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The NBA Is Happy To Play China's Game

Photo: Bob Levey (Getty)

If you were to work backwards, you’d find it pretty difficult to understand what exactly Daryl Morey said, and who exactly was so offended by it.

Start with the latest communique, from billionaire Taiwanese-Canadian Nets owner Joe Tsai, which provides not just a grim history of the Boxer Rebellion and the Massacre of Nanjing, but the implication that Rockets GM Daryl Morey did something so offensive that all 1.4 billion Chinese citizens spent the weekend up in arms not only at him and the Rockets, but the NBA in general:

The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.

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By now I hope you can begin to understand why the Daryl Morey tweet is so damaging to the relationship with our fans in China. I don’t know Daryl personally. I am sure he’s a fine NBA general manager, and I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been. But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.

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Then there’s the statement from the NBA itself, a single paragraph that read like it was composed by dozens of crisis managers over the course of several hours, and just so happened to come across much more forcefully when translated into Chinese.

Couple all of that with Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta’s panicked and public selling-out of his own GM, a report from The Ringer stating that the Rockets had conversations about potentially firing Morey, and Morey’s own apologetic tweets, and you might get the sense that he truly went beyond the pale:

Work from the beginning, though, and you’re left with a much simpler story: Daryl Morey sent a tweet in support of pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, which enraged the authoritarian regime on mainland China to the point that it began suspending various lucrative business deals with the Rockets and the NBA.

The amount of scrambling that’s been done by various figures within the NBA since then should indicate exactly how reliant the league is on those business deals with China. It should also serve as a reminder that any business that becomes reliant on Chinese dollars is always at risk of becoming a pro-authoritarian stooge in the service of protecting those dollars.

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Morey’s tweet, which read, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” probably did offend some Chinese citizens, but if the NBA was really concerned about league figureheads occasionally pissing off sizable portions of its fanbase, LeBron James would never be allowed to open his mouth. The league cowered in this instance only because the Chinese government actually has the ability to do what thick-necked Americans in Oakleys who like to burn shoes on their lawn wish they could: put a giant hole in the NBA’s business.

That’s what makes the response from the league so crazy-making. It’s all been tuned in a way that makes it seem as if Morey’s crime was wounding Chinese basketball fans all over the world, when in fact all he really did that was damaging to the league was piss off a group of extremely rich and powerful people who are committed to denying the civil liberties of those living in Hong Kong. In this way, the NBA has participated in its own kind of disinformation campaign, muddying up a rather straightforward set of actions and consequences in a way that’s meant only to provide personal satisfaction to the rich and powerful men that Morey crossed. At least now we know that you actually can put a price tag on the league’s dignity and supposed commitment to free speech.

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