SHANGHAI: The Brooklyn Nets defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 91-77 on Saturday (Oct 12) to conclude a pre-season China tour that leaves behind big questions over the future of a key market worth billions of dollars to the NBA.
The two-game tour was thrown into disarray, with all public appearances cancelled other than the matches, after the league found itself at the centre of a raging US-China dispute over democracy and free speech.
Despite the controversy, the teams have been embraced by Chinese fans at the first game on Thursday in Shanghai, also won by Brooklyn, and game two Saturday in the southern city of Shenzhen near Hong Kong.
Spectators have shown up by the thousands in Lakers and Nets jerseys, but many also put Chinese flag stickers over their shirts' NBA logo, or held small Chinese flags.
The controversy erupted when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted a since-deleted tweet on October 4 in support of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong who say China is eroding its freedoms.
China portrays the protesters as violent separatists, and its state press and social media went ballistic over Morey's comment, though a government effort to curb the vitriol now appears under way.
But the exhibition games were pulled from Chinese screens by official broadcast partners in protest, and the NBA's Chinese sponsors have severed ties en masse.
The affair exposed the fine line toed by the NBA in China, where it has built a vast, lucrative fanbase in a country where free speech does not exist, while touting itself back home as a champion of progressive values like free expression.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the latest high-profile US politician to urge the NBA to place principle over profit and stand up to China, citing its mass detentions of Muslim ethnic Uighurs in its Xinjiang region.
"The pages of George Orwell's '1984' are coming to life there. I wish the NBA would acknowledge that," Pompeo said during a speech in Nashville.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver further angered China by defending Morey's right to speak out, but the NBA still pressed ahead with its tour, though in a stripped-down form with every scheduled media or public event cancelled.
The league said Friday it would be unfair to force the teams to field media questions in China on the "complicated and unprecedented situation."
The NBA has run into what many other foreign businesses also have learned the hard way – Beijing demands they respect Chinese political sensibilities if they want access to its huge market.
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