Houston Rockets and NBA were forced into defensive mode as China's state broadcaster said it was yanking Rockets games from the air and sponsors abandoned them.
Houston Rockets star James Harden on Monday apologised to China over a tweet by the team's general manager backing Hong Kong's democracy protests that cost the franchise TV exposure and sponsorship in the lucrative Chinese market.
The team and the NBA were forced into defensive mode as China's state broadcaster said it was yanking Rockets games from the air and sponsors abandoned them.
The controversy quickly spread across the Pacific, as commentators and even a US presidential candidate rounded on the league for kowtowing to authoritarian Beijing.
In Tokyo, where the team is playing two exhibition games this week, Harden distanced himself from the controversy raging in the NBA's biggest market outside the US.
"We apologise. We love China," he said, standing alongside fellow Rockets guard Russell Westbrook.
"We love playing there. Both of us, we go there once or twice a year. They show us most support so we appreciate them."
The furore comes after general manager Daryl Morey — whose Rockets attracted a huge following in China after signing superstar Yao Ming in 2002 — posted a tweet Friday featuring the message "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong".
On Monday, he tried to calm the waters.
"I did not intend my tweet to cause any offence to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China," he tweeted.
1/ I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) October 7, 2019
"I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention," Morey added.
'Get out of China'
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" model China agreed before the 1997 handover from Britain.
The NBA issued its own statement, saying it recognised Morey's views "have offended so many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable".
"While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them," said the statement issued by chief communications officer Mike Bass.
But a Chinese-language version of the statement posted on Weibo went further, saying the NBA was "deeply disappointed by the inappropriate remarks".
In the United States, the NBA found itself under fire for its apology, which presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, a Texan, called "an embarrassment".
"The only thing the NBA should be apologising for is their blatant prioritisation of profits over human rights," he tweeted.
The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights. What an embarrassment. https://t.co/bbiwCBTwc1— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) October 7, 2019
Fellow Texan, Senator Ted Cruz weighed in on Twitter, accusing the NBA of "shamefully retreating".
As a lifelong @HoustonRockets fan, I was proud to see @dmorey call out the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong.— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) October 7, 2019
Now, in pursuit of big $$, the @nba is shamefully retreating. https://t.co/7waMde5KrM
But the NBA's statement also did little to mollify fans in China.
Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily said that Rockets merchandise had been pulled from the massive Chinese e-commerce portal Taobao.
Searches Monday afternoon for "Houston Rockets" on Taobao produced no results, while the hashtag "Taobao pulls Rockets-related products off shelves" quickly gathered more than 73 million views on Weibo.
Brooklyn Nets owner and Alibaba co-founder Joseph Tsai issued a lengthy statement warning "the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair".
The Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets are due to play pre-season games in Shanghai and Shenzhen later this week.
Chinese state broadcaster CCTV and Tencent Holdings — which streams NBA games in China — have both said they will halt Rockets broadcasts.
Sponsors including sportswear brand Li Ning and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank also announced they were cutting ties.
The moves came after the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) said it would sever ties with the Rockets over Morey's "incorrect comments".
The Rockets had already tried to distance themselves from the controversy, with owner Tilman Fertitta on Friday writing on Twitter that Morey "does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets... we are NOT a political organisation".
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. @espn https://t.co/yNyQFtwTTi— Tilman Fertitta (@TilmanJFertitta) October 5, 2019