Adam Silver, commissioner of the most powerful and influential basketball league in the world, sat in the middle of the dais in a large press room at Mumbai’s NSCI Dome. He was flanked by Vivek Ranadive and Herb Simon, owners of the two teams who were set to play the historic first-ever NBA pre-season game in India. It was the setting of a monumental step forward for basketball in India.

And for the business of basketball, too. Before the first of the two games between the Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers, Silver and Co. announced that the North-American National Basketball Association (NBA) had been considering the launch of an affiliate basketball league in India. Silver mentioned that there were millions of young players, part of the NBA’s India grassroots programme with the Reliance Foundation. He added that hundreds of millions were now watching NBA games live on Indian TV.

That night’s game was a success, a thrilling overtime win for the Pacers, cheered on by 35,000 Indian kids in attendance from the NBA’s junior programme. The league, which has taken advantage of the worldwide popularity of basketball to become a global brand name, had scored in its longest shot yet to grab a stake in the Indian market.

Without a professional league, national success, or a profitable career path, basketball remains a niche sport in India, far from the eyes of the mainstream. But the NBA hasn’t been deterred, and they have continued to believe in India’s potential.

Part of this optimism is based on India having the second-largest population on Earth. China, the country that stands at number one, is also the world’s biggest pool of NBA and basketball fans, with the numbers topping off over 300 million. China has a far more mature basketball market, its own pro league, better infrastructure, and stars like Yao Ming that popularised the NBA in its backyard. In China, pre-season games like those that took place in India have been held every year since 2004.

India, of course, lags far behind. But the numbers and growing consumer culture is enough to encourage any foreign investors that, even a small percentage of fans from India’s billion-plus population would be a significant addition to the NBA’s global bottom line. 

From lucrative shoe deals to broadcast partnerships to just about everything else around the game, China has been a goldmine for the league for decades. NBA players are worshipped in China, and, in return, the NBA gives back with special interest to its loyal fan base in a variety of ways.

But then, tweeted.

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n October 4, 2019, the same day Silver, Ranadive, and Simon sat at a press conference in Mumbai, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey—one of the most respected minds in the business—tweeted an image with the words “Fight for Freedom / Stand with Hong Kong”.

He deleted that tweet. But the damage was done.

Tensions between “mainland” China and Hong Kong—a special administrative region—have been simmering for decades. But this year these tensions escalated to fever pitch, with protests in Hong Kong all summer. They began as a movement against the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill, worrying citizens that it could be used to potentially subject them to mainland Chinese jurisdiction. The relationship between the two states is complicated, as one believes in its autonomy (Hong Kong) and the other in its sovereignty over the entire territory (China).

The protests turned violent and caught the attention of Human Rights watchdogs around the world. In the ongoing trade war between the US and Chinese governments, China’s actions in Hong Kong have come under even higher scrutiny.

NBA’s first reaction was to douse the fire.  Silver flew to Tokyo for the Japan Games, where he put out an apology for offending the Chinese.

So, of course, the Chinese were unhappy about Morey’s tweet, especially considering that they looked at the NBA—and all its affiliates—as friends of their nation. In response, Morey received a planned, cohesive online attack. Based on a review of nearly 170,000 tweets by the Wall Street Journal and more expert information, Morey received angry responses from a number of pro-China Twitter troll accounts, many of them bots or created solely for the function of harassing the GM. Several of those tweets included the phrase “NSML”, a Chinese acronym for “your mother is dead”.


Daryl Morey. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Morey’s own ownership group with the Rockets immediately distanced themselves from their general manager’s message. The NBA’s commissioner claimed that China even requested that Morey be fired from his job.

What complicates Morey’s personal involvement even further is that his employers—the Rockets—have been historically the most popular NBA team in China. They drafted and fielded Chinese legend Yao through the course of his Hall of Fame career and have had a large number of sponsorships and partnerships with Chinese companies.

The NBA’s first reaction was to douse the fire. After Mumbai, commissioner Silver flew to Tokyo for the NBA Japan Games, from where he put out an apology for offending the Chinese. The Rockets’ biggest superstar James Harden offered his own extended apology over his own GM’s tweet. Joseph Tsai, the new Chinese-origin (born in Taiwan) owner of NBA franchise Brooklyn Nets, reprimanded Morey in an open letter and supported China’s party line.

Back in the States, the NBA’s considerably “weak” apology to China became a firebrand issue for political conservatives. The NBA and its players had historically held a liberal stance on politics and opposed the US President. Silver hadn’t held back the league’s biggest names from speaking about the political issues they believed in.

This year’s games in Shanghai and Shenzhen featured the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets. In a warning shot to the NBA, China cancelled the local broadcast of these games as a punishment.

Their collective distancing from Morey seemed like a hypocritical turn to appease a nation that had been so lucrative for their business. Despite being vocal about human rights at home, the league was blamed for choosing money over human rights issues abroad. President Donald Trump of course got into the action, singling outspoken NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich for their distance from the China issue. “I watch the way that Kerr, Popovich, and some of the others were pandering to China and yet to our own country, they don’t—it’s like they don’t respect it.”

Right after his stopover in Japan, Silver was actually on a scheduled trip to China for this year’s NBA China Games in Shanghai and Shenzhen. The two games featured the Los Angeles Lakers—led by the NBA’s biggest name LeBron James—and the Brooklyn Nets, the team owned by Tsai. In a warning shot to the NBA, China cancelled the local broadcast of these games as a punishment for Morey’s tweet.

To keep its players from making inflammatory statements, the NBA cancelled all media interaction during the two games in China. Back in the United States, journalists were stopped from asking the China question and fans supporting Hong Kong were told to leave NBA arenas.

The media blackout, and the bans, were strikingly similar to China’s operations over its own affairs. The NBA—a model of free speech and liberalism at home—had seemingly paid obeisance to China by sacrificing some of its own values.

A recent, ongoing case of the NBA supporting a player’s outspokenness has been that of the Celtics’ Swiss-born Turkish player Enes Kanter, who is a vocal critic of Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan. The criticism has brought him death threats, cost him contact with his family, and made him a pariah in his homeland. But the NBA has stood by the player, often to Turkey’s displeasure.

China, however, is a different and more financially-sensitive issue. Silver eventually clarified his previous statement by saying that he supported the rights of Morey (and others) to speak out about the causes they believed in.

China’s human rights violations and history of totalitarian control over its people isn’t a new story. But for the longest time, the NBA and countless other organisations have looked the other way.

But when the Lakers returned stateside from China and their media blackout was lifted, James was asked to speak about the issue, and he only dug himself and the league into a deeper hole: he called Morey misinformed about the Hong Kong issue—a fight for democratic rights—and complained about the inconvenience that Morey’s tweet had caused him.

James is one of the flagship athletes for Nike, and China is one of the biggest markets for the sports-apparel company. Next summer, James will hope to oversee the release of his movie Space Jam 2 in China under Warner Bros.These are major financial considerations for him. After establishing a reputation as one of the most-outspoken athletes for justice in his homeland, James, too, has been perceived as powerless in front of China’s financial might. It was his weakest performance since the 2011 NBA Finals.

A few days after James’ message, a group of around 200 Hong Kong citizens gathered together on basketball courts for a protest. They chanted “Thank You, Morey”. Some wore masks of a “Crying LeBron” meme and some burned James’ jerseys. “Students, they come out like every weekend,” said one protestor to The Guardian. “They’ve got tear gassed and then they got gun-shot, like every weekend. Police beating students and then innocent people, like every day. And then [James] just comes up with something [like] that. We just can’t accept that.”

This issue is not going to go away. China’s human rights violations and history of totalitarian control over its people isn’t a new story. But for the longest time, the NBA—and countless other organisations from Disney and Nike to Apple and General Motors—have looked the other way at the bad news to continue business relations.

After all, every nation is flawed, and every company has a dark side. There are injustices in the USA, in Britain, in South Africa, in Saudi Arabia, in India. And yet, for the sake of international trade and relations, nations and private institutions make concessions, turn a blind eye, continue business-as-usual.

But most of those other companies aren’t the NBA. On his HBO show “Last Week Tonight” last Sunday (blocked in China, of course), host John Oliver best summed up the dilemma: “The NBA can either have a commitment to free speech, or they can have guaranteed access to the Chinese market. But they cannot have both.”

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or centuries, sport has served as a balm for the aches of society, a kind of necessary distraction for the public, a unifying force for those with different political, economic, and social backgrounds.

But try as it might, sport hasn’t been able to separate itself from politics, and often served as a giant loudspeaker for global political causes. The 1936 Olympics in Germany will mostly be remembered for American track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens’ remarkable rebuke to Adolf Hitler’s Aryan nationalism at the global stage. African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos clenched their fists in the Black Power salute at the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali became a symbol of the American civil rights struggle after refusing the Vietnam War draft in 1967. Football icon Diego Maradona scored two winning goals for Argentina against England at the 1986 FIFA World Cup, celebrated by Argentines as revenge for the Falklands War.

Standing up for your country in the face of an outside “enemy” is easy—it’s much more difficult to stand up against the country’s own government, policies, or injustices.

In recent years, the most discussed case in the relationship between sport and politics in North America has been that of American Football player Colin Kaepernick. To protest police brutality and racism in the USA, Kaepernick began to take a knee during the pre-game national anthems before National Football League (NFL) games. The stance led him to being blackballed by the NFL and he wasn’t given a chance to play professionally again.

Last year, Nike made Kaepernick the face of their social justice ad campaign, continuing their support for American athletes who have spoken up politically in recent years—much like LeBron James. James, famously, called Trump a “bum” on Twitter and stood by his right to not “shut up and dribble” in the face of attacks from American conservatives. It was that bold move that earned James the respect of so many in his country and abroad.

And that is why it was equally disappointing to many when James criticised Morey’s rights to express his solidarity for social justice abroad, for Hong Kong citizens against China.

In India, the intersection of politics and sport has almost always involved our two national obsessions of cricket and Pakistan. Cricket, the country’s favourite sport and true love; Pakistan, our national enemy, our border opposite. India and Pakistan have often looked upon each other as evil twins; but like twins, they also have intricate similarities, and in this case, are bound by their mutual passion for cricket.

Whether it’s General Zia attending an India-Pakistan match in Jaipur in 1987, India’s “Friendship” tour of Pakistan in 2004, or India threatening to boycott the 2019 World Cup game against Pakistan following the Pulwama suicide bombing, the international matches between these two nations have rarely been only about the sport itself.

But standing up for your country in the face of an outside “enemy” is easy—it’s much more difficult when one has to stand up for the country against the country’s own government, policies, or injustices. During the 2019 Cricket World Cup, Indian legend M. S. Dhoni donned wicket-keeping gloves with the insignia of the Indian army’s special forces to nationalistic praise from home. But would he—or someone of his status—make a gesture to protest India’s domestic social problems?

Historically, Indian athletes have steered clear of inflammatory political statements against their government, be it in relation to oppression of religion, caste, gender, language, or culture. Athletes are often at the frontline representing Indian nationalism: they wear the nation’s colours on their badges, salute the national anthem before a big game, and dedicate their performance to the country’s national pride.

An NBA game in progress between Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Then, there’s the matter of economics, too. Big business has the power to crown world leaders or exile them. They also have the power of influencing the Indian public figures they sponsor to stick to the message for the lowest common denominator, to please all and offend none. This is a tricky business in India, a country with an astonishing variety of culture and thought. Our biggest celebrities—Bollywood stars or cricketers—find it safest and most-profitable to speak in the most all-encompassing terms: love this movie, love this sport, love this country.

There are no Kaepernicks.

For Indian athletes, international sport unites otherwise-divided Indians under the same flag, instilling a feeling of patriotism. But patriotism is only a step away from its toxic cousin, nationalism, and the guise of nationalism has allowed Indian athletes to pledge unquestioning loyalty to the country, to equate loving India to loving its flawed governments.

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or the NBA, India isn’t China. It isn’t a make-or-break market, one which, if lost, would cost the league billions, make teams adjust their salary cap, or make a considerable scratch on endorsement opportunities for players.

India is also not at the level of China for the American public in terms of their international relationship. China is a trade foe and an economic superpower holding the USA’s largest foreign debt. More American companies conduct direct business with China and Hong Kong, and there is more direct concern among Americans about China’s actions within and outside the mainland.

But India is growing, with ambitions to be the next biggest thing. A few weeks before the NBA India Games, US-India relations took an unexpected new step. At a reception for Prime Minster Narendra Modi in Houston, Trump jokingly suggested in front of the thousands gathered that he could show up in Mumbai for the historic preseason games. A couple of world leaders had used the NBA’s moment to inflate each other.

Trump never made that last-minute visit, of course. But during the course of the second Kings-Pacers game in Mumbai, Modi tweeted about the NBA India games, noting that the matches would “set the court for greater linkages in sports” between India and the USA. Over 50 million Twitter followers got the message.

But, like China, India is in the midst of serious domestic turmoil, issues that threaten our democracy. The abrogation of Article 370 and the follow-up shut-down of communication in Kashmir, lockdown of minors, and overall treatment of minority communities have put the spotlight on Modi’s government and their own missteps.

The Kashmir situation along with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) issue, unchecked violence, and suppression of liberal voices have created a dictatorial atmosphere. Union Home Minister Amit Shah even argued that India should have a different standard of human rights than the West. It isn’t quite China communism—but it’s certainly inspired by it.

Even if tensions between NBA and China simmer down, it is unlikely they will vanish. The two sides are star-crossed lovers with opposing ideals.

Back to the press conference before the first NBA game in India. Ranadive, another vocal champion for liberal causes in his adopted country, said to the media that he had spoken to Modi about infrastructure and basketball arenas in India.

Imagine if this event had happened after “Moreygate”. What if, at that moment, someone had asked Ranadive or Silver about their stance on Kashmir? About human rights violation in India under Modi’s watch? The NBA would likely deflect that question diplomatically, but the issue would persist.

Much of the NBA’s business in India is done in conjunction with and the sponsorship of Reliance Foundation, the charity arm of Reliance Industries Limited. The game on the night of the press conference was officially titled “NBA India Games for Reliance Foundation ESA [Education and Sports for All]”. Reliance and its chairman Mukesh Ambani—India’s richest individual—have close ties with the government. Any political turn by NBA in India would create further complications in this relationship. For the NBA, it would be too risky to lose the country’s most lucrative partnership.

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he new NBA season began at the end of October, bringing the focus back on basketball itself. On stars like Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and LeBron James, too. Basketball, for the fans of the sport globally, took centre-stage again.

But even if the tensions between the NBA and China simmer down, it is unlikely that they will vanish. The two sides are star-crossed lovers with opposing ideals. China loves the NBA and its product; NBA loves China’s fan-base and financial potential. But with one tweet, the ideological fissures between the progressive league and the undemocratic government have been revealed and widened. There is no going back now.

It is, of course, grossly unfair to expect professionals who play and think about sports for a living to be the beacon on serious political world issues. But the NBA built its reputation as a league outspoken on issues outside the basketball court. So, even if the questions are completely out of bounds, many have looked upon the same players, coaches, and GMs to have strong opinions on foreign affairs like they have had on their domestic issues.

While it’s easy to point fingers at public figures in the NBA, the truth is that, in this complicated world where everyone relies on everyone else, we are all guilty of overlooking certain factors as and when they fit our convenience. We have all contributed and benefited from the domestic and international economy, even when we may disagree with certain domestic and international policies.

In the future, NBA could potentially have a problem with India, just like every corporation could have a problem with every nation. Is it right to support American products like NBA when the Trump administration is caging children at the borders? Is it wrong to use China-made mobile phones when the nation is suppressing the rights of their Uighur, Tibetan, and other minorities? Is it bad to go on day by day in India without calling out the atrocities of our own government in Kashmir?

With the announcements in India on the same day as Morey’s tweets, the NBA clearly envisions bigger things in the future for its presence in India. But, will the recent China controversy change things?

Morey’s tweet is only the tip of the iceberg, the root of a bigger problem. The NBA will have to come up with a consistent policy to support its ideals, and not allow China to force its own worldview upon the league. Corporations around the world will be watching closely for NBA’s response over the next few months: the influence of the billion-plus citizens of China—and a billion more from India—will depend on it.


Correction, November 19, 2019: Chicago Bulls were misidentified in a caption.