all of our players. We’ve had a lot more bumps and bruises and injuries and we’ve kind of — not hid from everybody, but we just don’t talk about it as a team. I think they did a great job.
“But you’ve got to want to play through something. You’ve got to love your teammates so much that you play for the person in the room next to you, and they’re not playing — no offense to anybody else, but they’re playing first for each other, and I think that took precedence, and that’s why their grit comes out, because that meant that much to them.”
The Oct. 15 deadline is coming for players from the 2016 draft, including the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown, to agree to contract extensions or face restricted free agency. Only three players from that draft — Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray, and Caris LeVert — have agreed to extensions with some intriguing players who could at least negotiate until the 11th hour. In addition to Brown, players such as Buddy Hield (Sacramento), Domantas Sabonis (Indiana), NBA Finals hero Pascal Siakam (Toronto), Brandon Ingram (New Orleans), and Dejounte Murray (San Antonio) could be candidates for new contracts. But the 2016 draft is shaping up to be another marred one just three years later. Of the 30 players taken in the first round, 12 are no longer with their original teams. Eighth overall pick Marquese Chriss is seeking a two-way deal from the Warriors, Henry Ellenson already has been waived by the Pistons, and after a short stint with the Knicks is trying to make the Nets’ roster, and Skal Labissiere, once projected as the No. 1 overall pick before he began his college career at Kentucky, is fighting for minutes in Portland. Georgios Papagiannis, Guerschon Yabusele, Wade Baldwin, Malachi Richardson, and Brice Johnson are out of the league . . . The Lakers are vying for a championship this season with the tandem of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but they are also serving as a place for some veterans to resurrect their careers. Former Celtic Avery Bradley, who will turn 29 this month, is on his fourth team since leaving Boston after the 2016-17 season. He was traded to Detroit, then shipped to the Clippers in the Blake Griffin deal, where he struggled mightily under coach Doc Rivers. He was then traded to Memphis, where he played well in the final two months of the season. Bradley, who has battled injuries throughout his career, is healthy and apparently back to his defensive menacing days. He could serve as a tenacious defender along with former Celtics teammate Rajon Rondo in the backcourt. Dwight Howard doesn’t have the freakish athleticism of his Orlando days, but so far he’s playing in the team system and cooperating after being considered an outcast in his past three stops in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Washington. Another former Celtic, second-round pick Demetrius Jackson, is on the Lakers’ roster and is a candidate for a two-way contract . . . Brown will hold his first Community Gala on Oct. 19 at the Encore Boston Harbor Ballroom at 6 p.m. The awards will honor community heroes and donations will benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, The No Books, No Ball program, and Marcus Smart’s YounGamechanger Foundation. Tickets are available on Eventbrite.