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Houston Rockets GM sparks Chinese backlash with Hong Kong tweet

HOUSTON, TX - JULY 19: Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets speaks during a press conference announcing the signing of Jeremy Lin at Toyota Center on July 19, 2012 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The Houston Rockets and the NBA are facing a backlash from Chinese commercial partners, government, sports officials and fans after the team’s general manager tweeted his support of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

The New York Times reports that on Friday night Daryl Morey shared an image on Twitter that read “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong”, in reference to the protests in the city against the role of the Chinese state in local governance. The tweet was quickly deleted.

Reuters reports that two of the Rockets’ Chinese sponsors, sportswear brand Li-Ning and SPD Bank, have suspended their work with the team.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV has suspended broadcasts of Rockets matches. Tencent, the NBA’s digital media rights partner in China, has suspended streaming of Rockets games and offered fans who had bought a pass for access to the games a special offer to switch to another team.

The Chinese consulate general in Houston and the Chinese Basketball Association issued statements condemning Morey’s remark. The CBA also said it would suspend cooperation with Rockets.

Chinese basketball fans have also expressed dismay on social media networks over the tweet.

The Houston Rockets have a strong following in China because they are the former team of retired Chinese basketball hero, and now CBA president, Yao Ming.

Morey, the Rockets and the NBA have scrambled to apologise and distance themselves from the tweet. On Sunday night, both Morey and the NBA made statements apologising for offending fans and other stakeholders.

The NBA said: “We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”

In another tweet, Morey said: “I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided. And I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”

There have been some reports in the US media that Morey’s job is now in jeopardy.

On Friday, just hours after the tweet was published, Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the Rockets tweeted his own rebuke of it, saying “Listen….@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.”

Fertitta later told ESPN: “We got a huge backlash, and I wanted to make clear that the organisation has no political position. We’re here to play basketball and not to offend anybody.”

The NBA is this week due to host its annual preseason games in China. The LA Lakers and Brooklyn Nets are to play in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, born in Taiwan and newly installed as the team’s governor, said in a lengthy Facebook post that, “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. 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.

“I hope to help the League to move on from this incident. I will continue to be an outspoken NBA Governor on issues that are important to China,” Tsai wrote.