With pro-democracy Hong Kong demonstrators both inside and outside the arena and Chinese state television blacking out the contest — as it did all the other league games — LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers lost their much-hyped season opener against Kawhi Leonard’s L.A. Clippers in a game that felt more significant than just a single opening game.
As reported by ESPN, Chinese state television did not air any of the NBA’s opening games as part of its continued punishment of the league after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey posted a pro-democracy tweet on October 4 simply stating, “Fight For Freedom, Stand For Hong Kong.”
Morey deleted the post and apologized as the NBA scrambled to appease China, while also trying to express support for free speech amid backlash from fans. But the oppressive communist government has clearly not been satisfied with the league’s response.
While Chinese state television completely blacked out the opening games, the Chinese-based streaming platform Tencent, a media partner of the NBA and ESPN, only aired a single opener: the Lakers vs. the Clippers.
James became a central figure in the controversy when he infamously upbraided Morey for his “misinformed” tweet and spoke dismissively of free speech.
“I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke,” James told reporters on October 15. “So many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, and spiritually. So, just be careful what we tweet and say and what we do even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, there can be a lot of negatives that comes with that too.”
LeBron James rips Daryl Morey, says Morey was uneducated. Says, “We do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negatives that come with that too.” Really. pic.twitter.com/ZTw6a3FZ5n
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) October 15, 2019
Wearing “Fight For Freedom, Stand For Hong Kong” t-shirts bought with money from a GoFundMe drive, some 60-75 protesters, according to ESPN’s estimate, gathered outside the Staples Center Tuesday night.
The organizer of the protest, who felt compelled to refer to himself as only “MWG” and cover his face for “personal safety” and to protect his family in China, pointed to James’ much-criticized response as emblematic of the NBA’s China dilemma.
“What LeBron James said, we’re not mad, we’re just disappointed,” the protest organizer told ESPN. James, he said, is “really out there (on issues) and then for him to say, ‘Oh, it was hard on us (during the China trip),’ that was kind of a slap in the face.”
In a follow-up to his comments criticizing Morey, James tweeted, “My team and this league just went through a difficult week. I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it.”
“To be LeBron James, so articulate and so meticulous about your words and how you say them and how you present yourself and all of the sudden when it comes to money, it takes a precedent over any sort of human rights — basic human rights?” MWG said. “That’s what our country was founded on. His home base is here. So you’re going to turn your back on your home base for money over there?”
“We want to stand with Morey, we want to stand with Hong Kong, but most of all, we want to fight foreign attempts to censor us,” he said.
“Our first amendment rights to free speech — so if you have a government that’s not the United States telling us we can’t talk, what’s the point of having a government? What’s the point of having a first amendment right? We’re not saying that we’re trying to do anything other than show solidarity. We’re not trying to protest. We just want to show the NBA and show foreign governments that they can’t censor us.”
Along with the protesters outside the arena, some people also showed support for Hong Kong inside, where fans watched the Clippers’ newly acquired star Leonard lead his team to a 112-102 victory in a game that one sports analyst said “felt bigger than just one game.”