Chinese businesses, broadcaster punish Houston Rockets over manager's Hong Kong protest tweet

BEIJING (REUTERS) – The Houston Rockets’ Chinese sponsor and a Chinese sportswear maker have suspended work with the basketball team after its general manager sent a tweet in support of Hong Kong protests over the weekend.

Although Rockets general manager Daryl Morey quickly deleted the tweet, sportswear brand Li-Ning and sponsor Shanghai Pudong Development Bank (SPD Bank) Credit Card Centre said on Sunday (Oct 6) they were suspending cooperation with it.

The Rockets are widely followed in China, partly because they drafted the Chinese basketball player Yao Ming in 2002, who became a star for them and helped build the NBA’s following there.

“We want to express our indignation and strong condemnation,” read a statement from Li-Ning, published on the Twitter-like Weibo platform. “We have already stopped our cooperation with the Houston Rockets, and continue to urge them to give a clear answer on this matter.” China’s SPD Bank also said on Sunday that it has suspended related marketing activities and publicity.

“SPD Bank Credit Card Center expresses strong protest and opposition to the wrong remarks made by Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey,” the bank said in a statement on its Weibo account.

Neither statements said whether the decisions were permanent.

The pressure on the Houston Rockets has not purely been about business.

Shortly after the announcement by both businesses, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV’s sports channel also said it would suspend any further broadcasts of the Rockets’ matches starting on Sunday.

The Chinese consulate general in Houston also issued a statement Sunday, condemning Morey’s remarks.

He said it had “made stern representations to the Rockets and requested them to clarify, to immediately correct any mistakes, and to eliminate any negative influences”.

Morey’s tweet included an image captioned, “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong”. The post has since been removed and team owner Tilman Fertitta went on Twitter to distance the team from the statement.

“Daryl Morey does not speak for the Houston Rockets,” he said on Saturday. “Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the NBA internationally and we are not a political organisation.” The Rockets, currently playing games in Japan, could not be reached for comment outside of business hours.

The business’ announcements follow one earlier in the day from the Chinese Basketball Association which said it was suspending “exchanges and cooperation” with the Houston Rockets.

In a statement posted on Weibo, the association, chaired by Yao, said it opposed Morey’s comment, which it called inappropriate.

“Houston Rockets General Manager Morey publicly made an inappropriate comment related to Hong Kong,” it said. “The Chinese Basketball Association strongly opposes this and will suspend exchanges and cooperation.” It did not detail the nature of the cooperation or how long the suspension would last.

Reuters’ telephone calls to the association to seek comment went unanswered.

Basketball fans in China voiced criticism of the Rockets on Weibo.

“I watched the Rockets for 21 years, but I’m still a Chinese person first and foremost,” said one user in response to the basketball association’s announcement.

Another said: “We Chinese basketball fans call on either Morey to apologise or the Rockets to fire Morey. If this doesn’t happen, then we call on fans to boycott watching Rockets games.”

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