NBA head Adam Silver defends response over tweet uproar

TOKYO (Reuters) – NBA commissioner Adam Silver defended the league’s response to the Houston Rockets general manager’s tweet backing Hong Kong democracy protests, telling Japan’s Kyodo News that his organization supports freedom of expression without necessarily endorsing a point of view.

FILE PHOTO: Basketball – NBA Global Games – New Orleans Pelicans v Houston Rockets – Pre-match news conference – Beijing, China – 12/10/16. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver attends the pre-match news conference. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Daryl Morey apologised on Monday for any hurt caused by the tweet that he quickly deleted over the weekend, but his support for the protests in the Chinese-ruled city angered Beijing, Chinese fans and the team’s partners in a key NBA market.

The National Basketball Association issued a statement saying it regretted Morey’s remarks, rankling U.S. lawmakers, who accused the league of buckling under Chinese pressure for the sake of business.

It also disappointed some who see the NBA as the most progressive U.S. sports league. Silver has urged players to speak out on issues of concern, including police brutality and gun violence.

But Silver told Kyodo News in an interview the league’s stance was firm that members of the NBA community were free to express themselves and that the league backed 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,” Silver, in Japan for a preseason game on Tuesday between the Rockets and the Toronto Raptors, told Kyodo.

“I think as a values-based organisation that I want to make it clear … that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression,” he told the news agency. “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.”

Silver said the league also supported Brooklyn Nets owner and Alibaba Group (BABA.N) co-founder Joseph Tsai, who issued a lengthy statement criticising Morey’s tweet.

A preseason game between the Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers is set for Thursday in Shanghai. However, organisers abruptly cancelled a Tuesday media event in the city without giving an explanation.

Several Chinese celebrities also announced on China’s Twitter-like Weibo service that they would not attend an NBA-organised “fans’ night” Wednesday evening.

Actor and singer Evan Li said in a statement posted on his Weibo account that he would boycott the event, saying “the motherland always stands above everything.”

The NBA is believed to earn billions of yuan a year from its Chinese merchandise sales, and fans said the league needed to take action.

“If the NBA doesn’t do anything about this matter, about Morey supporting Hong Kong independence, then should we think about how does the NBA view the Chinese market and Chinese fans?” said Zhang Jinru, a Beijing high school student.

Reporting by Chris Gallagher; Additional reporting by David Stanway, Samuel Shen and the Shanghai and Beijing newsrooms; Editing by Gerry Doyle

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