Two of the people not quoted in ESPN’s nearly flawless piece about Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai’s problematic ties to China — including a business under the umbrella of his company developing facial recognition software that may or may not have been equipped with an “Uyghur alarm” to alert police of a person that the Chinese government has been putting in borderline concentration camps — were Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
I call Marc Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru’s article, which came out Thursday, nearly perfect because how can you read it and not think about what Brooklyn’s two biggest stars would say about it. Neither shies away from a question or speaking his mind, and both have endorsements deals from Nike, which has a shady history of dealings in the country that makes up 19 percent of its revenue.
Irving even considered boycotting Nets exhibition games in China in 2019 over the heated political climate and Hong Kong’s free speech issues. His owner has a quote in the ESPN story saying, “In the American context, we talk about freedom of speech, freedom of press, but in the China context, being able to restrict some of those freedoms is an important element to keep the stability.”
The entire article paints Tsai, who is the No. 2 at China’s more or less state-run “Amazon on steroids” Alibaba, as a mouthpiece for the Chinese government. The most damning companies under Alibaba that I alluded to above are Megvii and Sensetime, and both have been blacklisted in the U.S. over their business practices, making it illegal for Americans to invest in them, but its parent company hasn’t divested interest in either. (Alibaba did make sure not to hold board seats on the businesses if that’s any consolation.) The NBA has a deal to sell licensed apparel on Alibaba because of course they do.
Anytime a piece is written about the NBA’s biggest international business partner, there’s a lot of puckering over at the league office, and, shockingly, Adam Silver, Daryl Morey, and Tsai all declined comment for the story. (Durant and Irving weren’t even mentioned in the story, which, to be fair, wasn’t about them. Gotta maintain those player relationships.)
If you’re wondering why Morey’s name was mentioned, it’s because he authored the pro Hong Kong tweet that almost got him fired. Tsai allegedly pushed for Morey’s ouster as a peace offering to China behind the scenes at the NBA. He denies it, but he also contributed to the false narrative that the protesters were violent and essentially attempted their own Jan. 6 insurrection, even posting an open letter to NBA fans on Facebook saying Morey supported a separatist movement, so we know where he stands.
I want to hear where Durant stands on his boss solely because he’s honest and thoughtful, but I really want to hear how Irving — who stands for “four things, man: inner peace, freedom, equality and world peace” — justifies why he sat out for months over a vaccine but hasn’t said shit about the Nets being the NBA team most visibly connected to China.
The guy uses a walking stick, dresses up as an old man, and burns sage before games. He’s the player most likely to walk away from basketball on some Ricky Williams, “I’m too crunchy for this” shit. If ever there was a moment to cape for one of your core principles, it’s right after a scathing article exposes your employer and right before the other employer starts the playoffs.
The devil on his shoulder told him to stand with the anti-vaxx crowd, and the angel on the other side is taking dirty money from Tsai and Nike shoe deals. It’s easy to puncture holes in Irving’s stances, and the explanation he gave for empathizing, but not standing, with the protesters who showed up at the Barclays Center in 2019 to protest the Nets owner makes it even easier.
“I understand that Hong Kong and China is dealing with their issues, respectively,” Irving said (per ESPN). “But there is enough oppression and stuff going on in America for me not to be involved in the community issues here as well.”
He had a closed-door meeting with Silver about China after the protests occurred but didn’t elaborate on what was said, telling reporters he “left it in that room.”
I get not having enough outrage to throw at every injustice. If you wake up each day and worry about all the pain and suffering endured on this planet you need to get off Twitter, but also, how do you function? Do you walk around mad all day? And who are you more mad at: The people perpetrating the bad things, or the people who don’t seem to care about them? The life of an advocate is really hard, which is why it’s literally a profession. (And also why Enes Freedom should take a long look at if the way he’s going about his career change is even helpful.)
The thing about Irving is he fancies himself as a “voice for the voiceless.” The sort of person who is moved enough by issues to sit out the majority of a season over a mandate. Perhaps he’s swayed by all the good Tsai does in the community, which I should mention because the Nets owner has contributed millions to combat racism aimed at Black and Asian people in America.
That philanthropy could be enough for Irving to trust that his boss really is acting in the best interests of the Chinese population — which, if you listen to Tsai spin it, 80 to 90 percent of them “are very, very happy for the fact that their lives are improving every year.” Houston Texans owner Cal McNair recently tried to use charitable donations to HBCUs to improve his team’s image, and logical people don’t fall for that.
For Tsai, glossing over the other 10 to 20 percent, the Uyghur Muslims currently experiencing “cultural genocide” and the people in Hong Kong who want the democracy they were promised, is as easy as Irving looking the other way when the paychecks and league “Don’t talk about China” proclamations roll in.