SAN FRANCISCO – The NBA has done so much to craft a progressive image, and been so careful about maintaining it, the league is caught in an international crossfire so sizzling that even Steve Kerr, so often the voice of reason, dares not get near it.
“Actually, I don’t,” was Kerr’s response when asked Monday night for his thoughts on the civil unrest in Hong Kong, where protesters are clashing with the Chinese government.
“It’s a really bizarre international story and a lot of us don’t know what to make of it. It’s something I’m reading about, just like everybody is. But I’m not going to comment further than that.”
What followed was five seconds of silence, finally pierced by the Warriors coach.
“You’re not used to me saying that, are you? No comment. You’re all stunned.”
Stunned, no. Surprised? Somewhat. But only a little bit, and there are two reasons.
First of all, this is not Kerr’s comfort zone. His social views are fairly well known by anyone who follows sports and politics. He urges Americans to vote. He believes President Trump is an aspiring dictator. The bullseye in Kerr’s circle of social concern is his staunch advocacy for national gun control, a stance formed from personal tragedy.
“What I’ve found is that it’s easy to speak on issues that I’m passionate about and that I feel like I’m well-versed on,” Kerr said. “And I’ve found that it makes the most sense to stick to topics that fall in that category. So, I try to keep my comments to those things. So, it’s not difficult. It’s more ... that I’m trying to learn.”
Secondly, and this is the real bag of vipers, is the financial partnership between the NBA and China. Or, should we say, the powers that be in China.
Everything eventually is about money. That is at the heart of the hottest NBA controversy since April 2014, when Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s life of certified bigotry leaked into our eardrums, angering players and embarrassing owners and every human being in the league office, including new commissioner Adam Silver.
The Sterling issue was a five on the 1-to-10 crisis scale because he was not a movement but a man. He could, for the good of all, be dismissed without a peep of protest beyond himself.
This latest controversy, which landed upon the NBA late Friday, after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the protesters in Hong Kong, is far more complicated because there can be no clean victory. This is a nine.
Morey’s tweet – “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” – exposed his humanitarian principles. Once China got wind of it, the blowback was fast and fierce, forcing Morey to delete the tweet and his boss, Rockets chairman Tilman Fertitta, to parachute in to control the damage, scolding his GM as part of the process.
Claiming the Rockets are apolitical, Fertitta was not particularly successful because the damage runs too deep, as it always does when revenue is at stake. China is the NBA’s most lucrative partnership, and it was jeopardized with a single tweet. Chinese sponsors fled from the Rockets, as did the Chinese Basketball Association, of which Rockets Hall of Famer Yao Ming is president. Tencent, the Chinese digital media that covers most NBA games in the United States, is suspending coverage of the Rockets despite their popularity in China.
Silver was forced to respond because he’s the commissioner. The NBA issued a statement Sunday that apologized for Morey’s tweet, supported his right of expression and praised the “history and culture of China.”
We’re now on Day 5 of the outrage with no indication of a truce.
The Lakers and Nets are scheduled this week to play two preseason games in China. Silver will be in attendance. Questions will be asked. Of Silver. Of LeBron James. Of Kyrie Irving, I hope, simply because his response could be fascinating.
But no answer by anyone will please everyone.
The NBA’s reputation as a liberal paragon always has been a rather illusory, a myth perpetuated by social positions that are progressive when compared with other major American sports leagues. If there is a league interested in being on the right side of history, it is the NBA,
Still, it is a capitalist enterprise. When revenue streams and business partnerships are at stake, it’s wise to be prudent, to be mindful.
Kerr said he’d already emailed his brother-in-law, a “Chinese history professor,” seeking more enlightenment. Though he eventually may disagree with government policies, I know he sees cultural value in the NBA-China relationship. Even if he concludes the Chinese government is evil, he still may see the benefit in experiencing it.
For now, though, the wise move is to recognize nothing is worse than dismissing one’s ignorance to say or tweet something regrettable.