An NBA game happened in China on Thursday. Superstars played like superstars, two key players left early due to injury, and a late comeback led to an exciting finish, capped by a game-sealing dunk and a one-possession final score. And nobody really cared about any of it.
Preseason games matter only so much; your mind always drifts to something else while you’re watching. That was certainly true of Thursday’s exhibition matchup between the Lakers and Nets in Shanghai, though my thoughts wandered far beyond stuff like how long it’ll take a star free agent to develop on-court chemistry with his new teammates. It was impossible to watch Thursday’s game—which aired on NBA TV here in the U.S., and not at all in the nation in which it was played—without thinking about all that was being left unsaid on the broadcast, and about the staggering number of issues that remain unresolved six days after Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of protests in Hong Kong began an international incident.
Regular basketball stuff happened. Dwight Howard dunked his pants off. Anthony Davis often looked unguardable, at least by a smaller Nets front line. LeBron James scored 20 points in 26 minutes while barely seeming to break a sweat.
Kyrie Irving got popped in the face by Rajon Rondo less than a minute into the game, aggravating his recent facial fracture. Shortly thereafter, Caris LeVert got poked in the eye by Davis. Both Irving and LeVert left the game and didn’t return, meaning Brooklyn’s starting backcourt traveled all the way to China and waded into a massive sociopolitical conflagration to play a grand total of two minutes and 34 seconds.
There were other things to talk about, but none of it was anywhere near as notable as the overarching weirdness of watching a contest presented as a regular ol’ basketball game without any mention of why it was, in fact, not. As the players sprinted out in transition and tracked back on defense, there wasn’t any mention of the lack of sponsor signage on the court. Workers at Mercedes-Benz Arena reportedly sanded corporate logos away after multiple sponsors withdrew their support for the festivities following Morey’s since-deleted tweet and NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s statement supporting the “freedom of expression” of league employees. (One theory making the rounds, according to Marc Stein of The New York Times: China didn’t cancel the exhibition partially because it wanted the NBA “to see what a sponsorless game [with money withheld] looks and feels like.”)
After the Nets finished off a 114-111 win, we didn’t hear from Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson about how well Spencer Dinwiddie and Dzanan Musa ran the team after Irving and LeVert went down. After the Lakers came up a couple of plays short, we didn’t hear L.A. coach Frank Vogel praise JaVale McGee’s work on the glass, or espouse optimism that his team’s perimeter defense could improve after the Nets shot 20-for-41 from 3-point range. We didn’t hear anything, from anybody, because as ESPN reported, “approximately three and a half hours before tipoff, an NBA spokesman informed reporters there would be no media availability of any kind for either team, and that commissioner Adam Silver’s previously scheduled pregame news conference was canceled”—all at the behest of the Chinese government.
To some, the NBA’s assenting to the cancellation of all media availability at the say-so of an authoritarian government sets a grim precedent. It’s possible that the league looked at it as something of a small mercy—a chance to get out of town without any more on-the-record comments in the still-roiling shitstorm for another day or so. Maybe the league office doesn’t mind having a breather as it tries to figure out some sort of unified theory on how to approach all this, which now includes domestic quagmires like the increasing presence of Hong Kong protest–related signs at U.S. NBA arenas over the past few days, and the removal of the fans brandishing them. The longer this all goes on, the more questions the league will have to answer.
Speaking of questions: As the fourth quarter was getting underway in Shanghai, James Harden and Russell Westbrook were addressing the media in Saitama, Japan, after their Rockets knocked off the Raptors, 118-111, in the second of their two meetings as part of this year’s NBA Japan Games exhibition slate. Things got interesting when a team spokesperson intercepted an inquiry from CNN International reporter Christina Macfarlane about whether the two former league MVPs still felt comfortable speaking out on social and political issues after all that’s transpired this week:
Journalist gets quickly shut down when she asked James Harden, Russell Westbrook if they would refrain from speaking out on politics/social justice after China debacle... pic.twitter.com/VkXSWo0N0s— gifdsports (@gifdsports) October 10, 2019
The retreat to a stick-to-sports policy, and the stonewalling of a legitimate question from a reporter, seems like a bad idea. After all, didn’t Silver just take pains in his Tuesday statement to make clear that the NBA supports the right to free expression of all those under its umbrella? (For what it’s worth, the NBA released a statement later Thursday saying the Rockets’ “representative inappropriately interjected to prevent” Macfarlane from getting an answer, and noted that the league had “apologized to Ms. Macfarlane as this was inconsistent with how the NBA conducts media events.”)
It shouldn’t be on Harden and Westbrook—or James or Irving, or any other player—to fix this mess. That responsibility should fall to the league office, the commissioner, and the board of governors for whom he works. Players should be free to field those questions however they choose, and to answer them in whichever way they feel most comfortable, even if that’s with a “no comment.”
Then again: Doing that opens the door to players getting raked over the coals by commentators of all stripes for playing it safe and staying mum to protect their own brands and international business interests. It’s worth noting that it wasn’t a league-office flack who stifled the question at the Rockets’ presser, but rather a team PR person; the league “will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues,” per Silver, but it won’t have to if they check themselves. You’d imagine players—particularly, perhaps, Harden, who got marched out to apologize to China on Monday after the imbroglio erupted—would see some value in having their PR departments acting as shields here, at least until things die down. Or, failing that, at least until they touch down back in North America.
For the Rockets and Raptors, that return is imminent; their hitch in Japan is done, and they can go try to get back to preseason business as usual. For the Lakers, Nets, and the NBA staffers in China, though, a return to the States is still a ways off; the two teams are scheduled to play again in Shenzhen on Saturday. A league official told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin he “was unsure if the same media ban would be in place then,” but from the sound of it, we’re going to do all of this again in two days—unless, of course, something drastically changes in the NBA’s decision-making calculus.
For years, the NBA has presented its Global Games trips as a celebration of its efforts to further inflame interest in the sport and a recognition of the unfettered passion that people have for basketball all over the world. For years, that celebration and recognition came without a closer examination of what’s included in the fine-print terms of the service underpinning that sort of global expansion.
That’s no longer possible, though. The NBA’s annual international parade is now haunted by the specter of a gigantic international story that everybody’s talking about, even if nobody’s really all that willing to talk about it. These big showcase events, featuring some of the most famous players in the world, now have next to nothing to do with stars or spectacle; they’re about what you can and can’t say, what you should be saying, and whether some of the most powerful people in sports even want to talk at all if it puts the bottom line in jeopardy.