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China rounds on Rockets after GM's Hong Kong tweet

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Beijing (AFP)

The Houston Rockets were racing Monday to quell a growing storm in China that saw their games yanked from television over a tweet supporting Hong Kong's democracy protests.

The issue has also dragged in the NBA, with the league seeking to distance itself from the comments by Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey.

Morey -- whose Rockets have had a huge following in the country since they signed Chinese star Yao Ming in 2002 -- posted a tweet Friday featuring the message "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong".

On Monday he tried to calm the water with a string of emollient tweets.

"I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China," he tweeted Monday from Tokyo, where the Rockets are playing several matches this week.

"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," he added.

"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," Morey said.

Semi-autonomous Hong Kong has been battered by four months of increasingly violent pro-democracy protests.

The rallies were ignited by a now-scrapped plan to allow extraditions to mainland China, fuelling fears of an erosion of liberties in Hong Kong under the 50-year "one country, two systems" model China agreed before the 1997 handover from Britain.

- 'Regrettable' -

The NBA issued its own statement, saying it recognised Morey's views "have offended so many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable."

The Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets are due to play two pre-season games at Shanghai and Shenzhen later this week.

"While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them," the statement issued by chief communications officer Mike Bass said.

But the furore showed no sign of dying down, with Chinese state broadcaster CCTV saying it was "strongly opposed" to Morey's "improper remarks" and would no longer air Rockets games.

Tencent Holdings, which streams NBA games in China, said it would suspend Rockets coverage.

Sponsors including sportswear brand Li Ning and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank also announced Sunday they would stop cooperation with the team.

The moves came after the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) said it would sever all ties with the Rockets.

"General manager of Houston Rockets club Daryl Morey made incorrect comments about Hong Kong," the CBA said on its official social media page on Sunday.

"The Chinese Basketball Association is strongly opposed to this and will suspend communication and cooperation with the club."

- Major China fanbase -

The Rockets have already tried to distance themselves from the controversy, with owner Tilman Fertitta on Friday writing on Twitter that Morey "does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets... we are NOT a political organization."

But fans on social media in China savaged Morey's comments, with some urging he be fired.

The Rockets are in Japan for two exhibition games and their head coach Mike D'Antoni on Sunday said that was the team's focus.

"We're here to concentrate on playing in Japan, playing great games and enjoying the culture of Japan," he said.

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