Supporters of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement made their presence felt Friday as the Brooklyn Nets played their first game in New York since they were caught in the middle of the NBA’s rift with China.
Tensions between Beijing and the American basketball league erupted this month after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted an image in support of the demonstrations that have rocked the financial hub for months.
China has portrayed the protesters as violent separatists and the backlash against Morey’s comments has cast a cloud over the NBA’s lucrative broadcasting, merchandising and sponsorship interests in the country, where it has legions of fans.
The Nets found themselves in the thick of the controversy as they arrived in China to play two pre-season games against the Los Angeles Lakers days after Morey’s tweet.
Several hundred people clad in T-shirts that read “Stand with Hong Kong” chanted slogans in support of the protesters from the Barclays Center stands during the Nets’ pre-season showdown against the Toronto Raptors, the reigning champions.
“We want to use our performance art to show our support for Hong Kong and the NBA,” 55-year-old author Chen Pokong told The New York Post.
Nets star Kyrie Irving, who played just one minute of the first game in China against the Lakers after aggravating a facial injury he had suffered in practice, said he understood why the activists were protesting Chinese policies.
“The reality is that as individuals, it’s our job to stand up for what we believe in,” he said after the game.
Since the row began, the NBA has found itself under pressure from US politicians and media outlets who have urged the league not to buckle under Chinese criticism, or even to withdraw from the Chinese market completely.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said this week that the league’s financial losses in the affair had been “substantial” and that China had demanded Morey be sacked, which Beijing denied.
Nets owner Joseph Tai, a Taiwanese-Canadian businessman who made a fortune as co-founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, said soon after the controversy erupted that Morey’s tweet was intolerable to the Chinese government.
He predicted in a Facebook post that the “hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”
The Nets, perhaps still feeling the effects of their China trip – on which they swept LeBron James in the Lakers – fell 123-107 to the Raptors.