I’m not a rich man like LeBron James, so I can’t say what I’d do if I had LeBron’s money. Additionally, I didn’t grow up poor, so I don’t know what it’s like to grow up like Le Bron James, who was raised by a single mom in a challenging neighborhood in Akron, Ohio. Finally, I’m not uber-talented like LeBron James, born with talent so immense, and a work ethic to match, that ESPN wanted to broadcast his every move when he was 16-years-old. (I can’t begin to explain how glad I am that nobody wished to do that to me.) Considering all of the above, LeBron James has lived a life that he has every right to be proud of, and I’m not just talking about his legendary greatness on the basketball court.
Ah, but if it were only so simple. You see, LeBron James, a man who is in all probability one of the five most recognizable individuals on this planet, a man who has called out wrongs, particularly those regarding civil rights indignities, was recently thrust into the spotlight over an issue that he most likely wanted no part of. The issue involves the NBA, his employer, (or are they his employee?) the basketball loving nation of China, (sometimes known as “Red China,” sometimes known to those old enough to have voted for Harry Truman as “Mainland China”) and a certain city known as Hong Kong, that is desperately trying to hold onto its fledgling little piece of democracy.
For those who may not be aware, the NBA is extremely popular in the People’s Republic of China. It’s possible that this love of “round-ball” can be traced back to their greatest basketball export, the 7’6″ Yao Ming. Yao Ming was a center for the Houston Rockets from 2002-2011. Before that he played for Shanghai, until he left China to play for the Rockets. Yao Ming was a substantially gifted athlete, who played with remarkable grace for a man of his height. However, Yao’s career was curtailed significantly by injuries. When he did play though, his every move was followed back home in his native country. Some former NBA players have actually accomplished the “anti-Yao,” by relocating to China and spending their time playing basketball in that mega-populated nation.
Stephon Marbury, a former New York City high school superstar and college standout, after he was a bitter NBA disappointment, was able to to further his career in China, and make a healthy amount of Yen while he was at it. Over the past 20 years, basketball has become a major sport for the 1.4 billion people who call China their home. That’s a lot of jerseys and sneakers that can be potentially sold, as well as the makings of an enormous television audience tuned into a truly all-American game. As such, the NBA has sent dozens of its biggest stars, including LeBron James, on goodwill visits to the nation formerly known as Cathay. The NBA has staged dozens of exhibition games in China, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has made marketing the league to China one of his top, and up until now, one of his most successful enterprises. Unfortunately, democracy, ever inconvenient, has reared its ugly head.
Recently, the NBA was promoting its brand in China. Typically this wouldn’t have created much in the way of controversy, or even publicity. However, things in China right now are in a little bit of an upheaval. The city of Hong Kong has been suffering from, or thriving from, depending on your viewpoint, extremely passionate pro-democracy demonstrations. Hong Kong, as some may be aware, was a colony within the once mighty British empire. The British owned this magnificent city from 1841 until 1997, with the exception of a period when it was controlled by Japan during World War Two. The British agreed to give it to China, but with a few caveats. Hong Kong was supposed to maintain much of its autonomy from the Communist Chinese government. Residents of the city/island feared not only a loss of political freedom, but they also thought that the thriving trade and financial markets that the city was known for would also suffer under Communist rule.
The Chinese moved slowly when it came to their encroachment, particularly when it came to the economy. The Chinese Communists learned from the mistakes that brought down the Soviet Union. They figured out that if you give your urban elite iPhones, iPads, and other technological goodies, they would overlook some of the other issues that are of importance to people like, let’s say…freedom. As a result, China has provided a thriving economy for its people, but maintained a tight grip on their political freedoms. The people of Hong Kong however have grown accustomed to freedom, and aren’t interested in trading it for material goods which they already largely possess. Unfortunately, the Chinese government, under the autocratic rule of Xi Jinping, has been slowly but surely eroding these rights. As a result, the people of Hong Kong have been taking to the streets in protest of what they see as the loss of their fragile privileges.
How did the political and civil turmoil of Hong Kong become a problem for the NBA? Well, it’s possible that one can blame the league itself for this issue. The NBA, under the leadership of Adam Silver, has promoted itself as the most diverse and politically aware of all of the major team sports. However, when it came to doing business with China, and its awful track record when it comes to civil rights, the league has been as silent as Madison Square Garden during the playoffs. That was until a tweet was sent by Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey, where he expressed support for the people of Hong Kong.
While this is hardly “I have a dream,” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” perhaps in its simplicity, Daryl Morey appeared to have touched a few nerves. China responded by pulling the NBA exhibition games off of state television, as well as claiming to begin an investigation into all corporate dealings with the league. Ouch, talk about a flagrant foul!
Morey quickly took down the “controversial” tweet, which somehow was deemed offensive. His words were also publicly rebuked by the Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who reassured the Chinese government that his team was a “non-political organization.” The NBA offered up comments in both Chinese and English, and the sentiments varied considerably. However it was the commentary offered up by the league’s biggest superstar, and most recognizable figure, that caused even more consternation for the NBA, the people of Hong Kong, and those who want their superstar athletes to care about something, anything, other than money.
LeBron James has made little secret of the fact that he wants to be a billionaire, and that he wants to own an NBA franchise. James has proven to be a pretty steady role model and eloquent spokesman for the league. He has seemingly handled his superstardom and wealth about as well as anybody could be expected to do, and he has at times taken stands when he believed that a wrong had been committed.
Upon returning from China, James issued a statement to reporters. His comments didn’t sit well with the good people of Hong Kong, amongst others. He claimed that Morey was obviously “misinformed or not really educated” on the issues regarding Hong Kong and China. He then added, “I don’t want to get into a … feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke.” Think about how few individuals can consistently hit from the three-point line, dunk with ease, and profess expertise on Sino-American relations. Still, many found James’ comments lacking in respect for the situation that the citizens of Hong Kong are experiencing.
“The King” then further expanded upon his ideas regarding free speech and its pitfalls. James stated, “So many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually. Just be careful what we tweet, what we say and what we do. Yes, we have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negatives that come with that as well… Sometimes social media is not always the proper way to go about things as well.” The people of Hong Kong demonstrated their displeasure with James’ comments by burning his jerseys. Right wing pundits, such as Tucker “There’s no such thing as white supremacy” Carlson, and Laura “Shut-up and dribble” Ingram, both chastised James for his lack of support for Hong Kong democracy. Senator Rick Scott of Florida said it was James who wasn’t educated on the issue. Meanwhile, Rockets superstar James Harden publicly apologized for Morey’s stance, in essence concerning himself with his Chinese business interests instead of human and civil rights violations.
Despite idolizing Michael Jordan, James has been careful not to follow in his hero’s footsteps. It was Jordan who famously refused to campaign for Harvey Gantt when he ran for senator against Jesse Helms, claiming that “Republicans buy sneakers too.” It was a window into Jordan’s way of thinking, and proof that money was Jordan’s primary motivator after winning. James however, while certainly not shy about his desire for wealth, appeared to be concerned with the issues of the day, and hasn’t been shy about speaking out against what he sees as society’s wrongs. However, when it came to backing Morey and the fight to preserve democracy in Hong Kong, James chose the league’s, as well as his own, business interests over a noble cause.
Taking a stand as a professional athlete means sacrifice. Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Jackie Robinson, and so many more have sacrificed and suffered due to the often controversial stances that they took during, and even after, their playing careers. Did it cost them opportunities, wealth, fandom? Absolutely. The NBA is a wealthy and powerful organization, and it has managed to keep its players on the whole happy and wealthy, but at a price. They’ve been asked to look the other way at certain transgressions, when calling out those behaviors that might cost the league some of their profits. The only player seemingly in a position to challenge the league would be its biggest star, LeBron James. But, apparently, Chinese people buy sneakers too.
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