By the end of Wednesday in Shanghai, the prospect of the Lakers and Brooklyn Nets actually playing a basketball game in China looked questionable. But by Thursday morning, the game still had not been canceled.
About 200 media members who on Wednesday afternoon entered the lobby of a luxury hotel in the Pudong neighborhood, walked past an ominous sign. A pair of workers were tearing down advertisements to the week’s NBA games. This less than an hour before the Lakers and Nets were scheduled to address the media for the first time.
The three Lakers depicted on one side of the building had already come down, and one worker began to peel an image of Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie’s head off the wall.
By 1 a.m. Thursday local time, all the Nets were gone and just a sliver of LeBron James remained.
The NBA postponed its scheduled media availability on Wednesday, about 15 minutes before it was set to begin.
As of 10 a.m., the games were still on schedule. The first is to be played Thursday night at the Mercedes Benz Arena here; the second on Saturday night in Shenzhen.
Wednesday’s media availability was the fourth scheduled NBA proceeding here that was scrapped within hours before they were scheduled to start. Chinese governmental agencies canceled two NBA Cares events scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday — one to benefit a local elementary school and the other for Special Olympics. A fan event scheduled for Wednesday night was also canceled.
Further, the arena here removed the game from the schedule on its website.
No reason was given for the postponement of Wednesday’s media availability, other than the “fluidity of the situation.” But behind the scenes, many players, coaches and team officials have been nervous about the prospect of speaking with media while the Chinese government‘s issues with the NBA are being sorted out.
The conflict began when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted a since-deleted tweet that supported people in Hong Kong that are protesting the Chinese government. Hong Kong, which was a British colony until 1997, is a semi-autonomous region within China. The protesters began demonstrating in June against an extradition bill that would have allowed deportation of suspected criminals to China. That bill has been withdrawn, but the protests have evolved into a movement demanding greater police and government accountability and electoral reform so voters can choose their own representatives.
The tweet touched a nerve in mainland China, in part, because it came on the heels of a week of patriotic celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the creation of the People’s Republic of China.
“Hong Kong affairs are China’s internal affairs, and outsiders are not allowed to make irresponsible remarks about it!” a broadcaster on China’s state television channel CCTV said. “Morey and the Rockets must truly recognize how they have hurt the Chinese people. They must make a sincere apology to the Chinese people and immediately correct their mistake to mitigate the ugly impact.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver arrived in Shanghai on Wednesday afternoon, a day after holding a news conference in Japan in which he said he would not encroach on Morey’s freedom of expression but hoped to continue the league’s partnerships in China.
“I’m sympathetic to our interests here and to our partners who are upset,” Silver said. “I don’t think it’s inconsistent on one hand to be sympathetic to them and at the same time stand by our principles.”
The issue became more visible in the United States with Chinese teams playing exhibition games against NBA teams there. A fan in Philadelphia reportedly was removed from the arena when the 76ers played the Guangzhou Loong-Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association for holding signs that said “Free Hong Kong” and “Free HK.”
When the Loong-Lions’ played in Washington D.C. on Wednesday night, protesters stood outside several exits, according to the Washington Post. One person screamed “Free Hong Kong” while holding a sign during the silence before the “Star Spangled Banner”. He was escorted out of the arena, according to the Post.
Earlier in the day, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich praised Silver for not apologizing for or limiting Morey’s freedom of expression, and made a reference to President Trump, though not by name.
“It wasn’t easy for him to say,” Popovich said of Silver. “He said that in an environment fraught with possible economic peril. But he sided with the principles that we all hold dearly, or most of us did until the last three years. I’m thrilled with what he said. The courage and leadership displayed is off the charts by comparison.”
Steve Kerr, the politically outspoken coach of the Golden State Warriors, declined to give an expansive opinion of the situation, citing a lack of knowledge about the conflict between Hong Kong and China.
Trump was asked Wednesday if the Chinese were wrong to put pressure on the NBA. He responded by imitating Kerr and saying he looked like “a little boy who was so scared to be even answering the question.”
Trump then accused Kerr and Popovich of “pandering to China.”
Times Beijing correspondent Alice Su contributed to this report.