Thousands of Chinese basketball fans cheered on the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets at an NBA exhibition game in the city of Shenzhen on Saturday night – but some warned the organization to stay out of politics.
Daryl Morey, general manager of another team, the Houston Rockets, voiced support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in a tweet last week, prompting Chinese sponsors and partners to cut ties with the NBA.
China is estimated to be worth more than $4 billion for the NBA, so the stakes are high.
Outside the arena on Saturday, some protesters waved Chinese flags and others held admonitory red signs. “Morey must apologize to China,” read one. Another said: “Violations of national sovereignty will not be tolerated”.
China has accused the West of stirring up anti-Beijing sentiment in Hong Kong, where large and at times violent anti-government protesters have gained momentum over the past four months.
State media characterized Morey’s tweet – which read “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” – as meddling in China’s affairs. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver defended it on Tuesday, further angering Beijing.
A 20-year-old Chinese university student at Saturday’s game, who would only give his English name, Andy, was unfazed by the controversy and blamed foreign media for stirring things up.
“If the NBA became harmful to China’s interests, we would reject it. But this wouldn’t be such a big deal if you foreign media would shut up about it.”
The protests in the former British colony began in opposition to a bill allowing extradition to mainland China but have since evolved into broader calls for democracy.
Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula guaranteeing it wide-ranging autonomy.
One man with a sign in Chinese saying “NBA get out of China” had it ripped up by police.
“Take care of your safety and belongings, please don’t display any banners or signs inside,” organizers broadcast as people entered.
As game time approached, Phoebe, a 22-year-old chemistry student in a Lakers jersey, said she would not have come if she didn’t already have a ticket. “The U.S. needs to understand it can’t meddle in other country’s politics. If the NBA does this again I’d rather it would leave the country.”
Jin, a 26-year-old property manager who came across the border from Hong Kong with a friend to attend the game, felt a bit nervous. Asked if he had considered not coming because of the controversy, he paused as police strolled by.
“Well, it’s the Lakers and the Nets, they’ve got strong lineups this year, so…”