How LeBron James Reignited the NBA-China Conflict Just Days Before Tipoff

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Ever since Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey unwittingly sparked an international incident with his tweet in support of protestors in Hong Kong — which compelled China to pull NBA sponsorships and cancel broadcasts of last week’s exhibition games in the country between the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers — fans and commentators have been awaiting a response from LeBron James. The NBA superstar hasn’t been shy about wading in political waters. He’s been a fierce critic of President Trump, a vocal supporter of payments for college athletes, and has spoken out on police violence and other issues. He also stars in an ESPN TV show called “More Than An Athlete.”

While James was in China last week, the NBA cancelled media availabilities for the teams. “They have been placed into a complicated and unprecedented situation while abroad and we believe it would be unfair to ask them to address these matters in real time,” the league said. So James could avoid answering uncomfortable questions on Chinese soil.

But back in the U.S., just as China-NBA tensions were dissipating and fans’ attention was turning towards the Oct. 22 season tipoff, James spoke up. And his startling comments put China right back at the center of basketball.

James said he believed Morey “either was misinformed or not really educated on the situation” and that “many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically. Emotionally. Spiritually.” Any reasonable observer could have interpreted James’ remarks as tacit support for the Chinese government, which reacted angrily to Morey’s pro-Hong Kong tweet, over Morey’s right of free expression.

James later backtracked, saying on Twitter that he wasn’t talking about the “substance” of Morey’s tweet, but its impact. “I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet,” James said. He said Morey “could have waited a week” to send it, implying that he objected to Morey potentially putting players in harm’s way while they were in China.

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