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N.B.A. Commissioner Defends Daryl Morey as Chinese Companies Cut Ties

The main state television broadcaster in China announced Tuesday that it would not broadcast two N.B.A. preseason games scheduled for this week in Shanghai and Shenzhen, as the firestorm over a team executive’s Twitter post supportive of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong continued to escalate.

In its statement, the broadcaster, China Central Television, chided Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, for expressing support for the free speech rights of Daryl Morey. Morey, the Houston Rockets general manager, posted a supportive message about protests in Hong Kong on Friday night that drew an angry response from Chinese officials and set off debate about how corporations should balance their public images with their eagerness to do business in China.

“We voice our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Adam Silver offering as an excuse the right to freedom of expression,” CCTV said in its statement announcing the cancellation of the N.B.A. broadcasts. “We believe that no comments challenging national sovereignty and social stability fall within the scope of freedom of expression.”

In a news conference before a separate preseason game between the Rockets and the Toronto Raptors being held in Tokyo on Tuesday, Silver said the cancellation was unexpected, and a community outreach event scheduled to take place at a school in Shanghai also had been canceled.

“I think it’s unfortunate,” Silver said. “But if that’s the consequences of us adhering to our values, we still feel it’s critically important we adhere to those values.”

The two games scheduled for this week feature LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers against the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets are owned by Joe Tsai, the billionaire co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. In a lengthy Facebook post, Tsai criticized Morey’s tweet as damaging to the N.B.A. in China.

Silver said that he would still travel to Shanghai on Wednesday and that it was his hope to meet with Chinese government officials to try to defuse the conflict.

“But I’m a realist as well, and I recognize that this issue may not die down so quickly,” Silver said.

The N.B.A. has found itself in a position familiar to other global companies seeking to do business in a country with 1.4 billion people and a powerful economy. Many American politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, castigated the league for its initial reaction to the situation on Sunday, which said it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet had offended people in China, but that “the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.”

Silver issued a new written statement on Tuesday morning which said in part: “It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the N.B.A. to adjudicate those differences.”

It continued, “However, the N.B.A. will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”

Silver was more blunt during his news conference: “We will protect our employees’ freedom of speech.”

Morey’s tweet, which was deleted shortly after being posted Friday night, said “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” a reference to the pro-democracy protests that have raged for months in Hong Kong. The phrase is a slogan of the pro-democracy protests, and it is has been chanted at demonstrations.

Chinese government and basketball officials and Chinese companies were furious about the post, and they have pressured the N.B.A. to be more critical of Morey, and even to go beyond a version of the league’s statement that appeared on Chinese social media platforms on Sunday. In that statement, the league appeared to call Morey’s tweet “inappropriate” (The league denied the difference in translation was intentional and said the English version should be considered its official response).

Multiple Chinese companies, including Luckin Coffee, a coffee chain, and Anta, a sportswear brand that sponsors N.B.A. players, announced Tuesday that they were suspending partnerships with the league.

“The N.B.A. has been in cooperation with China for many years,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a briefing on Tuesday. “It knows clearly in its heart what to say and what to do.”

Criticism of the N.B.A. also has come from pro-Hong Kong activists as well as their supporters in the United States, who have accused Silver of capitulating to an authoritarian government.

“It’s morally reprehensible that the N.B.A. is apologizing for one of its general managers standing with the beleaguered people of Hong Kong,” Marion Smith, the executive director of the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, said in a statement. “We understand that millions of dollars may be at stake, but there are some things not worth compromising. One’s moral compass is among them. It’s clear that under Adam Silver’s leadership, the N.B.A. has lost their way in service to Beijing.”

The criticism hasn’t been limited to Silver. Rockets superstar James Harden was criticized on social media for offering an apology to China while standing next to his teammate, Russell Westbrook.

Other basketball figures have steered clear of the controversy. Steve Kerr, the typically outspoken coach of the Golden State Warriors, declined to comment on Monday, telling reporters, “‘It’s a really bizarre international story and a lot of us really don’t know what to make of it.”

DeAndre Jordan of the Nets told ESPN that it was unfortunate for events to be canceled, but that the players aren’t experts in this controversy.

“What we are experts in is basketball and we wanted to come here to promote basketball and see all of our fans in China,” Jordan said.

Silver acknowledged that Morey, an outspoken executive who has routinely weighed in on political issues, had particularly incensed Yao Ming, the former Houston Rockets star who now leads the Chinese Basketball Association. The association said it was suspending a partnership with the Rockets.

“I think Yao is extremely unsettled,” Silver said. “I’m not sure he quite accepts sort of how we are operating our business right now, and again, I accept that we have a difference of opinion. I’m hoping that together Yao Ming and I can find an accommodation. But he is extremely hot at the moment, and I understand it.”

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