Harden apologizes as rift grows: ‘We love China’

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Houston Rockets star James Harden has offered an apology as the controversy over general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet of support for Hong Kong protesters continues to grow at a crucial time for the NBA in China.

Harden spoke while standing with teammate Russell Westbrook at a practice in Tokyo on Monday, three days after Morey posted a now-deleted tweet that read: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”

“We apologize. You know, we love China. We love playing there,” Harden said. “For both of us individually, we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most important love.”

The incident has come at a particularly awkward moment for the league, whose players have often been outspoken about social issues in the United States.

China has teams playing preseason games in the U.S. this week, the Rockets are about to play two games in Japan and the Los Angeles Lakers — with one of the biggest global sports stars, LeBron James — are set to play the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday in Shanghai and Saturday in Shenzhen, China.

“We appreciate them as a fan base,” Harden said. “We love everything there about them, and we appreciate the support that they give us individually and as [an] organization.”

The strong reactions to Morey’s tweet underscore Beijing’s sensitivity about foreign attitudes toward the ongoing Hong Kong protests that have lately grown into violence in the semiautonomous territory. China has accused foreign parties in the United States and elsewhere of encouraging the demonstrations.

The protests were sparked by a proposed extradition law that would have allowed suspects to be sent to China to face trial. Activists saw that as a threat to the legal rights that Hong Kong residents have under the current “one country, two systems” framework.

Nets owner Joe Tsai, a co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, posted a 736-word open letter on his Facebook page late Sunday night saying that Morey stepped on what he described as “a third-rail issue” when it comes to China and Hong Kong.

“By now I hope you can begin to understand why the Daryl Morey tweet is so damaging to the relationship with our fans in China,” Tsai wrote. “I don’t know Daryl personally. I am sure he’s a fine NBA general manager, and I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been. But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”

The NBA, when it weighed in on the controversy Sunday night, said it hopes the league can help to unify people and cultural divides while maintaining an openness to a flow of ideas. Fostering strong relationships with China has been a priority for the league for at least three decades. The NBA has a China office and just announce

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