China, NBA Standoff Deepens Over Basketball Executive’s Tweet

Beijing and the National Basketball Association hardened their standoff on Tuesday, as China canceled broadcasts of preseason games and the league’s commissioner said he wouldn’t apologize for a weekend tweet by a team executive that triggered a firestorm of criticism.

The escalation in tensions threatened to plunge the NBA’s carefully cultivated China franchise into deeper crisis, with more merchants halting sales of NBA merchandise, many Chinese celebrities pulling out of an NBA event in Shanghai and a major Chinese sponsor yanking its endorsement of the games. Tickets from the designated online agent for Thursday’s Shanghai game became unavailable.

Government-run China Central Television’s decision to cancel broadcasts and online streaming of games to be played this week reflected dissatisfaction with responses from the NBA and its commissioner, Adam Silver, to a message of support for antigovernment protesters in Hong Kong tweeted Friday by Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets.

The cancellation expands the scope of China’s pressure over the incident to include other teams. A day earlier, the fallout appeared limited to the Rockets, which CCTV and online platform Tencent Holdings Ltd. said won’t appear on China’s airwaves for an unspecified time.

Mr. Silver, speaking in Japan a day before he is set to arrive in Shanghai, said he wouldn’t apologize for Mr. Morey’s tweet, but he also said he would attempt to ease the standoff, saying that the NBA’s initial statement on Monday left many people angered and confused.

“It’s my hope that when I’m in Shanghai I can meet with the appropriate officials and discuss where we stand,” Mr. Silver said. He added that he hoped to put Mr. Morey’s and his own remarks “in an appropriate context of a many-decades-long relationship and see if we can find mutual respect for each others’ political systems and beliefs.”

But Mr. Silver also acknowledged the challenges ahead, saying: “I’m a realist as well. I recognize this issue may not die down so quickly.”

More on Rockets GM Daryl Morey

In a reflection of the difficulties Mr. Silver faces, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular news briefing that the NBA “knows clearly what to say and what to do.” He didn’t elaborate.

“These foreign teams should know the opinions of China’s citizens, or it will not work,” Mr. Geng said.

CCTV, the league’s government-run broadcast partner of three decades in China, said Tuesday that in addition to the canceled plans to show matchups between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets, it would “immediately investigate all cooperation and exchanges involving the NBA.”

Chinese smartphone brand Vivo, a major sponsor for the coming NBA China games, said that it, too, would suspend all cooperation with the league, expressing “strong dissatisfaction and condemnation” against the NBA’s attitude in a statement posted on China’s Twitter -like Weibo service.

China, NBA Standoff Deepens Over Basketball Executive’s Tweet
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he hopes to ease the standoff when he is in Shanghai this week. Photo: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg News

Anta Sports Products Ltd. , a Chinese shoe brand with a 10-year endorsement deal with the Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson, said on Weibo Tuesday that it was suspending contract negotiations with the NBA, calling itself as shocked as fans by the league’s explanation.

Roughly a dozen Chinese celebrities also said Tuesday that they would skip an NBA fan event slated for Wednesday in Shanghai. It is unclear whether the games themselves are threatened, but the NBA said related events Wednesday are on track.

Meanwhile, an NBA store near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square—the league’s largest overseas outlet—had replaced items from the Houston Rockets with gear from other teams. Online merchants had started removing the team’s merchandise on Monday.

On his way out of the store, Wang Kemeng, a 32-year-old Lakers fan, said Tuesday that the CCTV decision was a pity for fans but right for China, though he said Mr. Morey’s tweet was just one person’s opinion and the entire NBA shouldn’t be punished.

The escalation by China and the NBA carries risks for both sides. For the basketball league, China represents its largest and most promising overseas market, while its perceived weakness in defending Mr. Morey’s tweet has exposed it to a backlash back home.

On Tuesday, the makers of the irreverent Comedy Central show “South Park,” which recently satirized Western firms’ willingness to bend to Chinese pressure, published a faux apology on Twitter, saying: “Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts. We too love money more than freedom and democracy.”

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For China’s part, by stepping up a standoff over a Hong Kong comment, it has built a bigger audience among the U.S. public and lawmakers for an issue that it considers a purely domestic affair.

The fight also drew attention to an NBA training program in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. A human-rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, noted this week that the program is in a region that has been the scene of a mass incarceration of Muslim Chinese.

Many in China have pointed out that the NBA and Messrs. Silver and Morey stopped short of apologizing.

The Global Times, an often nationalist media outlet, portrayed Mr. Silver’s remarks as backing Mr. Morey’s support of the Hong Kong protests, while Yao Ming, chairman of the China Basketball Association who became a towering ambassador of the sport in both countries during a decadelong career with the NBA’s Rockets, was extremely upset at the NBA, Mr. Silver said.

“I’m not sure he quite accepts how we are operating our business right now,” Mr. Silver said. The CBA has severed ties with the Rockets.

As both sides dug in, some fans and players called for de-escalation. “I think that basketball should return to the sport of basketball itself, and should not be upgraded to politicization,” said Vincent Yan, an office worker in the city of Jinan.

Joe Young, a former Indiana Pacer player now starting in his second season with China’s Nanjing Monkey Kings, said Americans need to know how popular the game is in the world’s most populous country. “China makes basketball even bigger,” he said.

—Lekai Liu, Julie Wernau and Yin Yijun contributed to this article.

Write to James T. Areddy at [email protected] and Alastair Gale at [email protected]

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