SHANGHAI — The Brooklyn Nets edged out the Los Angeles Lakers 114-111 in Shanghai on Thursday night, but for many, the basketball was beside the point. The preseason contest was played amid a dramatic political and financial spat that has already significantly damaged the NBA’s stakes in the Chinese market, sparked by a single tweet sent on October 4 by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, in which he expressed support for the Hong Kong protests.
Reportedly, no players are allowed to talk to the press during their stay in the country, as mandated by the league.
Almost outnumbering the Lakers’ trademark yellow and blue jerseys at the Mercedes-Benz Arena was the red of the Chinese flag. For many attendees, waving the national flag or wearing it on a shirt represented a means of expressing solidarity with the Chinese government and people, which they perceive as having been greatly offended by NBA officials over the past days. However, the red merchandise of the Houston Rockets, previously one of the most popular NBA franchises in China, was glaringly absent.
The mood in the arena was also somewhat subdued. Several private boxes and entire rows of seats in some prime sections remained unfilled throughout the game.
When the venue’s sound system wasn’t blaring music or chants, there was a general hush more reminiscent of a tennis match than a basketball game. Nonetheless, the crowd did cheer every time Lakers superstar Lebron James touched the ball.
James had the top-selling NBA jersey in China two years ago when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It doesn’t look like his popularity has declined since switching teams:
Privately, several fans expressed their frustration concerning the conflict that has arisen between the NBA and China. On Chinese social media, large numbers of users asked fans to boycott the league, and those who were at the game were called “spineless and shameless traitors.”
One fan at the game lamented that, owing to the outrage expressed online by thousands of his fellow citizens, coverage in China of the upcoming NBA season would be disrupted. The country’s state-run broadcaster CCTV, as well as tech giant Tencent, have halted ties with the NBA over the past days. These developments stand to severely restrict the ability of the legions of Chinese basketball fans to access official content — and, in particular, purchase Rockets’ products.
Eight members of Congress, including Ted Cruz and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, had asked the NBA not to play Thursday’s game, but it went on as planned as part of the organization’s Global Games initiative. A rematch is scheduled between these two teams for Saturday night in Shenzhen.