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Houston Rockets star James Harden has offered an apology as the controversy over general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet of support for Hong Kong protesters continues to grow at a crucial time for the NBA in China.
Harden spoke while standing with teammate Russell Westbrook at a practice in Tokyo on Monday, three days after Morey posted a now-deleted tweet that read: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
“We apologize. You know, we love China. We love playing there,” Harden said. “For both of us individually, we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most important love.”
The incident has come at a particularly awkward moment for the league, whose players have often been outspoken about social issues in the United States.
China has teams playing preseason games in the U.S. this week, the Rockets are about to play two games in Japan and the Los Angeles Lakers — with one of the biggest global sports stars, LeBron James — are set to play the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday in Shanghai and Saturday in Shenzhen, China.
“We appreciate them as a fan base,” Harden said. “We love everything there about them, and we appreciate the support that they give us individually and as [an] organization.”
The strong reactions to Morey’s tweet underscore Beijing’s sensitivity about foreign attitudes toward the ongoing Hong Kong protests that have lately grown into violence in the semiautonomous territory. China has accused foreign parties in the United States and elsewhere of encouraging the demonstrations.
The protests were sparked by a proposed extradition law that would have allowed suspects to be sent to China to face trial. Activists saw that as a threat to the legal rights that Hong Kong residents have under the current “one country, two systems” framework.
Nets owner Joe Tsai, a co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, posted a 736-word open letter on his Facebook page late Sunday night saying that Morey stepped on what he described as “a third-rail issue” when it comes to China and Hong Kong.
“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,” Tsai wrote. “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.”
The NBA, when it weighed in on the controversy Sunday night, said it hopes the league can help to unify people and cultural divides while maintaining an openness to a flow of ideas. Fostering strong relationships with China has been a priority for the league for at least three decades. The NBA has a China office and just announced plans to add a gaming team in Shanghai to the NBA 2K League, and officials in both countries say as many as 500 million Chinese fans watched at least one NBA game last season.
“We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable,” the NBA said in a statement. “While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.”
China’s official basketball association, headed by Hall of Famer and Rockets great Yao Ming, said it would suspend cooperation with the team, calling Morey’s tweet “improper remarks regarding Hong Kong” to which it expressed its “strong opposition.” Chinese state television and Tencent — a major media partner with ESPN and the NBA in China, with a streaming deal that is worth $1.5 billion total over the next five years — then said they would not be showing Rockets games.
“We have great respect for the history and culture of China,” the NBA said in its statement, “and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
Morey attempted to clarify the matter Sunday.
“I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” he said in a tweeted statement. “I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”
It wasn’t clear if Morey’s new tweets or the NBA’s statement would be enough to salvage the various relationships. Chinese athletic apparel company Li-Ning also released a statement, saying that it is upset with Morey’s tweet.
A statement posted on the league’s Weibo account in China was translated to say that the league is “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment.”
“He has undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans,” the statement read, in language similar to what is sometimes seen in Chinese state media. The NBA later clarified that it put out one statement — in English.
China’s relationship with the Rockets has been especially close because Yao played his entire NBA career with the team. Yao was appointed as the basketball association’s president in February 2017, in what was presented as a step toward reform for an organization that in the past was led by government bureaucrats.
Several NBA players — including major current and former stars such as Stephen Curry and Kobe Bryant — go to China annually to promote their individual brands, and the World Cup held in China earlier this summer saw countless fans attend in NBA jerseys.
“I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided,” Morey tweeted. “And I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta denounced Morey’s tweet Friday, saying that the Rockets are not a political organization.
Fertitta told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon that he felt compelled, due to the reaction to Morey’s tweet, to publicly clarify that the Rockets do not take political positions, but Fertitta stressed that he has no issues with Morey.
“I have the best general manager in the league,” Fertitta said. “Everything is fine with Daryl and me. We got a huge backlash, and I wanted to make clear that the organization has no political position. We’re here to play basketball and not to offend anybody.”
The statements from Morey and the NBA caught the eyes of lawmakers, including no fewer than three U.S. Senators: Ted Cruz of Texas, Rick Scott of Florida and Brian Schatz of Hawaii.
“We’re better than this; human rights shouldn’t be for sale & the NBA shouldn’t be assisting Chinese communist censorship,” tweeted Cruz, who said he is a lifelong Rockets fan.
Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro, a former U.S. Housing Secretary from Texas, tweeted “China is using its economic power to silence critics — even those in the U.S.”
After Morey’s tweet, even the Chinese government’s consulate office in Houston issued a statement saying it “expressed strong dissatisfaction” with the Rockets.
“We have lodged representations and expressed strong dissatisfaction with the Houston Rockets, and urged the latter to correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact,” the consulate general’s office said in a statement Sunday.
The consulate did not specify what exactly it is seeking from the Rockets, and there was no immediate follow-up statement after Morey’s attempt to clarify his thoughts.
The Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, said in a commentary that Morey’s position was “hurtful to Chinese basketball fans and is also an affront to the Chinese people.”
People’s Daily noted that multinational corporations that tested the line on Hong Kong have “paid a heavy price.” Cathay Pacific lost two executives after China warned the Hong Kong airline that its employees would be barred from flying over or to the mainland if they joined the protests.
After being criticized by Chinese social media users, fashion brands Givenchy, Versace and Coach apologized for selling T-shirts that showed Hong Kong, as well as the Chinese territory of Macau and self-ruled Taiwan, as separate countries.
Two G League exhibition games between affiliates of the Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, scheduled for later this month in China, have been canceled, according to The Athletic.
Still scheduled are the Lakers-Nets games in China. Also still scheduled are Guangzhou Loong Lions games against the 76ers on Tuesday in Philadelphia and against the Wizards on Wednesday in Washington.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.