President Donald Trump slammed National Basketball Association (NBA) coaches and others for “pandering to China,” amid the escalating fallout over a tweet by Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey in support of the Hong Kong protests.
Trump on Oct. 9 criticized Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for dodging questions about China.
“I watched Steve Kerr. He was like a little boy, he was so scared to be even answering the question…. He was shaking,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
On Oct. 7, when asked if he had any thoughts about the controversy, Kerr, a three-time championship coach said, “Actually, I don’t.” He added that it was a “bizarre international story,” and that “a lot of us don’t know what to make of it.”
The league is facing intense backlash from China after Morey posted a tweet last week expressing support for the protests in Hong Kong, where millions have demonstrated in opposition to the Chinese regime’s creeping encroachment into the city’s autonomy. Morey subsequently deleted his “Stand with Hong Kong” tweet.
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and the NBA were quick to disavow Morey’s views, triggering widespread condemnation from U.S. officials and fans who said the league was putting profits over freedom of speech.
Trump Takes Aim at Coaches
Trump also took aim at Popovich, who had earlier avoided directly commenting on the protests in Hong Kong.
“I watched Popovich. Sort of the same thing, but he didn’t look quite as scared actually,” Trump said. “But they talk badly about the United States, but when the talk is about China, they don’t want to say anything bad. I thought it was pretty sad, actually.”
Popovich, speaking to reporters on Oct. 8, said that he supports NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, calling him “a heck of a leader” and “courageous.”
Following the NBA’s initial reaction, Silver, in a statement, defended Morey’s right to express his views on Hong Kong, adding that it isn’t up to the league to regulate what players, employees, and team owners say.
Trump said it was “very sad” when he saw “the way that Kerr and Popovich and some of the others were pandering to China, and yet to our own country, it’s like they don’t respect it.”
Other NBA coaches, such as Doc Rivers, coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, have declined to go into specifics when asked about the controversy.
When asked about the Chinese regime pressuring the NBA over Hong Kong, Trump said: “They have to work out their own situation.”
In the aftermath of Morley’s tweet, all of China’s partners for the NBA and the Houston Rockets suspended ties with the league and team.
Meanwhile, tech giant Tencent Holdings, which has exclusive internet streaming rights for NBA games in China, said it would temporarily stop showing Rockets games. Chinese state television said on Oct. 8 it wouldn’t air NBA exhibition games played in the country this week.
NBA events in China scheduled for Oct. 8 and 9 were also canceled.
Sneakers and other Houston Rockets merchandise were pulled from several Nike stores in major Chinese cities, Reuters reported.
The NBA’s business in China, which took years to cultivate, is estimated to be worth more than $4 billion.
The Rockets became the most popular NBA team in China after drafting Chinese player Yao Ming with the first overall pick in the 2002 draft. He became a star and helped build the NBA’s following in China.
Fans Protest in the U.S.
In the United States, basketball fans who have shown support for the protests during games have been ejected from arenas.
On Oct. 9, security guards confiscated “Free Hong Kong” signs at the Capital One Arena in Washington during the game between the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the Chinese Basketball Association’s Guangzhou Loong Lions.
Patrick Hedger, a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, shared footage he said showed him getting kicked out over the sign.
“I was told to take down the sign or I would have to leave. Wasn’t going to take down the sign, so I left,” he said later.
“People of #HongKong, America hears you! America sees you! We love you and we will stand with you! Stay strong!” he wrote in another missive.
While a Wizards’ spokesperson confirmed that signs were confiscated, they said that “no fans were asked to leave the game.”
A day earlier, two Philadelphia 76ers’ fans were ejected from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia after voicing support for Hong Kong, during a game between the Sixers and the Guangzhou Loong Lions.
The couple had brought signs in support of the protests, which were later confiscated, and started yelling, “Free Hong Kong,” during the second quarter.
Sam Wachs, the husband, told television station NBC10: “We were just sitting in our seats near the Chinese bench… We were saying: ‘Free Hong Kong,’… What’s wrong with that?”
The Philadelphia 76ers said in its statement that the couple were ejected “following multiple complaints from guests and verbal confrontations with others in attendance.”
Staff member Zachery Stieber contributed to this report.