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LeBron James’s Comments Make the NBA’s China Situation Even Messier

The Lakers star addressed the media for the first time since the team’s recent trip to China, and in answering questions about Daryl Morey’s tweet and its aftermath, he only served to muddy the issue

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LeBron James didn’t have to step in front of a microphone on Monday night. He’d already been ruled out of the Lakers’ preseason game against the Warriors, so he could have waltzed into Staples Center in street clothes, carrying another glass of wine, and sat on the bench. Instead, James—the face of the NBA—held an impromptu pregame press conference and opened himself up to questions about the league’s ongoing problems in China. And because of that, a messy situation got even messier.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s since-deleted tweet in support of pro-democracy efforts in Hong Kong has embroiled the Rockets and the NBA in a geopolitical controversy that has cost Houston its TV partnership with Chinese company Tencent, and it was the prime topic of conversation at Staples Center on Monday. The Lakers had returned from their exhibition series in China less than 48 hours before, and since media availabilities in China had been canceled, this was the first time players and coaches would field questions about their tumultuous trip. Head coach Frank Vogel went first and danced around the issue (“We just follow the league’s directive” was his go-to line). Then it was James’s turn.

He started by saying that when he speaks out about an issue, it’s because it “hits home” for him, and that neither he nor the team felt informed enough to talk about the politics of the China situation when they were there, or even now. (This line has been used by others around the league, including Warriors coach Steve Kerr.) He went on to say that he didn’t want to judge how the league handled the situation, but credited commissioner Adam Silver for putting out a fire that “he didn’t create or didn’t start.” That would have been enough to allow everyone to read between the lines and deduce that James was referring to Morey, but he then put an even finer point on it.

“I just think that when you’re misinformed or you’re not educated about something—and I’m just talking about the tweet—you never know what the ramifications that can happen,” James said. “Yes, we all have freedom of speech, but at times, there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others and only thinking about yourself. … Sometimes you have to think through things that you say that may cause harm not only for yourself, but for the majority of people. And I think that [Morey’s tweet] is a prime example of that.”

But if the lasting impact of Morey’s tweet was what James wanted to zero in on, that got lost in his answer to another question. “I don’t want to get into … a word feud with Morey, Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated about the situation at hand, and he spoke,” James said. “So many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and what we say, and what we do.”

It wasn’t clear which “situation” James was referring to (he used that word ambiguously eight different times in the presser). The protests in Hong Kong? How Morey’s tweet would be construed by the league’s Chinese partners? What it would mean for the NBA as a whole? His comment was met with immediate backlash online—so much so that James, in the middle of Monday night’s game, felt compelled to tweet a clarification just minutes after saying in his presser that he felt social media wasn’t the best way to go about addressing things.

James’s message, misconstrued or not, seems to be in line with thoughts he and other players reportedly shared in a meeting with Silver in China. There, according to ESPN, players asked what consequences Morey would face because “they believed that if a player had cost the NBA millions of dollars because of a tweet, there would be repercussions.”

That’s a valid point, and it should lead to a larger conversation. But it was difficult to get to that through James’s mixed messaging. When asked to clarify in the presser how Morey was misinformed, James more or less admitted he was doing the same thing he was criticizing Morey for: “That’s just my belief, I don’t know. That’s my belief, that’s all I can say. I believe he was misinformed and not educated on the situation, and if he was then so be it. But I have no idea, that’s just my belief.”

For as calculated a public figure as James is, this seemed like a rare misstep. He tried to clarify things quickly, but one read on his remarks was that he was attempting to protect his and other players’ business interests in China without getting too involved.

James was going to have to talk about this sooner or later, but his muddled answers only complicate the China situation. At the end of his presser, James was asked how it felt to be back at Staples Center in front of the fans, for the first time since Magic Johnson resigned last season. He said he was bummed he wasn’t playing Monday night, but was excited to suit up for Wednesday’s preseason game. The questions then, though, still might not be about basketball.