THE NEW CHINA SYN­DROME

NBA FINDS IT­SELF CAUGHT BE­TWEEN A ROCK AND A GREAT WALL

National Post (National Edition) - - Front Page - SCOTT STINSON

Adam Sil­ver is gen­er­ally the one sports com­mis­sioner that ev­ery­one ad­mires.

Where NHL boss Gary Bettman meets all crit­i­cism with a mix­ture of con­de­scen­sion and dis­dain, and NFL chief suit Roger Good­ell has never come across a smoul­der­ing em­ber of con­tro­versy that he couldn’t fan into a con­fla­gra­tion, Sil­ver, in his sixth year as NBA com­mis­sioner, sioner, has had a deft touch.

He over­saw the van­ish­ing an­ish­ing of for­mer L.A. Clip­pers rs owner Don­ald Ster­ling when his racist com­ments were caught t on tape; he has man­aged to steer eer the NBA through the e cul­ture wars by al­low­ing play­ers to speak crit­i­cally on so­cial is­sues while en­sur­ing that they avoid the third rail of kneel­ing dur­ing The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner; he called for gam­bling le­gal­iza­tion years ago and has watched as his coun­ter­parts who once re­coiled at the very idea of such a thing are now fall­ing all over them­selves to get a piece of that sweet wa­ger­ing lu­cre.

But in try­ing to del­i­cately nav­i­gate the con­tro­versy un­leashed by a sin­gle pro-Hong K Kong tweet from Hous­ton ton Rocke Rock­ets gen­eral man­ager Daryl Morey, Mor Sil­ver has quickly dis­co­vere dis­cov­ered what so many other Western busi­nesses b and politi­cians icians have ha found be­fore him: the there is no ap­peal­ing to B Bei­jing’s sense of rea­son­able­ness.

When you stir China into a fit of pique, all you can do is grab on to the handrails and ride it out.

On Tues­day, with Sil­ver in Tokyo for ex­hi­bi­tion games be­tween the Toronto Rap­tors and the Rock­ets, he is­sued a new state­ment on the Morey flap, say­ing that the “NBA will not put it­self in a po­si­tion of reg­u­lat­ing what play­ers, em­ploy­ees and team own­ers say or will not say on (cer­tain) is­sues.”

This was a clar­i­fi­ca­tion of sorts from Sun­day, when in re­sponse to Morey’s tweet that read, “Fight for Free­dom. Stand with Hong Kong,” and the en­su­ing back­lash from China, which in­cluded the sev­er­ing of var­i­ous NBA-re­lated re­la­tion­ships, Sil­ver had opened his ini­tial pre­pared state­ment by say­ing that he rec­og­nized that the “views ex­pressed” by Morey had “of­fended” many in China, which was “re­gret­table.”

Al­though that mis­sive did in­clude some boil­er­plate about al­low­ing NBA em­ploy­ees to share their views, on the whole it read like the league up­braid­ing Morey for be­ing off­side with China. That po­si­tion was re­in­forced by apolo­gies from the Rock­ets own­er­ship and play­ers. Sil­ver, no doubt aware of crit­i­cisms that he was rolling over and hop­ing for a belly rub from a Com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor­ship, one cred­i­bly ac­cused of var­i­ous hu­man-rights abuses, Tues­day made clear that free­dom of speech was a big deal in his league, even if it meant “we will have to live with those con­se­quences.”

Those con­se­quences keep com­ing. Chi­nese state broad­caster CCTV has killed plans to tele­vise two ex­hi­bi­tion games in that coun­try be­tween the L.A. Lak­ers and the Brook­lyn Nets this week, and there are re­ports that the snit could ex­tend to can­celling the games al­to­gether. CCTV sniffed that “any re­marks that chal­lenge na­tional sovereignt­y and so­cial sta­bil­ity are not within the scope of free­dom of speech,” and per­haps it should not be sur­pris­ing that the state broad­caster in China has a loose def­i­ni­tion of freespeech rights.

Mean­while, the Chi­nese stream­ing ser­vice Ten­cent, which has a new US$1.5-bil­lion deal with the NBA, has said it will not show any Rock­ets games and CCTV says it will re­view all of its NBA part­ner­ships. The seas, they are a-roil­ing.

The league’s roots in China are deep. It opened of­fices there decades ago, and has rou­tinely sent NBA stars over­seas to build ties in what is its big­gest for­eign mar­ket by far. While the Rock­ets, where Chi­nese leg­end Yao Ming spent his en­tire ca­reer, are at the van­guard of the NBA’s China out­reach, other teams also take part in Chi­nese New Year ini­tia­tives, in­clud­ing spe­cial jer­seys with Chi­nese let­ter­ing. It is no se­cret that Sil­ver, and his pre­de­ces­sor, saw China as key to the growth of the NBA.

But part of that growth, it would seem, has to in­clude never mak­ing Bei­jing mad. Western en­ti­ties even­tu­ally fig­ure this out, whether it is Mercedes-Benz apol­o­giz­ing for hav­ing the temer­ity to quote the Dalai Lama in an ad, or the Cana­dian govern­ment caught in the mid­dle of a le­gal dis­pute be­tween China and the United States. Justin Trudeau and Adam Sil­ver look about as dif­fer­ent as it is pos­si­ble for two white guys to look, and yet they would surely have some war sto­ries to share about deal­ing with an ob­sti­nate regime with the size and in­flu­ence to make their lives very dif­fi­cult.

But once ties are built and part­ner­ships ex­panded, the pos­si­bil­ity for this kind of mess in China is al­ways there. Con­sider that The As­so­ci­ated Press quoted a spokesman with China’s for­eign min­istry as say­ing that the NBA, as a long­time part­ner, should have known bet­ter than to en­dorse any view not held by Bei­jing.

“How can it be pos­si­ble to carry out ex­changes and co-op­er­a­tion with China with­out know­ing China’s pub­lic opin­ion?” said Geng Shaung.

But that’s it right there, of course. Pub­lic opin­ion is not a sin­gle thought shared by all, even if a Com­mu­nist pro­pa­gan­dist might sug­gest Bei­jing’s opin­ion to be uni­ver­sal. Adam Sil­ver runs a league in which the last few cham­pi­ons have made a point of skip­ping the tra­di­tional White House visit be­cause they dis­agree with the views of its present oc­cu­pant. No one thinks much about it, be­cause free­dom of choice here is ac­cepted. Woe be­tide the Chi­nese team that tries to pull such in­tran­si­gence off over there.

This is the com­pro­mise that is made when China is sim­ply viewed as a great big mar­ket to be ex­ploited: You have to keep quiet and hope you don’t get a crick in your neck from al­ways turn­ing a blind eye.

Sil­ver is ex­pected to travel to Shang­hai on Wed­nes­day, and has said he hopes to smooth things over then. Let’s see if they let him in the coun­try first.

JA­SON LEE / REUTERS

Men walk past an NBA poster in Bei­jing on Tues­day. Be­low: Hous­ton Rock­ets GM Daryl Morey has an­gered China with a pro-Hong Kong tweet.

TROY TAORMINA /USA TO­DAY SPORTS

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