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How Much Is China Worth To The NBA?

Photo: Kevin Winter (Getty)

Adam Silver has been credited for many things in his time fronting the money of the National Basketball Association, and even after you allow for the 30 percent reputational mark-up when compared with the other commissioners in North American sports, he’s done quite well. But now he is confronted by the hottest-burning question of his tenure: What is China worth?

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It’s almost certainly going to be worth more than Daryl Morey, the stay-tuned-for-potential-changes general manager of the Houston Rockets whose tweet of support for pro-Democracy Hong Kong protestors has become an international incident that has inflamed politicians on both sides of the lunatic spectrum—the polite way of saying, “This is gonna be his ass.”

The Rockets, ever since they drafted Yao Ming, have been deeply invested in the Chinese basketball experience, and are basically the business card Silver has presented for his own bonafides. But when Morey rose in defense of those in Hong Kong and thus in opposition to the political aims of a league-wide business partner, well, free speech is always conditional. 

So far, his immediate boss, Tilman Fertitta (who, by the way, inherited the GM from the previous owner) has supported him, though that came after rebuking him for his tweet and before meetings were allegedly held discussing whether to fire him. The league has gotten out of the way of this “internal matter turned external,” other than to walk away from Morey in a statement so as not to appear siding with the new enemy of the people. New Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai criticized Morey in a statement, which may be an indication of where the rest of the league’s membership is leaning. And even James Harden, whom Morey has defended to almost ridiculous lengths, apologized to China.

The NBA did not hesitate to rise five years ago to eject Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling when one of his many forays into racism went viral and worried the other owners that a financial backlash was on its way. It also temporarily yanked the all-star game from Charlotte because of the infamous North Carolina bathroom bill. In short, the league has made great amounts of hay from being the forward-thinking and progressive league, but with the now-obvious asterisk of “as long as we don’t lose any money we can’t get back on the deal.”

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Silver, noted for his defense of players’ speech in defense of progressive ideas, is giving this a hard pass for the moment for the obvious reason, but the message to the Rockets is a message to him as well. The price of doing business with China is high, complicated involves equal parts posturing, shoe-squeezing, and patience. And, it needn’t be mentioned, a willingness to lose lots of money for a long time because the Chinese government not only is intransigent about the offenses it takes but adamant about what it regards as sufficient and public punishment.

In other words, Fertitta is almost sure to defend the investment at the expense of his general manager—all the Chinese have to do is ask, which they have done by eradicating the Rockets from their version of the NBA. Yao Ming will be a New Orleans Pelican before you know it, and Daryl Morey will be airbrushed from the pages of Chinese basketball history.

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As for Silver, he’ll be working for a 31st owner, one that will put Steve Ballmer’s cash reserves to shame. And let’s not forget India, which just got its first taste of the NBA this week, will soon be the world’s most populous nation and has political matters of its own that in its mind do not require the views of Rob Pelinka, Pat Riley or, heaven forfend, Jimmy Dolan.

And the rest of us? Well, it will make many of us start rooting for the Rockets to keep Morey and reach the NBA Finals just to see how Chinese video technology can cover a game in which one team is being erased from the series and replaced pixel by pixel by (provocation of provocations!) the Phoenix Suns. In a truth-optional world, anything—even this—is possible.

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Ray Ratto wonders how long it will take for someone to blame Russell Westbrook for this.

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