In the hours after then Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey Tweeted out an image in support for protestors in Hong Kong back in October of 2019, the league, the Rockets, and even Morey himself were backtracking.
The Tweet was taken down, the Rockets issued a statement distancing themselves from the sentiment, and the league was in full damage control mode. James Harden praised the NBA’s relationship with China, and other players were backing the party line. The league worked hard behind the scenes to repair its relationships with the nation. It wasn’t enough. The NBA lost sponsorships and deals in China, and NBA games were taken off state television in China (and only just returned for the Finals, they are still on for the start of this season). Overall, the Tweet likely cost the NBA $400 million.
The storyline promoted was Morey didn’t really understand the situation and know what he was doing before he touched the third rail of Chinese politics.
Morey did know. He understood the situation on the ground very well because of friends in Hong Kong. Morey, now the GM/president of the Philadelphia 76ers, opened up about this to Jackie MacMullin of ESPN in a must-read story.
…Morey had befriended a number of Hong Kong residents while attending business school and had intimate knowledge of the challenges they faced living in a semi-autonomous country. His decision to tweet his support was neither rash nor uninformed, but a conscious effort to express his solidarity for people he knew well.
Asked months later if he regrets his decision to support the protests in Hong Kong, Morey paused for several seconds before responding, “I’m very comfortable with what I did.”
What Morey did not anticipate was the intensity of the backlash. He said he feared for his family’s safety, although he feels things have settled and he has a level of security now, he told ESPN.
“But I was extremely concerned. You don’t want the second-most powerful government on Earth mad at you, if you can avoid it. In this case, I couldn’t.”
Buzz about Morey and new Rockets’ owner Tilman Fertitta not being on the same page was already circulating around the league before the Hong Kong Tweet, leading to speculation about Morey and the Rockets eventually parting ways. However, the Rockets were not going to fire Morey over the Tweet — it was what China wanted, but it would have been a violation of the spirit of America’s freedom of speech. It would have been a worse look for the league and Rockets to bend that much to China, it would have led to more blowback, this time within the USA (and there are already politicians who like to make cheap, lazy points with their base by slamming the NBA at every turn).
Morey stayed on for another season but was ready to move on and left the Rockets — and instantly had 76ers owner Joshua Harris calling, trying to recruit him. It worked. Morey went to Philly and shook up the roster (and instantly became a hot James Harden trade rumor).
Morey may have moved on from Houston, but that Tweet and the reaction will always be part of his legacy. Morey is good with that.