MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And the NBA is in the middle of a political firestorm. This started Friday with a tweet from the general manager of the Houston Rockets - a tweet supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. That tweet drew heavy condemnation in China. Then the league issued its own statement, trying to smooth things over, and that has now cranked up criticism of the NBA here in the states. Well, here to fill us in on what is going on here is NPR's senior business editor Uri Berliner.
URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Hello, Mary Louise.
KELLY: What did this tweet say? Why has it been so controversial?
BERLINER: So Daryl Morey - let's start with him - general manager of the Rockets, as you said, one of the most highly respected executives in the league. But in this context, what's important is that the Rockets have really deep ties to China, a huge fan following. China's first NBA star, Yao Ming, played for the Rockets.
KELLY: I remember.
BERLINER: Yeah. So last week, Morey tweeted an image reading, fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong. And China, obviously, is very sensitive about outside criticism of its policies, especially on democracy and human rights. China responded in a really harsh way.
KELLY: In a really harsh way meaning what? What has China said?
BERLINER: Well, the Chinese Basketball Association, whose president happens to be that Yao Ming, suspended its relationship with the Rockets. Tencent - that's the big Chinese social media company - said it would stop streaming Rockets games. And the Chinese consulate in Houston put out a statement. It said, we're deeply shocked by the erroneous comments on Hong Kong made by Mr. Daryl Morey.
KELLY: What about the NBA? I've said they put out a statement, trying to calm everything down. It sounds like the exact opposite has happened.
BERLINER: Yeah, the NBA issued one statement in English and another appeared in Mandarin on the league's social media site there. In English, the statement is kind of vague. It says the league, quote, "supports individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters that are important to them." The English version doesn't explicitly criticize Morey but says it's regrettable that Chinese were offended. The Chinese version, translated by my Mandarin-speaking colleagues here, strikes a very different tone. It says, quote, "we are extremely disappointed in the inappropriate views of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. He undoubtedly has deeply hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans."
KELLY: Wow. That's a totally different statement.
BERLINER: It sure sounds different, yeah.
KELLY: The league has said the English version is their official one?
BERLINER: They did say that, yes.
KELLY: OK. But the NBA is now coming under attack from all over the place on Twitter for - people are saying they caved to China.
BERLINER: All over - on the left, on the right. Senator Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said the NBA is, quote, "shamefully retreating in pursuit of big money." Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro says the U.S. shouldn't allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government. Now, this isn't likely to be over anytime soon. The NBA is playing preseason games in China this week, and it'll be interesting to see how the commissioner, Adam Silver, reconciles the league's business interests with its core values.
KELLY: Are the Rockets going to be there?
KELLY: It's so fascinating, Uri, because - correct me if I'm wrong here, but the NBA has been much more tolerant of - even encouraging of - players, managers, coaches to speak their mind, whether it's social issues, political issues, compared to, say, baseball or American football.
BERLINER: Absolutely, that's true. The NBA has supported its players and coaches when they express their views on things like police violence or guns or whether college athletes should be paid. Now, this situation with Daryl Morey's tweet is really going to put the league's commitment to free expression to the test. China is the NBA's biggest international market. Hundreds of millions of people in China watch the NBA every season.
KELLY: Has Daryl Morey come out and said anything since the tweet?
BERLINER: He's put out a new tweet kind of backtracking a little bit but not a full-on apology. It kind of reads like it might have been vetted by a bunch of lawyers.
KELLY: (Laughter) OK. NPR's Uri Berliner.
BERLINER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.