By Sheila Dang
(Reuters) – A broadcast of a National Basketball Association (NBA) preseason game in Shanghai on Thursday avoided mention of Hong Kong in an event preceded by intense backlash from the Chinese government and fans over a team executive’s tweet in support of Hong Kong pro-Democracy protesters.
The matchup in which the Brooklyn Nets beat the Los Angeles Lakers 114-111 was played as scheduled to a packed audience at the Mercedes-Benz arena after widespread speculation on social media that the game could be canceled.
Sportscasters Chris Carrino and Tim Capstraw stuck to game chatter and stayed away from political talk. But NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s statement defending free speech was displayed on a rolling ticker at the bottom of the screen throughout the game’s broadcast on NBA TV.
“It is inevitable that people around the world, including from America and China, will have different viewpoints over different issues,” Silver’s message read. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”
The controversy with China could jeopardize the NBA’s business in the country, said to be worth more than $4 billion, and media partnerships in the United States are likely also closely watching the global developments.
The game itself showed no signs of angry protest, with fans cheering enthusiastically in the last few minutes with the game tied before the Nets pulled ahead.
The NBA has faced a massive fallout from Chinese sponsors and fans after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted over the weekend in support of anti-government protests in Hong Kong. Morey has since deleted the tweet and apologized.
An NBA fan event was canceled on Wednesday due to the “inappropriate attitude” of Morey and Silver, the Shanghai Sports Federation said.
In a Facebook post on Sunday, Nets owner Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba, attempted to play mediator. But his post invited more controversy in America after labeling protesters in Hong Kong as “separatists.”
Tsai said Morey and Western media have failed to recognize the history of foreign occupation in China that led to Hong Kong becoming a British colony, and why Chinese fans have reacted negatively to Morey’s tweet.
“When the topic of any separatist movement comes up, Chinese people feel a strong sense of shame and anger because of this history of foreign occupation,” Tsai wrote, adding “the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”
The NBA said in an email on Thursday that players and personnel would not be made available for media interviews after the game.
On the ESPN U.S. sports network’s show “First Take” immediately after the game, commentators Stephen Smith and Max Kellerman debated whether NBA stars should remain silent on the league and issues involving China.
But in what some have viewed as a capitulation to China by an American company, Walt Disney-owned ESPN faced criticism for using a map that appeared to endorse China’s claims to Taiwan and other disputed territories, during a broadcast on Wednesday in the United States.
(Reporting by Sheila Dang; editing by Kenneth Li and Bill Berkrot)