Daryl Morey is arguably the best general manager in the National Basketball Association, consistently finding below-the-radar talent and keeping his team competitive for championships year in and year out. He’s in danger of losing his job for criticizing America’s most dangerous strategic competitor.
John Gonzalez, reporting for The Ringer:
The Houston Rockets suddenly find themselves in the middle of a geopolitical controversy that could put their chief front-office executive’s job in jeopardy. After general manager Daryl Morey expressed support in a since-deleted tweet for pro-democracy efforts in Hong Kong, the Chinese government, the Chinese Basketball Association, and various Chinese businesses quickly denounced Morey and moved to sever ties with the Rockets. As a consequence, league sources told The Ringer that Rockets ownership has debated Morey’s employment status and whether to replace him.
On Sunday, the Chinese Basketball Association issued a statement on Weibo—a Chinese social media platform akin to Twitter—and expressed its “strong opposition” to what it called Morey’s “improper remarks regarding Hong Kong.” As a result, the CBA said it was suspending “exchanges and cooperation” with the Rockets. The Chinese Consulate in Houston also issued a statement saying it was “deeply shocked” by Morey’s “erroneous comments” and expressed “strong dissatisfaction.” The consulate also urged the Rockets to “correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact.”
—-“Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong Tweet Has Put His Relationship With the Rockets in Limbo”
So, what did Morey do? And why would an American basketball team care about what the Communist Chinese think?
On Friday evening, Morey tweeted and then quickly deleted an image that said “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” That prompted Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta to publicly rebuke Morey.
Freedom would seem to be a core American value. And while “standing with” people facing violent reprisals from a brutal regime is barely a verb, it’s a reasonable sentiment. How could the Rockets’ owner, seemingly a decent guy in his own right, be opposed to it?
According to a recent survey, the Rockets were the second-most popular team in China. That’s no surprise, given the fact that Hall of Famer Yao Ming played for the Rockets and helped exponentially grow the sport’s popularity in the country. But Yao is now the chair of the Chinese Basketball Association, which criticized Morey in its statement for making “an inappropriate comment related to Hong Kong” and said it “strongly opposes” the general manager’s remarks. At the moment, it seems unlikely that Yao will act as a mediator in the dispute between Morey, the Rockets, and the Chinese.
Considering he and his family could be killed by the regime for speaking out, that’s hardly surprising. But so?
In addition to the CBA suspending cooperation with the Rockets, at least two other sponsors—sportswear brand Li-Ning and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank (SPDB)—also announced they were halting their relationships with the organization, according to Reuters. A former Rockets reporter tweeted that SPDB would “stop all marketing and promotion activities related to the Rockets.”
In an even bigger blow to the franchise and the league, Tencent—the NBA digital rights holder in China—“announced a blacklist of Daryl Morey due to his ‘Free HK’ tweet” and said it would “suspend all reports/streaming” of the Houston Rockets. Tencent is now offering a “switch home teams” option for fans who bought a single-team pass to watch Rockets games.
In July, Tencent and the NBA announced “a five-year expansion of their existing partnership” that would keep them in business through 2024-25 season. According to the release, nearly 500 million Chinese fans watched NBA games on Tencent platforms—which was up almost threefold from the 2014-15 season—while 21 million Chinese fans watched Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals through the service.
So, Morey could potentially cost the Rockets both a lot of money and access to some talented players. And even impact the whole NBA’s financial relationship with the most populous and second-richest (at least, in aggregate terms) country in the world.
That’s probably a dumb thing for a smart general manager to do. He has to know that his tweets, regardless of any disclaimers, are going to be interpreted as coming from the Rockets and/or the NBA. Given that, it was foolish for him to send out the tweet in question.
Still, owner Tillman Fertida’s response—“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”—is disappointing. Yes, the NBA is in Asia trying to promote the game. And, sure, taking political stands can alienate potential fans and customers. But, surely, supporting democracy protesters under siege by an autocratic regime is sufficiently innocuous—indeed, praiseworthy—that a billionaire team owner shouldn’t outright reject it.
Unfortunately, kowtowing to despots seems to be the cost of doing business in China. And American companies from Google to Facebook to the NBA are seemingly willing to pay that price.