President Donald Trump slammed NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich for dodging questions about China amid the escalating spat between the communist-run country and the U.S. professional basketball league.
“I watch this guy Steve Kerr. He was like a little boy, he was so scared to be answering the question, he couldn’t answer the question, he was shaking, ‘I don’t know,’ he didn’t know how to answer the question, and yet he’ll talk about the United States very badly.”
“I watched [Gregg] Popovich, sort of the same thing, but he didn’t look quite as scared. They talk bad about the United States, but when it [sic] talks about China, they don’t want to say anything bad.”
“I thought it was very sad, actually,” Trump added. “The NBA … knows what they’re doing. But I watched the way Kerr, Popovich, and some of the others were pandering to China and yet to our own country they don’t, it’s like they don’t respect it. I said ‘what a difference.'”
He was speaking to reporters at the White House on Oct. 9.
After Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey expressed support for protesters in China-held Hong Kong earlier this month, Chinese companies suspended ties with the NBA.
The league has increasingly focused on China and has become popular there.
Asked if he had any thoughts about the situation on Monday, Kerr, the coach of the Golden State Warriors said: “Actually, I don’t.”
“It’s a really, really bizarre international story and a lot of us don’t know what to make of it. It’s something I’m reading about, just like everybody is, but I’m not going to comment,” Kerr told reporters.
Pressed on the issue, Kerr, who has repeatedly criticized Trump in the past few years, added: “What I’ve found is that it’s easy to speak on issues that I’m passionate about, that I feel like I’m well-versed on. I’ve found that it makes most sense to stick to topics that fall into that category so I try to keep my comments to those things.”
“I’m trying to learn. My brother-in-law’s actually a Chinese history professor. I emailed him today to ask him what I should be learning about all this,” he said.
A number of others in the NBA have declined to stand up for Hong Kongers, including Rockets coach Mike D’Anonti and Warriors star Stephen Curry. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers also declined to weigh in directly, but said the situation shows that “We don’t get killed for saying in what we believe in, what we get is disagreed [with].”
“That’s what this country is about, freedom of speech, and we should always have freedom of speech. But I did tell [players] this, freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences,” he added. “Think about it before you say it because there could be consequences.”
Popovich, the coach of the San Antonio Spurs, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, said that he supported NBA commissioner Adam Silver, calling him “a heck of a leader” and “courageous.”
“When you compare it to what we’ve had to live through the last three years, a big difference, a big gap there leadership-wise and courage-wise,” Popovich added.
“It wasn’t easy for him to say. He said that in an environment fraught with possible economic peril. But he sided with the principles that we all hold dearly, or most of us did until the last three years. I’m thrilled with what he said. The courage and leadership displayed is off the charts by comparison.”
A number of owners have distanced themselves from Morey’s pro-Hong Kong sentiment, including Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta. After an initial brief statement angered some fans, Silver said in a statement Tuesday that the league “will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues.”
“It is inevitable that people around the world—including from America and China—will have different viewpoints over different issues,” Silver said in the statement. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”