October 07, 2019
The NBA's relationship with China dominated headlines over the weekend after Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey shared a tweet in support of freedom for Hong Kong, a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China that has been a flashpoint between police and pro-democracy protestors over the last few months. As a result, the Sixers suddenly find themselves connected to a legitimate international incident.
With one tweet, Morey sparked significant backlash in China, including but not limited to revoked sponsorships, a blackout of Houston Rockets games on the league's digital rights holder in China, and canceled contests between G-League teams and Chinese opponents.
Set to play the Guangzhou Loong-Lions on Tuesday evening, the Sixers were given the opportunity to address the issue with the media on Monday afternoon. Organizationally, the message was pretty consistent, and it was insisted that the show would go on.
"The game will go on as planned," Sr. Vice President of Communications and team spokesman Dave Sholler said on Monday. "We played in China last year, and it was an incredible experience for our team and our organization, we felt that support all of last year into this year. We love our fans there, their passion and intensity they have for our sport, and I think most importantly the game of basketball possesses an incredible power to bring people together. And as we play the Lions together, that's what this is about."
"It's a complex issue. We met this morning with our team and our coaches, and under Elton Brand's leadership we have very thoughtful dialogue throughout the course of the year on a variety of issues, whether it's societal issues, game issues, sports issues, whatever it may be. From our perspective, we think the opportunities we have in China are fantastic, we love the support that we've seen, and tomorrow is a fantastic opportunity to showcase that."
At the top level, the NBA has benefitted in some circles from taking some relatively safe stances on social issues over the last decade or so. Commissioner Adam Silver's first major act in charge was leading the ousting of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling for racist remarks he made on tape, and the league's overall message of inclusion has been well-received by most fans.
This latest incident, to borrow from Sholler's quote, is a bit more complex. The NBA's financial interest in China is significant, whether you're talking from an overall league standpoint or down to the individual level. Sixers center Joel Embiid is one of the many NBA players who toured through Asia this summer, joining MVP Steph Curry on a journey to promote Under Armour in Japan and China.
On a leaguewide level, that has led to a lot of straddling the line between acknowledging Morey's right to express himself while distancing themselves from his actions.
It's complicated for a team like the Sixers, who have to play a game against Chinese team that was planned far in advance, only now there is a surprise black cloud hanging overhead. But despite his relationship with Gregg Popovich, perhaps the most outspoken coach on social and political topics in sports, Brown insisted his focus is on the game and not on inserting himself into the conversation.
"Those are Daryl's thoughts, at this time last year we were in China and had a fantastic experience," Brown said Monday. "Personally I've been to China through basketball contacts almost 30-35 times and enjoyed sort of like the basketball relationship our sport has and the effect that it has on different nations. It's a passport all into itself. Our focus is really just about playing the Long-Lions, and excited to play the game tomorrow."
"I remember when I coached the Australian national team, we took probably a C-level team to China and there are over 400 million people in China watching not the varsity team. You go to Tiananmen Square and I remember seeing courts just filled, 100 of them, can't miss a beat with empty courts. They love basketball, and that's my stance on it and tomorrow night...it's not my place to comment on that right now."
Philadelphia's players who were asked for their thoughts on the matter — Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, and Kyle O'Quinn all appeared in front of the media on Monday — insisted they were out of the loop on the ordeal and, in lockstep with the rest of the organization, trying to use basketball to heal all wounds.
"I don't know the details of the situation, all I know is we have fans all over the world, and this brings us together," Simmons said. "I appreciate all our fans, but I don't really know the details so I can't really comment on the situation."
"I haven't heard much about it, I'm still catching up about it," O'Quinn added. "So before I comment I want to get all the details and give an opinion based on how I feel about it."
And so that's where we leave it heading into Tuesday's game, with the Sixers laser-focused on a team featuring former Philly big man Mareesse Speights.
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