NBA drops Lakers-Nets media events in China over 'unprecedented' row

Shanghai (AFP) –


The National Basketball Association (NBA) said Friday it had cancelled all remaining press events for its current China tour, citing the "complicated and unprecedented" controversy over Hong Kong protests and free speech.

Two pre-season exhibition games in China between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets have been overshadowed by a Chinese backlash against a Houston Rockets executive's expression of support last Friday for Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.

"We have decided not to hold media availability for our teams for the remainder of our trip in China," the NBA said in a statement.

"They have been placed into a complicated and unprecedented situation while abroad and we believe it would be unfair to ask them to address these matters in real time."

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sparked the dispute with a tweet expressing solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong who have staged months of increasingly violent demonstrations against China's control of the semi-autonomous region.

The NBA's Chinese sponsors dropped lucrative partnership deals in protest, and the affair quickly ballooned into yet another irritant in the US-China relationship when leading American politicians urged the NBA to ditch all activities in China in retaliation.

An NBA representative told AFP that the second game between the Lakers and Nets, set for Saturday night in the southern city of Shenzhen, was still expected to proceed as planned.

The teams flew to Shenzhen earlier Friday after playing their first game in Shanghai the night before.

The Shanghai game proceeded smoothly despite the raging controversy, as a near-capacity crowd of 18,000 Chinese fans cheered wildly for Lakers superstar LeBron James and his cohorts.

- Bizarre spectacle -

Broadcasters had earlier dropped plans to air the two games in China to protest Morey's tweet and the NBA's subsequent defence of his right to free speech.

The NBA holds the pre-season games annually to stoke its already red-hot popularity in China, where it is arguably the single most popular and followed sports league.

But the feud has turned the teams' visit into a bizarre spectacle -- a promotional tour in which normally outspoken and fan-friendly stars like James have hurried past media and Chinese supporters seeking autographs.

Every scheduled promotional or press event in Shanghai this week had already been cancelled one-by-one, and Friday's announcement by the NBA made it a clean sweep for the whole tour.

The NBA's announcement comes amid signs that Chinese authorities are keen to de-escalate the bitter political row, with China's state-controlled press and heavily censored internet notably lacking in fresh attacks on the NBA on Friday.

China is involved in sensitive negotiations with the United States to resolve a mutually damaging trade war, with senior officials returning to the bargaining table this week.

The basketball quarrel also posed a particular dilemma for Communist authorities because outraged social media users began lashing out at Chinese fans of the NBA as "traitors", threatening to split national opinion.

Hu Xijin, top editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, said both sides now want to cool the feud down, according to the New York Times.

"I think this issue will gradually de-escalate -- Global Times will not push to keep it hot," Hu said in response to the paper's request for comment.

"I also hope the American side won't make any moves to escalate it."

China reacts fiercely to any perceived foreign interference in its handling of Hong Kong.