The NBA’s complicated relationship with China

by Travis Politakis

Basketball is one of the most global sports, having made impacts on people worldwide. One place where the National Basketball Association (NBA) is the most popular is in China. 

There have been a number of players from China who found their way into the NBA such as eight-time NBA all-star Yao Ming who retired in 2011 and current NBA point guard Jeremy Lin, who was a member of the 2019 NBA champions, the Toronto Raptors. 

The presence of Chinese players in the NBA gives the country pride and gives them an opportunity to become closer to the sport that they love. Superstars such as LeBron James and Klay Thompson often travel to China in the offseason and hold basketball camps, market their brands, and bring China closer to the NBA. 

 However, in the past few weeks, the NBA’s relationship with China has taken a turn. As many know, China can be a corrupt country where the government has complete control and censorship over the citizens. There have been pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong over the past few weeks. 

On Wednesday, Oct. 13, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sent out a tweet that read, “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” which was later deleted. 

This tweet set off an uproar in China and a counter-reaction back in the United States. The reason that this tweet was such a big deal was because of the influence that the NBA has in China. 

“In today’s China, the NBA is a political organization,” said author Isaac Stone Fish in an interview with CBS. “The NBA partners with administrative education, it has a training camp in China.” 

Because of this, China has curtailed almost anything that has to do with the NBA. During that week, preseason NBA games were played in China. As a result of the firestorm that was created, China cancelled all media events for those games and prohibited players to answer questions about the topic. 

Chinese sportswear brands also stopped their businesses. The NBA’s streaming partner Tenecent has suspended its billion-dollar deal, and simply put, the NBA is losing millions of dollars as a result of this. 

NBA commissioner Adam Silver released a statement about the string of events following the tweet. 

“It is inevitable that people around the world, including from America and China, will have different viewpoints over different issues,” said Silver. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.” 

The tweet from the Rockets general manager was so controversial, many people wanted him to be fired to appease the Chinese government and the Chinese fanbase. The Rockets have one of the largest Chinese fan bases due to the dominant Yao Ming bringing the team success in the mid 2000’s. 

The Rockets have such a large following that in China, Rockets merchandise has been removed from stores and Rockets murals have been painted over. In Philadelphia, fans holding signs that read, “Free Hong Kong” were kicked out of a Sixers game. 

Texas senator Ted Cruz along with Bronx representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote a letter to the NBA calling them out for not standing behind Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey. 

U.S. President Donald Trump criticized NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Greg Popovich on their comments towards the situation. Kerr and Popovich commented on how they support the way that NBA commissioner Adam Silver handled the situation and then proceeded to take shots at Trump’s leadership. 

Trump then fired back at their comments and said how they are just trying to appease the Chinese citizens. 

“But they talk badly about the United States, but when it talks about China, they didn’t want to say anything bad,” President Trump said in an interview with CNBC. “I thought it was pretty sad actually. I watched the way Kerr, Popovich, and some of the others who are pandering to China. Yet to our own country they don’t, it’s like they don’t respect it.”

I agree with President Trump on his point. Even if it means the NBA is losing some money, why should a sport that started in the U.S. and wildly popular among Americans, cater to a country that is against free speech? 

Free speech is something that America is built on and I don’t think that Morey should have received all the backlash from his tweet that supported something that America is founded on.

Travis Politakis can be reached at

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: