If you’re creating a Venn Diagram of people who know and understand international political tensions in southeast Asia and people who understand the NBA at the level of a high achieving NBA general manager, your graphic organizer may end up looking like a pair of owl eyes. That has not stopped many NBA talking heads from going full discussion into the weekend that the Houston Rockets, and in turn the NBA, have had.
To begin to understand the connection between China, the NBA, and the Houston Rockets we need to go back almost two decades to the 2002 NBA Draft. With the number one overall pick, the Houston Rockets selected the 7’6” Yao Ming. Ming’s participation in the NBA required special exemptions from regulations in China, and part of his release to the NBA was predicated on him being the number one overall pick. Ming was the fourth international player drafted number one overall, and the first ever international number one pick that had never played American college basketball (Mychal Thompson, number one overall pick in 1978, was born in the Bahamas but played high school and college basketball in the States, Hakeem Olajuwon played in Nigeria before coming to the University of Houston, and Michael Olowakandi played at the University of the Pacific).
Fast forward to 2019… Fast forward through the hall of fame career of Yao Ming. Fast forward through the growth of the NBA’s Chinese relationship, the six other NBA players drafted since Yao, the annual Chinese New Year celebrations across the NBA, the preseason games playing in Beijing and Shanghai, the scheduled G-League games in southeast Asia… Fast forward to the beginning of October of 2019, while those same Houston Rockets are in Tokyo, spreading the league’s influence while playing preseason games across the Yellow and East China Seas.
While undoubtedly, and understandably, jet lagged and scrolling through Twitter, Rockets GM Daryl Morey saw a social issue worth making statement about.
In the spring of 2006 the Houston Rockets, as well as most professional sports franchises, were caught up in the idea of Moneyball. Michael Lewis’ 2003 novel was changing how executives saw building teams. The analytics wave was in its earliest stages, and across the country statisticians were finding their way higher and higher in managing professional sports. Morey was at the forefront of that movement in basketball, and was one of the first openly explicitly analytics driven general managers signed to an NBA team.
Morey has always been at the forefront of data driven basketball, and has navigated his time in Houston accordingly. His biggest move came in 2012. Letting Tracy McGrady walk, and watching Yao Ming’s body break down, left the Rockets in a rebuild. Morey, in the 2012 off season, traded several key “rebuild” players for the reigning 6th Man of the Year James Harden.
James Harden has gone on to finish top two in MVP voting in four of the last five years, in large part, due to the way he embraces “Moreyball.” Finding ways to maximize efficiency, Harden and the team Morey has put around him continue to push the limits of analytic basketball. Critics ridicule Morey’s Rockets for their commitment to threes, dunks, and free throws… but the results continue to have the Rockets in the top tier of the NBA. Harden has become one of the NBA’s most recognizable superstars, both from his playing style and his facial hair.
That style, while it is polarizing in the United States, has continued to make the Houston Rockets a key draw internationally. Houston Rockets players have, since the drafting of Yao, continued to carry endorsement deals worldwide as guys that played with Yao, or as guys that played for the same franchise. Harden himself led an Adidas basketball tour across China this summer, featuring crowds of kids wearing fake beards and red uniforms. The NBA, logically, has become the most televised professional sports league in China. Chinese basketball leagues regularly seek out older NBA players, most famously Stephen Marbury, to play and bring familiar NBA faces to across the Pacific. The Shanghai Sharks, whom Yao Ming has ownership shares of, came through the United States on a preseason tour just last week.
And, with a mere tweet, it seems this entire relationship, nearly two decades in growth, is defunct.
On October 4th, Morey issued a tweet that supported protests in Hong Kong. “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Morey deleted the tweet within hours, but the damage may have been done.
The Chinese Basketball Association, and their president Yao Ming, has already suspended relationships with the Houston Rockets. Chinese sportswear brand Li-Ning and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank have also cut ties with the Houston Rockets, and Tencent (a television streaming company) declared they would not air Rockets games.
Now, the NBA’s most popular franchise internationally and its biggest overseas market have officially cut ties over Morey’s single tweet.
Tilman Fertitta, owner of the Houston Rockets for just over two years, has since publicly stated that Morey does not speak for his organization, and the thoughts were his own. Mike Bass, the NBA’s chief communications officer, has also called Morey’s statements both “regrettable” and “not representative” of the league as a whole.
Since deleting the tweet, Morey himself has issued an apology on Twitter. Fertitta, who calls Morey the “best general manager in the NBA,” has claimed that since the public apology, everything between the two are fine.
But what is concerning to NBA fans, stateside, is the backlash Morey received. It has been reported both that the Houston Rockets have debated and not debated letting Daryl Morey go for the commentary, and the sheer thought of letting him go for his political opinions have shaken up much of #NBATwitter.
Political candidates, ranging from obscure senate racers to Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, have commented on the NBA’s actions.
The NBA choosing it’s “pocketbook over its principles,” as Warren put it, makes it far from the first American professional sports league to make its capitalist motives clear. While it feels expected from a business as big as the NBA, it has been a brutal reminder that the same league that is at the forefront of social issues in the United States is still a business. Hurting relationships with its partners is frowned upon, if not more serious.
The NBA, and Fertitta, are left in a tough disciplinary spot. Because of the quick and intense response from the league’s Chinese business partners, the NBA may feel the need to punish Morey or the Rockets as a way to save face.
But where would that bended knee put them with their American fans?
In a time of political turmoil stateside, all sides of the political spectrum have agreed China banning the Houston Rockets puts them in the wrong. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Texas Congressman and Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, and the aforementioned Warren span the gamut of political ideology. Each has managed to be unified on this issue: Morey was not in the wrong for vocally supporting the Hong Kong protests, and Chinese businesses cutting ties with the NBA have been in the wrong. On an issue that has oddly united so many American political ideologies, can the NBA really go the other direction?
We have praised Adam Silver’s NBA as the league that supports the individual voice since he came into the league and was immediately hit in the face with the Donald Sterling controversy. In an incredibly tough moment, less than two months into his official tenure, Silver came face to face with one of the ugliest moments in the history of the NBA. His response was simple: that racism wouldn’t be tolerated, and Sterling had to sell his team or be banned from the league.
When the complexities of his current dilemma are completely unpacked, denouncing racism seems like the far simpler task. Now, in a league Silver has been intentionally growing in Asia, Silver is stuck between the American NBA supporter and the region his commissionership has been focused on.
Where the commissioner has been unclear, China itself has been clear in its response. In translating the American response into Mandarin, the translations have consistently emphasized an apologetic tone that feels absent in the original:
Further, Harden, who was the face of the aforementioned Adidas tour of southeast Asia, has already apologized for his team:
This all complicates a very clouded issue. Some parts of the NBA, even the Rockets’ own superstar, have apologized… So does that make it clear Morey was in the wrong, and the NBA should act? Or, does it prove that the NBA can move past it? Does it come down to the dollars and cents of the issue?
The truth is, the vast majority of this only scratches the surface of the intricacies of growing an American professional sports league in China. There are many, many more layers to unpack (for instance, how did Daryl Morey’s tweet cause a disruption in a country that doesn’t allow Twitter?), but for those following at home, just who can do all of the unpacking? Again, the Venn Diagram circles of people who can confidently talk on the politics of southeast Asia and NBA general managing don’t overlap.
As they seem bound to collide shortly, are they going to overlap like a traditional Venn Diagram? Or bounce off of one another, heading back in their respective directions?
And if Chinese NBA Hall of Famer and Chinese Basketball President Yao Ming are there for to catch the rebound of that sphere on that side of the Pacific, are we confident we can secure the rebound on this side?
The Washington Mystics Win First WNBA Championship in Thrilling Fashion
What a difference a year makes for the Washington Mystics.
After being swept in last year’s WNBA Finals by the Seattle Storm, the Mystics came back this season with a vengeance.
Lead by league MVP Elena Della Donne, the Mystics secured the best regular-season record in the WNBA and battled in a grueling Finals series against the Connecticut Sun, winning the series 3-2.
With Della Donne battling several injuries (including three herniated discs in her back), it was Emma Meesseman that delivered with 22 points in the winner-take-all Game 5.
Messeman became the first European-born WNBA Finals MVP, while Della Donne added 21 points. Connecticut Sun’s Jonquel Jones fought hard to the very end, leading the runner-ups with 25 points.
This championship was a long time coming for Mystic’s Head Coach Mike Thibault. The winningest coach in WNBA history finally secured his first title after 17 seasons.
Washington Wizards players John Wall, Bradley Beal, Ian Mahinmi
With the tenacity these women have shown throughout the season, it’s no surprised Della Done is looking forward to some much-deserved rest.
Stephen Curry Lights Up Timberwolves with 40 Points in Three Quarters
It may only be the Preseason, but Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry is in mid-season form.
In last night’s matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Curry shot a blistering 14-19 from the field for 40 points in only 25 minutes. Curry also knocked down 6 three-pointers and added 6 rebounds and 6 assists.
The Timberwolves had no answer for Curry and the Warriors, losing in a fast-paced 143-123 blowout.
Young additions Jake Layman and rookie Jarrett Culver were the sole bright spots for the Timberwolves, leading the team in scoring with 17 points apiece.
Ironically, the last player to score 40 points in an NBA Preseason game was also Steph Curry, who once again dropped 40 points against the Timberwolves on Oct. 8th, 2017.
With Kevin Durant leaving in free agency and Klay Thompson out until at least All-Star break, Curry is expected to take on a much more significant offensive role for the Warriors.
If last night is any indicator of what Curry will play like during this year’s regular season, the rest of the NBA might be in trouble.
Snoop Dogg Unapologetic in Kansas Concert Scandal
On October 4th, legendary rapper Snoop Dogg performed at Kansas’ Late Night at the Phog, a kickoff event for their Men and Women’s basketball teams. However, his concert did not come without backlash.
In front of what was supposed to be a family-friendly audience, Snoop Dogg cut no profanity from his lyrics, brought out a woman on a stripper pole, and shot fake $100 bills into the crowd with a money gun.
Naturally, the university was less than pleased with the concert. Kansas athletics director Jeff Long claimed they “expected a clean version of the show” after discussions with Snoop Dogg’s management before the performance. Long extended a “personal apology to those of were offended.”
Kansas Men’s basketball head coach Bill Self also voiced his displeasure with Snoop Dogg’s performance.
However, Snoop Dogg claimed he had “the time on his life” on ‘The Howard Stern Show’ Tuesday, and is anything but apologetic.
Snoop Dogg went on to say that the crowd loved the show, and the university should know better, as “When you pay for Snoop Dogg, you’re going to get Snoop Dogg.” Snoop also denied the report that he was forced to leave campus immediately after the show.
Meanwhile, raunchy concert only distracts from the real controversy Kansas athletics is facing. Recently, the university was charged with five Level I and two Level II violations from the NCAA, including “Lack of institutional control.” The allegations targets both the Football and Men’s basketball programs.
While Kansas has good reason to be upset over Snoop Dogg’s performance, the university should worry more about cleaning up their athletics than censoring their performers.
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