TOKYO (AFP) - The Houston Rockets tried Sunday (Oct 6) to distance the National Basketball Association (NBA) team, who have a huge Chinese fan base, from general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting the Hong Kong protests as it sparked a backlash in China.
Head coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters in Tokyo that he “doesn’t feel comfortable” commenting on Morey’s tweet, which featured an image with the message “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong”.
The tweet was posted last Friday (Oct 4) and later deleted.
“We’re here to concentrate on playing in Japan, playing great games and enjoying the culture of Japan,” he said as the Rockets prepared for two exhibition games against NBA champions Toronto Raptors in Saitama City.
The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) reacted furiously to the comments, saying it would sever all ties with the Rockets, despite the team’s owner stating in a tweet of his own that Mr Morey did not speak for the club.
“General manager of Houston Rockets club Daryl Morey made incorrect comments about Hong Kong,” the CBA said on its official social media page on Sunday. “The Chinese Basketball Association is strongly opposed to this and will suspend communication and cooperation with the club.”
Last Friday, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta wrote on Twitter: “Listen.... @dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.”
In a later interview with ESPN in Japan, Fertitta insisted that his relationship with Morey remained strong.
“I have the best general manager in the league,” Fertitta told ESPN. “Everything is fine with Daryl and me. We got a huge backlash, and I wanted to make clear that (the organization) has no (political) position. We’re here (in Asia) to play basketball and not to offend anybody.”
Semi-autonomous Hong Kong has been battered by four months of increasingly violent pro-democracy protests.
The rallies were ignited by a now-scrapped plan to allow extraditions to mainland China, fuelling fears of an erosion of liberties in Hong Kong under the 50-year "one country, two systems" framework that China agreed before the 1997 handover from Britain.
The Rockets have been a popular NBA franchise in China since the club drafted Chinese star Yao Ming with the top pick in the 2002 draft.
The towering centre averaged 19 points and 9.2 rebounds in eight seasons with the team and became president of the Chinese Basketball Association in 2017.
But the comments by the Rockets manager appeared to have angered, with many voicing support online for the CBA’s move.
Some called for Mr Morey to be fired, saying his comments to support Hong Kong “violate China’s territorial sovereignty”.
“For me, basketball is second and the country is first!!!” wrote one, calling for fans to boycott the Rockets and for Chinese broadcasters to shop showing their games.