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China row looms over NBA season-openers

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Los Angeles (AFP)

The spectre of the NBA's row with China loomed over season-opening games in Toronto and Los Angeles on Tuesday, with activists in both cities distributing t-shirts in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters.

In Toronto, pro-Hong Kong activists handed out black t-shirts bearing the slogan "The North Stand with Hong Kong" ahead of the Raptors' opener against the New Orleans Pelicans.

A similar scene unfolded outside the Staples Center in California, where the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers faced off in their much-anticipated opening game.

Activists said they had produced around 10,000 t-shirts carrying the slogan "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong."

The text of the t-shirt was identical to the wording in a tweet posted by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey earlier this month which plunged the NBA into crisis with China.

The t-shirt protest in Los Angeles was arranged by an activist who uses the pseudonym Sun Lared, who reportedly raised $43,000 through crowdfunding site GoFundMe to pay for the t-shirts.

Separately Tuesday, the flag of Hong Kong was seen being waved behind television pundits outside the Staples Center during the TNT television broadcast of the Lakers-Clippers game.

Fans from both Los Angeles teams voiced support for Hong Kong.

"It's always tough to use sports as a political device to talk about, you know, politics," Lakers fan Ray Campbell told AFP.

"But sometimes it's necessary."

Clippers fan Christian Macias added: "Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong. I agree with it 100%, I feel like we are all humans and we all need to help each other."

Earlier Tuesday, NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal said Rockets executive Morey "was right" in his remarks which ignited the furore.

"Daryl Morey was right," O'Neal said. "Whenever you see something wrong going on anywhere in the world, you should have the right to say 'That's not right' and that's what he did."

O'Neal said nothing should inhibit free speech.

"We as American people do a lot of business in China," O'Neal said. "They know and understand our values, and we understand their values."

Hong Kong has been rocked by months of demonstrations by citizens who accuse Beijing of chipping away at its freedoms. China has portrayed the protesters as violent separatists and bristled at what it calls "foreign interference" in the matter.

The backlash in China against Morey's comments cast a cloud over the NBA's lucrative broadcasting, merchandising and sponsorship interests in the country, where it has legions of fans.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said last week China had demanded Morey be sacked for his tweet, a claim later denied by Beijing.

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