It started out easily enough. Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted out support for protestors in Hong Kong, a since-deleted missive that stated "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong."
The reaction was immediate. Owner Tilman Fertitta tweeted out his own 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. @espn https://twitter.com/dmorey/status/1180312072027947008"
James Harden apologized. The NBA apologized in its own statement, saying Morey's comments "have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable."
Their statement added:
"While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together."
Morey himself had to dial it back. In a two part tweet, he said: "I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives. I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA."
That, of course, would not be the end of it.
The Rockets immediately lost Chinese sponsors. Their games have been dropped from Chinese TV. The Chinese consulate in Houston weighed in. "We have lodged representations and expressed strong dissatisfaction with the Houston Rockets, and urged the latter to correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact,'' the office said in a statement.
Even more backlash
After the NBA apologized, the issue got political in the U.S. It even managed to unite politicians on the opposite side of the spectrum.
Republican Ted Cruz tweeted out this:
"As a lifelong @HoustonRockets fan, I was proud to see @dmorey call out the Chinese Communist Party's repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong. Now, in pursuit of big $$, the @nba is shamefully retreating."
Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke, who ran against Cruz for senator in Texas, tweeted: "The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights. What an embarrassment."
Imagine an issue where these two are on the same side.
Nets owner Joseph Tsai ripped into Morey as well. "When I bought controlling interest in the Brooklyn Nets in September, I didn't expect my first public communication with our fans would be to comment on something as politically charged and grossly misunderstood as the way hundreds of millions of Chinese NBA fans feel about what just happened." He said expressing one's opinion "is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues. The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities. Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China. The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country's sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable."
The Chinese market is very important to the NBA and its ownership, as the league is heavily invested. China pulling out of the league would be damaging. The NBA knows this. But many see the league's backtracking as a way to preserve the business relationship, a move that seems to contradict most of the league's political stances in the United States, hence the responses from U.S. politicians.
The Chinese government has been very sensitive to the outside interpretations of the protests, and their response to this is in no small part due to that.
What does it all mean?
There are many on the Chinese side calling for Morey to be fired in order to do business with the Rockets again. This won't happen; as much as Fertitta was displeased with the tweet, he is a big Morey supporter. And to fire him would likely cause a serious backlash in Houston, where Rockets fans revere Morey. It would also give the impression that he is siding with Chinese interests over the United States, fair or not. Fertitta is too smart for that. Morey in no way intended to cause such a firestorm. Had he known the response, he would have never tweeted that out.
The problem is, the freedoms we enjoy in the United States do not translate to other countries, especially China, where social media and political views are restricted.
Realistically, sports fans - especially the ones in Houston - don't care about any of this. It will only matter to them if Morey were fired, which is not going to happen. Fans care more about the Astros playoffs, Texans with a big win, and how the Rockets will look with Russell Westbrook and and James Harden. The problem is the story has gotten outside the realm of sports, with politicians weighing in and CNN reporting on it. When that happens, hyperbole and political stances become the order of the day. You would hope it would blow over, but time will tell.
One thing is for sure: Morey did not want this. Fertitta and the NBA did not want it. But it has become a firestorm, one that has a lot of levels.
It also goes to one of the dangers of social media; a high-profile person might have a personal Twitter account, but you also represent your organization, and your tweets reflect on them. It also shows the danger of "bumper sticker" tweets, where complicated issues are often foolishly reduced to buzz words. If there is a mistake here, it's that Morey did not recognize he represents the Rockets and NBA. It's obvious he does now.
What happens next is anyone's guess. But if this is like other politically charged topics, it probably will not go away anytime soon.
Jamal Shead hit a short follow shot with 0.4 seconds left and No. 1 Houston beat Oklahoma 87-85 on Saturday night, giving coach Kelvin Sampson a victory over one of his former schools.
Shead missed a driving layup attempt, but corralled the rebound and put the Cougars back ahead after they blew a 15-point lead. Emanuel Sharp tipped away a desperation pass by Oklahoma’s Milos Uzan as time expired.
“The main thing (on the last shot) was to get it to the rim,” Sampson said. “We weren’t going to shoot anything outside of 5 feet. There were three ways to win that game — a whistle, make the shot or (grab) an offensive rebound and put it in — and we got the third one.”
Sampson credited the result to Houston’s “winning DNA. We had a lot of things go against us tonight. … We were just plugging the holes in the boat up.”
L.J. Cryer led Houston (26-3, 13-3 Big 12) with 23 points, making 5 of 9 3-pointers. J’Wan Roberts added 20 points on 10-of-12 shooting, and Shead scored 14 points. Houston shot 56.7% from the field and Oklahoma was at 52.7%.
Rivaldo Soares had 16 points for Oklahoma (19-10, 7-9). Le’Tre Darthard had 15 points, finishing 5 of 7 from 3-point range.
Sampson coached Oklahoma from 1994 to 2006 and ranks second in program history with 279 wins and first in winning percentage (.719). Before Saturday, he’d never coached against the Sooners, but Houston’s entry into the Big 12 for this basketball season provided that opportunity.
Sampson received a warm welcome as he entered the Lloyd Noble Arena court, with many fans applauding, cheering and standing. Just before player introductions, Sampson and his three assistants with Oklahoma ties — former players Hollis Price, Quannas White and Kellen Sampson, his son — were individually recognized with announcements and pictured on the video board.
“The memories that I will take from here are just amazing,” Kelvin Sampson said. “Oklahoma will always be home in a lot of ways.”
Houston made its first week this season at No. 1 a successful one, with two wins. The Cougars are a game ahead of No. 8 Iowa State in the conference standings with two games left in the regular season and remain in the conversation for the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Houston has won eight of the last nine games it has played as the No. 1-ranked team and is 35-5 overall while atop the AP poll.
Oklahoma dropped its second game of the week against a top-10 opponent, having lost 58-45 at Iowa State on Wednesday night.
The Sooners pushed Houston to the limit. Houston led 67-52 with 12:01 left, but the Sooners methodically closed that gap and Javian McCollum’s layup with 11.8 seconds left tied it at 85. It came after a hustle play by Uzan, who tracked down a rebound off a missed free throw and threw it off the leg of Sharp, allowing it to carom out of bounds.
Oklahoma coach Porter Moser said the vibe in the Sooners’ locker room was “tough. It wasn’t like they were happy to be close. They’re hurting. That’s a good sign. … That’s the elite of the elite and we’ve got to find a way to win that. That’s my job.
“I thought they were resilient battling back. Houston made tough shots, open shots, good shots. They do a lot of good things … but I thought we did too. We played the best team in the country, but we fell short. The margin of error when you play a team that good is small.”
Godwin went 6 of 6 from the field and led Oklahoma with 17 points, missing only the one free throw in six attempts as well. He also had seven rebounds.
Houston: Sampson surely appreciated the warm welcome from fans on his return to Oklahoma, but he’s undoubtedly glad to have the emotional game against the Sooners over with. Now he can push the Cougars to focus on finishing the regular season strong and prepare them for the postseason.
Oklahoma: A win over the nation’s No. 1 team might have pushed the Sooners up a line or two in NCAA tournament seeding, but the loss shouldn’t damage their postseason hopes too much. Oklahoma probably needs at least one win next week — at home against Cincinnati or at Texas — to stay comfortably off the NCAA bubble heading into the Big 12 Tournament.
Houston: At Central Florida on Wednesday night.
Oklahoma: Host Cincinnati on Tuesday night.