Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey officially resigned from his position last Thursday, ending his 13 years as the top executive for the NBA team in Houston. The 2018 NBA Executive of the Year brought some significant success to the Hoston Rockets organization. In 2012, the Texas NBA team acquired James Harden, who later became 2017-18 MVP, and was one of the best teams in the Western Conference, and reached the playoff Conference Finals in 2015 and 2018.
Morey’s departure in 2020, however, became mixed with politics after his tweets in 2019 supporting the democratic movements in Hong Kong. As the first and only NBA executive to speak out on the Hong Kong issue, Daryl Morey also became a target of the Chinese authorities. They were not happy about the comments from the team’s top manager and the NBA’s decision to not take disciplinary actions against Morey.
Chinese authorities quickly put up punitive measures against the NBA: They pulled NBA pre-season games from TV broadcasts and online streaming platforms. The issue also impacted several pre-scheduled NBA exhibition games in China at the time. The NBA league attempted to keep a distance from the outspoken General Manager, but its statement claiming that Daryl Morey’s comments do not reflect the views of the NBA also drew criticism from both Republicans and Democrats in the United States.
Struggles between the NBA and Chinese authorities then became the opportunity for more people to learn about the issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. In the international community, China has been facing significant pressure due to its government’s records on those issues. In addition, keeping the NBA off in China and the Chinese Internet did not serve the interests of key Chinese companies. Earlier in 2019, Tencent secured an exclusive NBA streaming partnership for the upcoming five seasons for a total value of $1.5 billion. A ban on the NBA would destroy this investment.
Online streams of NBA games resumed shortly after Daryl Morey’s tweet got an unexpectedly high amount of attention, but those struggles and hostilities lasted for an entire year. Chinese state media outlet CCTV halted NBA broadcasts for a year and only aired two NBA games (Game 5 and Game 6 of the 2020 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat) for the entire season. On the Chinese Internet, Houston Rockets became a censored phrase. Chinese media started to use the term “HouTown” or “Red Team” to address the NBA team that got involved in the escalating US-China geopolitical clashes. Censorship around the Houston Rockets stopped after Daryl Morey announced his intention to leave the organization. The team’s name is now visible on major sports media outlets in China.
The NBA is losing endorsements and sponsorships from China as a result of the geopolitical standoff. Media reports estimated that the NBA lost $400 million due to the ongoing challenge that originated from Morey’s tweet. The Houston Rockets lost roughly $20 million due to fewer Chinese sponsors.
Also facing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA is further losing revenue from game tickets and suffering from low TV ratings. The 2020 NBA Finals were played in October instead of June. And it became the worst performing NBA finals in history since the league started to track those statistics. For NBA fans in China, political struggles put their favorite sports against the dominant political ideologies in the country and consequently, resulted in less visible NBA games in China for the past season.
The Houston Rockets did not terminate Morey at the tip of the controversy, while Chinese authorities were making such requests to NBA commissioner Adam Silver at the time. But the General Manager’s departure at the end of the season continues to raise questions of the real motives behind Morey’s decision to leave the organization. According to reports from the New York Times, Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the Rockets, immediately rebuked the claim from Daryl Morey after the initial tweet. But he also publicly stated that Daryl Morey is “the best general manager in the league.”
The New York Times reported that both Morey and Fertitta refused to elaborate on the extent that the China factor caused Morey’s departure, and they ‘abruptly ended the interview after receiving questions about it.’ Morey insisted that the decision to leave was his own, and Fertitta claimed that the relationship between him and Morey was not affected by the Hong Kong tweet.
There are some consistencies with Fertitta’s claim: In September, the Houston Rockets team owner said that Morey’s job was safe. Fertitta showed his trust in Morey by further delegating him the authority to pick the future head coach for the Houston Rockets.
Internet users in mainland China celebrated Morey’s departure on Weibo. Many see the move as an occasion that shows a sign of the NBA’s willingness to have a better relationship with its Chinese fans. A CCTV sports anchor used a four-word phrase(一路走好) that state media translated to “we wish Mr. Morey well on his journey.”
But as the report from SupChina pointed out, the term also has the meaning of “Rest in Peace.” And it does not feel like the anchor was using the phrase in good faith, as nationalism sentiments in China continue to increase.
It is hard to say that Daryl Morey’s departure will help repair the deteriorating relationships between the NBA and the Chinese government. The NBA league has been working hard to please Chinese authorities by donating personal protective equipment to Wuhan at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Chinese authorities acknowledged those efforts and cited them as part of the factors for the decision to resume broadcasting NBA games.
But relations are far from becoming stable and long-lasting: The Houston Rockets were a favorite in China because of Yao Ming, who was drafted by the Rockets with the No. 1 Pick in 2002. Yao played for the Rockets for 9 seasons and retired in Houston. The Rockets also retired Yao’s No. 11 jersey in the Toyota Centre. But in 2019, Chinese authorities ignored those ties and friendships. Instead, one tweet from the team’s general manager created tremendous damage and a lose-lose situation for both the NBA and Chinese authorities.
And through this one-year-long sanction-style punishment from China, the NBA should be able to realize that the world’s best professional basketball league is now standing for values that Chinese authorities may not necessarily appreciate: Freedom of expression, advocating for social justice, and encouraging more participation in democratic elections.
No signs are suggesting that the NBA is going to back down from calling out the Chinese government for their actions. Ruby Gobert became the first NBA player to publicly call out China for its mistreatment of Uighur minorities in Xinjiang. Sharing a post on his Instagram, Gobert captioned the post by saying: “wrong is wrong.”
NBA league commissioner Adam Silver made clear in his interview with Fortune that the NBA will not compromise its values while pursuing business opportunities in China: “We are who we are. We are exporting American values.”