Going back to the days Yao Ming was at the heart of the Houston Rockets playing with Tracy McGrady, the team has been incredibly popular in China. The “red card” report for 2019 shows they were still the second most popular team in the world’s largest nation and fast-growing NBA market, with James Harden and his beard the face of the squad (the Warriors were first).
Now the Chinese Basketball Association announced it has ended cooperation with Rockets — and the company with the NBA broadcast rights in China will not cover Rockets games (until Morey provides a “reasonable explanation”) — in the wake of a now-deleted Tweet by Rockets GM Daryl Morey backing Hong Kong protestors.
A “reasonable explanation” likely means an apology.
It all shows just how sensitive official China is to perception around the protests continuing in Hong Kong. Those protests have been going on for months, which started with people in the semi-autonomous region protesting a new extradition law that allowed Hong Kong residents to be sent to mainland China. Those protests have grown in both size and scope, morphing into a larger movement as residents there strive to keep their freedoms and push back against what the see as growing Chinese influence and interference in the region. China itself has responded with increasingly intense crackdowns on the protestors, which included one protestor being shot.
The Rockets getting tied up in this all started last Friday, as the team was heading to Japan for a preseason game. That’s when Morey posted — then a few hours later deleted — a Tweet about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. He posted the image and verbiage — “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” — used on official protest websites.
That brought a quick rebuke from Morey’s boss, Rockets’ owner Tilman Fertitta.
Fertitta told Tim MacMahon of ESPN not to read too much into this, Morey’s relationship with him and the organization is all good, saying “I have the best general manager in the league.” However, there has been some rumbling around the league about how much longer the Fertitta/Morey relationship might last, if that is at all on shaky ground — from either’s perspective — this could intensify that dynamic.