NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Monday that his organization backs embattled Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey's right to speak his mind on the Hong Kong protest issue, without endorsing what he said.
Speaking to Kyodo News in Tokyo ahead of a preseason game between the Rockets and Toronto Raptors in Saitama on Tuesday, Silver acknowledged the damage Morey's tweet in support of the Hong Kong protest movement had caused the NBA's brand in China.
"There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear," he said. "There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have."
"I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear...that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression."
While in Tokyo with the Rockets, Morey posted in a now-deleted tweet an image with the words "Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong," sparking a wave of online criticism -- much of it from China, a market in which the Texas-based team has long been extremely popular for featuring the now-retired Chinese hall of famer Yao Ming.
Since early in the year, Hong Kong has seen a string of massive demonstrations sparked by concerns about a proposed extradition law that would allow the transfer of suspects accused of a crime to jurisdictions with which the city lacks an extradition deal, including mainland China.
The protesters have since broadened their issues of concern and turned the demonstrations into a wider pro-democracy movement.
As the Morey furor continued to rumble through NBA circles and elsewhere, Alibaba Group co-founder and owner of the Brooklyn Nets Joe Tsai released a statement which Silver called "a fairly lengthy explanation from his standpoint on why (Morey's) words are so hurtful to Chinese fans."
"As a governor of one of the 30 NBA teams, and a Chinese having spent a good part of my professional life in China, I need to speak up," wrote Tsai, who took control of the Nets in August.
(Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey and Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta speak during Game Four of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on May 6, 2019 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas.)[NBAE/Getty/Kyodo]
"There are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities...Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China."
Responding to criticism that the NBA put its economic interests ahead of defending Morey and his right to express his views, Silver was clear.
"What I am supporting is his freedom of political expression in this situation," he said.
"I am also supporting Joe Tsai. I realize, as I said again, these are complex issues they don't lend themselves easily to social media. I can't ultimately run the NBA based on trying to satisfy everyone on Twitter."
"For those who choose also to engage, they'll see that we are dealing with a complex set of issues. And I will just add that the fact that we have apologized to fans in China is not inconsistent with supporting someone's right to have a point of view."
The Rockets quickly distanced themselves from Morey's tweet, with the team's owner Tilman Fertitta tweeting "@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization."
Morey retreated from his earlier post, tweeting an explanation while reiterating the words were his own, not the Rockets' or the NBA's.
"I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event," he wrote.
"I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives."
Former U.S. presidential hopeful and Houston Rockets fan Ted Cruz also weighed in, saying the NBA is "shamefully retreating" in pursuit of big dollars.
But Silver was resolute in his organization's position that members of the NBA community are free to express themselves and the league backs their right to do so.
"There are the values that have been part of this league from its earliest days, and that includes free expression," he said.
"I accept that it is also Chinese governments' and Chinese businesses' right to react to those words and, at least from my long-time experience in the NBA, it will take some time to heal some of these issues."
"We are a platform in which people can engage and I would like to believe that for each side who believes they have a point of view here, that this engagement is positive."
Silver said he has had many conversations with NBA staff in the China and Hong Kong offices which gave him perspective on both sides of the equation.
"I recognize that words truly do matter. There is no doubt we have a large presence in China, we have a large presence in Hong Kong."
"As complex as I understood these issues were, as I talked to them I realize how emotional they are, and how careful the league needs to be."
Silver even said he believes that, despite the significant short-term pain the controversy is causing the NBA as it endeavors to build its brand across Asia, some good may come out of it.
"I would like to believe, as a combination of Daryl Morey's tweet and Joe Tsai's response, that many sports fans that don't pay all that much attention to politics, or to the situation in China and Hong Kong, may as a result know far more now about the situation."
"I hope I am not naive in saying that I think at the end of the day some positive will come from this."