China, NBA Standoff Hardens Amid Fallout Over Hong Kong Protests

James Harden of the Houston Rockets, center, plays between New Orleans Pelicans Omer Asik, left, and E’Twaun Moore in Beijing in 2016. PHOTO: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS

Beijing and the National Basketball Association hardened their standoff on Tuesday, as China canceled broadcasts of preseason games and the league’s commissioner said he wouldn’t apologize for a weekend tweet by a team executive that triggered a firestorm of criticism.

The escalation in tensions threatened to plunge the NBA’s carefully cultivated China franchise into deeper crisis, with more merchants halting sales of NBA merchandise, many Chinese celebrities pulling out of an NBA event in Shanghai and a major Chinese sponsor yanking its endorsement of the games. Tickets from the designated online agent for Thursday’s Shanghai game became unavailable.

Government-run China Central Television’s decision to cancel broadcasts and online streaming of games to be played this week reflected dissatisfaction with responses from the NBA and its commissioner, Adam Silver, to a message of support for antigovernment protesters in Hong Kong tweeted Friday by Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets.

The cancellation expands the scope of China’s pressure over the incident to include other teams. A day earlier, the fallout appeared limited to the Rockets, which CCTV and online platform Tencent Holdings Ltd. said won’t appear on China’s airwaves for an unspecified time.

Mr. Silver, speaking in Japan a day before he is set to arrive in Shanghai, said he wouldn’t apologize for Mr. Morey’s tweet, but he also said he would attempt to ease the standoff, saying that the NBA’s initial statement on Monday left many people angered and confused.

“It’s my hope that when I’m in Shanghai I can meet with the appropriate officials and discuss where we stand,” Mr. Silver said. He added that he hoped to put Mr. Morey’s and his own remarks “in an appropriate context of a many-decades-long relationship and see if we can find mutual respect for each others’ political systems and beliefs.”

But Mr. Silver also acknowledged the challenges ahead, saying: “I’m a realist as well. I recognize this issue may not die down so quickly.”

In a reflection of the difficulties Mr. Silver faces, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular news briefing that the NBA “knows clearly what to say and what to do.” He didn’t elaborate.

“These foreign teams should know the opinions of China’s citizens, or it will not work,” Mr. Geng said.

CCTV, the league’s government-run broadcast partner of three decades in China, said Tuesday that in addition to the canceled plans to show matchups between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets, it would “immediately investigate all cooperation and exchanges involving the NBA.”

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SOURCE: Wall Street Journal, James T. Areddy and Alastair Gale