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NBA’s ties with China, worth billions, now under strain

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — It wasn’t even a month ago that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver sat overlooking center court at an arena in Beijing, watching the gold-medal game at the World Cup with other basketball dignitaries.

That night was all smiles.

Silver’s return to China later this week will be much different.

The relationship between China and the NBA – a multibillion-dollar marriage that involves media rights, streaming, merchandise sales and much more – is strained right now in ways unlike any other since the league first began planting roots there in earnest three decades ago. A since-deleted tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey that showed support for Hong Kong anti-government protesters prompted an immediate backlash, complicated further by the timing of the NBA having two preseason games in China this week.

“We apologize,” Rockets star James Harden said in Japan on Monday. “We love China. We love playing there. I know for both of us individually we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most support and love. So we appreciate them as a fan base and we love everything they’re about and we appreciate the support that they give us individually and as an organization.”

That support is being sternly tested, be it from tweets that were deleted, uproars over an NBA statement that had some of its meaning lost in translation when posted in Mandarin and even the cancellation announced Monday of two G League games to be played in China between the minor-league affiliates of the Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks.

At least one Chinese sporting goods company said it was no longer cooperating with the Rockets and Tencent Sports, a major media company with NBA broadcast rights in China, said it was no longer covering the team.

“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” Silver told Kyodo News in an interview Monday. “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.”

The NBA is enormously popular in China: Oft-cited figures from basketball executives in both the U.S. and China say that 300 million people play the game recreationally there and that about 500 million Chinese watched at least one NBA game last season.

And the Rockets are among the biggest team brands there, no doubt because Chinese star Yao Ming – a Basketball Hall of Famer – spent his NBA career with Houston.

Yao is now president of the Chinese Basketball Association, which announced over the weekend it is suspending its ties with the Rockets in retaliation for Morey’s tweet. While Yao has not shared his personal feelings on the topic, it’s clear that the relationship between Yao and his only NBA team is currently, at best, rocky.

This is a clash for the NBA, which has staked out a position as a progressive league where players are encouraged to speak out on social issues, and the league’s business interests. No doubt part of the fast and harsh reaction from China to the Morey Tweet is concern in China that LeBron James or other very popular figures in the NBA — players known for their social activism — would wade in on the issue and side with the protestors in Hong Kong.

Silver will address the matter at a news conference Tuesday in Japan, where the Rockets are playing this week. He then is scheduled to speak in Shanghai on Thursday, in advance of two preseason games in China between the Los Angeles Lakers, led by global sports icon LeBron James, and the Brooklyn Nets, now owned by Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.

“What is the problem with people freely expressing their opinion? This freedom is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues,” Tsai wrote in a lengthy open letter posted late Sunday. “The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities.”

And in China, discussion of the Hong Kong protests is one of those issues, Tsai said.

The NBA’s relationship with China dates back about 30 years to the time when former Commissioner David Stern struck a deal with Chinese television to show games on a tape-delayed basis. Stern even talked about having an NBA-sponsored or branded league in China. The first league office there had three employees and flimsy furniture.

Now, about 200 NBA employees work in China in offices in Beijing and Shanghai. Games are streamed live and Chinese media cover all the league’s biggest events such as All-Star weekend and the NBA Finals. The league has played preseason games there for years, has three NBA academies in the country – designed to find the next star prospect – and big-name players go there every offseason to promote their brand.

Retired Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade has a lifetime contract with Chinese apparel company Li-Ning. Golden State guard Klay Thompson has a 10-year deal with another Chinese shoe company, Anta. Five-time champion Kobe Bryant has been visiting China annually for about two decades and is a massive star there, even now that his playing career is done.

The league has navigated its way around one thorny issue related to the U.S. and China in recent months: a trade war between the nations that includes back-and-forth tariffs. The Hong Kong tweet, though, is likely to present a much bigger test for the NBA.

“What I can tell you for sure is it’s not going to erase the decades of work that, you know, myself and everyone else in the NBA has put in in building a tremendous base for basketball in China,” Golden State Warriors COO Rick Welts said Monday in an appearance on CNBC. “And I think this will pass. And I do think our future in China is probably pretty remarkable.”

 

Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to lead peaceful protest

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While many NBA players have spoken out on social media and attended rallies in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police, maybe none has been as vocal and active as the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown.

Saturday, he drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to lead a peaceful protest at the Martin Luther King National Historic Park.

Brown was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Brown’s protest still had a run-in with Atlanta police.

This protest is one of many nationwide happening for a fifth straight night in the wake of the death of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. That death happened not long after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man killed while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood.

Derek Chauvin, the man pictured kneeling on Floyd’s neck — which he did for more than eight-and-a-half minutes — was fired from his job in the Minneapolis Police Department and was arrested on Friday and charged with third-degree murder.

Brown, like many nationwide, hope these protests and this frustration can be channeled into real change. Something this nation needs.

Pistons’ Dwane Casey’s says “we all have to be and do better” in wake of George Floyd’s death

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A lot of NBA players have spoken out about the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis Police officer. Stephen Jackson, a friend of Floyd’s, has been the most vocal. Recently players have spoken out about the racism they felt at other times in their lives.

Few have had the experience of Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey. He grew up in Kentucky during desegregation and was in the midst of some of the uglier days of our nation.

Casey released this statement in the wake of Floyd’s death.

“Fifty-four years ago I was an eight-year-old boy living in rural Kentucky when the schools were desegregated.  I walked into a white school where I was not wanted nor welcomed.  At that time there were no cell phones to record my treatment, no cable news stations with 24/7 coverage, no social media to record the reality of the situation or offer support nor condemnation.  But I can remember exactly how I felt as an eight-year-old child.  I felt helpless.  I felt as if I was neither seen, nor heard, nor understood.  As I have watched the events unfold in the days following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a city where I coached and once called home, I see how many people continue to feel those same feelings – helpless, frustrated, invisible, angry.

“I understand the outrage because it seems the list continues to grow: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd.  The injustices continue to mount and nothing seems to be changing.

“Fifty-four years later, my son is now eight years old and I look at the world he is growing up in and wonder, how much has really changed? How often is he judged on sight?  Is he growing up in a world where he is seen, and heard, and understood?  Does he feel helpless?  Will he be treated like George Floyd or Ahmaud Abrey?  What have we really done in the last 54 years to make his eight-year-old world better than mine was?  We all have to be and do better.

“We have to change the way we see and hear each other.  We have to work together to find solutions to make the justice system just.  Black, white and brown people have to work together to find new answers.   The only way we can stop the systemic problems that people of color have faced all our lives is through honesty and transparency.  We have to understand why people are at their limit at this moment.  It takes empathy, in its truest form.  It takes a culture shift, it takes action.  Let’s stop the injustice now.  Let’s not allow another generation to continue to live in a world where they are treated as unequal.  Now is the time for real change.”

Now is the time for change, but we need to act to make it happen, not just hope.

Jerry West: Lakers vs. Clippers NBA Finals “would be the ultimate competition”

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Jerry West is a Lakers’ legend, a Hall of Fame player who led the franchise to its first championship, later helped put together the Showtime Lakers as the GM. He has a statue outside Staples Center and has a case for greatest Laker ever.

Right now, West is a consultant to Steve Ballmer and the Clippers.

If the NBA goes with a 1-16 seeding in its return, it sets up a potential Lakers vs. Clippers NBA Finals — and West wants to see it, he said on the Dan Patrick Show.

“For me, Dan, that would be the ultimate competition. I think in Los Angeles, they have so many Laker fans, my goodness. The enormous success that the Lakers have had over the years, they are a really good team now, two of the best players we’ve seen in a long time on one team. I think it would be incredible for the people in the west. I’m not sure how that would go over for the teams back east who want to see their respective teams get an opportunity to play.

“That would be a situation where I think it would be unbelievably competitive. It would be compelling. I don’t know how many teams in the same city have competed for a championship in any sport, much less the NBA. It would make a compelling story, but, in all likelihood, I think you’re going to see things that will be a little bit more normal.”

Some teams are pushing back again the 1-16 seeding, not because of this season when all the teams are in Orlando but because if it happens it would open the door to that seeding every playoffs (a lot of teams oppose it in a traditional season).

That hallway series between the Lakers and Clippers would lose some luster being played in a fanless building on the other end of the country (the Lakers would basically have seven home games, their fans have at least a 50/50 split at Clippers’ home games). However, in a league driven by star power, LeBron James and Anthony Davis vs. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — with Patrick Beverley talking a lot of smack — would draw ratings.

One way or another, we need to see this series these playoffs.

 

GMs want more players, roster flexibility when NBA restarts games

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If the NBA had polled general managers last summer — long before the coronavirus had upended our lives and the league — GMs would have wanted more roster flexibility and players. They want more options. It’s the default position for any GM.

However, throw in the coronavirus and the restart of the NBA coming in July, and those GMs see that flexibility as a must. That’s what they said in the GM survey given recently by the league, as reported by Tim Bontemps at ESPN.

One thing that achieved widespread consensus was the need for teams to have more flexibility with their rosters no matter how the league chooses to resume play. When asked if the playoffs should have expanded rosters or teams should have more of an ability to replace players sidelined by injury or illness, only two teams voted for neither option. Twelve voted for expanded rosters, and 16 voted for an increased ability to replace players who are injured or sick…

There also was a strong preference to add two-way players to playoff rosters — something that previously wasn’t the case. Only three teams said they would vote against adding two-way players to playoff rosters, while 19 said they would support it if rosters remain the same size. The eight other teams said they would support adding two-way players even if rosters expanded beyond 15.

In addition, 16 teams said they preferred that the league add two roster spots for the playoffs, while nine voted for one extra spot and five voted for three.

Making two-way players — guys already in the team’s system — available for the playoffs feels like a no-brainer for the league. Adding a roster spot so playoff teams could add a veteran at a position of weakness makes sense as well.

The reason the GMs want the flexibility is obvious — this is an unprecedented situation, the schedule will be condensed (with teams playing every other day), and it’s possible a player or players could be sidelined by the virus for a couple of weeks. Depth is going to matter to teams.

Expect the league to allow some modifications to rosters, and some of those may well carry over into next season.