LeBron James has stepped into the spotlight of the now-strained relationship between the NBA and China with his comments about the league executive who started the ongoing fallout with what James derided as a “misinformed” tweet. Politicians, human rights groups and ordinary fans on social media have criticized the outspoken superstar, questioning the motivation of James’ comments.
James spoke out this week, his seven-minute session with reporters putting him squarely in the center of the ongoing international schism. Houston general manager Daryl Morey was “not really educated on the situation,” James asserted, when he sent out that since-deleted Oct. 4 tweet showing support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.
On Tuesday, James acknowledged the criticism — and said he expected that it would be coming.
“Obviously, it’s a tough situation that we’re all in right now, … I think when an issue comes up, if you feel passionate about it or you feel like it’s something you want to talk about, then so be it,” James said. “I also don’t think that every issue should be everybody’s problem as well.”
James’ comments unleashed an immediate backlash against him, who has often spoken out on social and political matters, with some expressing dismay that this time he seemed to be more concerned about protecting his own brand and financial interests in China, where he enjoys enormous popularity.
“I’ve always been welcomed with open arms,” James said. “I’ve been to China probably 15 to 20 times … to have this beautiful game that we all love to be able to bring people together in the most positive way.”
That is not the case right now. James was in China for the two games last week between his Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets that were played under most unusual circumstances — with no pregame or postgame media sessions, first by decree of the Chinese and then from the NBA, and with several major league Chinese partners pulling their support of the exhibitions.
With the Lakers and Nets now home, the rift and debate about what the league should have done continues, reinvigorated by James speaking out.
“The situation … has flared up again,” said Matt Powell, a sports business analyst at research firm The NPD Group. “LeBron is getting a lot of criticism on social media.”
It wasn’t limited to the Twitter world, either.
Protesters in Hong Kong on Tuesday trampled on James’ jerseys, burning one, and threw basketballs at a photo of the four-time NBA MVP — a global sports icon whose image has taken a clear hit.
Among James’ comments Monday night, his first publicly shared thoughts on the matter: “So many people could have been harmed, not only financially but emotionally, physically and spiritually” by Morey’s tweet.
That fanned the fallout fire, including from U.S. lawmakers who said they believed the NBA’s primary goal had been to protect the league’s massive financial interest when it comes to its relationship with China instead of more vigorously defending Morey’s right to free speech.
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, a frequent critic of James, tweeted both Monday night and again Tuesday morning about the NBA star’s comments, accusing him of “kowtowing to Communist China.” The office of Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska also tweeted at James, saying “you’re parroting communist propaganda.”
Morey has not apologized, and has not said anything publicly since two tweets on Oct. 6 attempting to clarify his thinking.
At a media availability on Tuesday, several Rockets players and coach Mike D’Antoni declined to say much of anything about James’ comments.
“I haven’t seen it,” Rockets star guard James Harden told reporters.
Rockets center Tyson Chandler, who was James’ teammate on the Lakers last season, also passed on expressing an opinion.
“I think again everybody’s thoughts are their own,” Chandler told reporters. “I think LeBron’s (are) his, Daryl’s (are) his and I like to stay out of people’s thoughts.”
Teammate forward Thabo Sefolosha, who was born in Switzerland and is in his first year with the Rockets, did touch briefly on the free-speech issue. “Everybody is entitled to their opinion, entitled to what they want to say. That’s the beauty about this country.”
China is considered the fastest-growing market for Nike, with whom James has a lifetime endorsement deal. In the most recent fiscal year, its revenue from China jumped 21% from the previous year, while overall, sales in China made up 16% of Nike’s total revenue.
James has often spoken out on issues he feels passionate about. When he played in Miami, he and other Heat players wore hoodies in reaction to the death of Trayvon Martin — an unarmed black teen who was wearing a hoodie when he was shot dead by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida in 2012.
He also has supported Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem in an effort to raise awareness of racial oppression and police brutality. He’s a frequent critic of President Donald Trump, campaigned for 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and most recently sat with California Gov. Gavin Newsom as the Democrat signed into law a bill that will allow college athletes in that state to hire agents and make money from endorsement deals.
Newsom signed that bill while appearing on a special episode of HBO’s “The Shop: Uninterrupted” — part of James’ off-court business empire. James is also the founder of a school for inner-city kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
James said his reaction to Morey’s tweet, which read “Fight For Freedom: Stand With Hong Kong” before it was deleted within hours as the Chinese backlash grew, was not about its substance. Rather, he wrote, it was his belief that the Rockets’ executive did not consider the ramifications — or the timing, while he and his teammates were in China.
“My team and this league just went through a difficult week. I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it,” he wrote on Twitter.