So if the 76ers want to show everyone that they have some principles and guts, that they’re more than just cheap progressive posers tapping into the woke zeitgeist for some easy money and good PR, here’s what they’ll do:
Between now and 7 p.m. Tuesday, someone in their ownership group, someone in their front office or on their coaching staff, someone who might suit up for their exhibition game at the Wells Fargo Center – against the Guangzhou Loong Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association – will stand up and say no. No, we will not host this game. No, I will not coach in this game. No, I will not play in this game.
Someone should say that, but no one will. There’s too much revenue and market share at stake, too many sneakers to be sold, too much face to be saved. Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, sent out a tweet Friday night in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and the combined wrath of a totalitarian state’s powerful propaganda machine and operators willing to wield it – the NBA’s owners, officials, and players – came down on him like an anvil.
It was a platinum-plated anvil. Just in July, the league announced that it had extended for five years its contract with Tencent, a Chinese tech company, for $1.5 billion. For Morey’s expressing a thought that was both factually and morally correct, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta admonished him publicly and reportedly considered firing him. Houston’s Chinese Consulate issued a statement that it was “deeply shocked by the erroneous comments.” An NBA spokesperson characterized Morey’s tweet as “regrettable” because it had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, in a letter responding to Morey, wrote that “1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland,” as if those citizens, living under a Communist dictatorship, have any other choice.
But no matter. Morey deleted his tweet and later sent out a follow-up statement, backtracking though not apologizing for his previous post, and it was enough. By the time that NBA commissioner Adam Silver offered a tepid defense of Morey on Monday, the creep of de facto censorship had made its way from Beijing to Houston. The message had been sent, and it had been received.
The Sixers received it, too. They played two exhibition games in China last year, and when they announced in July that they’d scheduled Tuesday’s game with Guangzhou, CEO Scott O’Neil was practically giddy. “Following our games in Shanghai and Shenzhen last fall,” he said in a statement then, “we continue to be inspired by the millions of passionate 76ers fans in China.” No, the Sixers can’t separate themselves from this crisis, and they barely tried Monday afternoon. Managing partner Josh Harris, O’Neil, general manager Elton Brand – none of them was available to speak to the media, but a team spokesperson confirmed that Tuesday’s game would be played as scheduled: “That’s what it’s about. It’s about this incredible platform basketball has provided to bring people together.”
It has to be about that, of course, because if it’s about an unholy alliance with a state that crushes dissidents, if it’s about the NBA and the Sixers lecturing people or picking sides on divisive sociopolitical issues, then throwing up their hands and saying, When it comes to China, business is business … well, things just get too messy and hypocritical.
From Silver’s threats to move the All-Star Game from Charlotte because of North Carolina’s transgender bathroom bill to Gregg Popovich’s and Steve Kerr’s rants about Donald Trump to LeBron James and other players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to protest police brutality, the league’s power people have branded themselves as seekers of social justice. But now more than ever, that stance seems little more than artifice, a path of least resistance that bestows nothing but praise on whoever takes it. The notion that criticizing an infantile reality-TV star who has relied on racial demagoguery to fuel his rise to the presidency requires some great measure of courage from anyone affiliated with the league is absurd. If anything, it plays to the NBA’s base, and even those franchise owners who have aligned themselves with Trump – such as Harris – are happy to accept the financial benefits and cultural cachet of speaking out and raising awareness.
It’s easy for Sixers partner Michael Rubin, for instance, to create some slam-dunk camera ops out of a convenient cause celebre, to send a helicopter to pick up Meek Mill and shepherd him from the State Correctional Institution in Chester to a Sixers playoff game. Then he settles into his front-row seat alongside Meek and Allen Iverson and whatever Eagles players happen to be in attendance that night, so Rubin can sit at the cool kids’ cafeteria table. It costs him little, and he sacrifices nothing.
Far more was at stake Monday morning, when the Sixers’ media-relations staff met with the team’s coaches and players to prepare them for any and all China-related questions, because as Morey proved, the wrong answer would be a threat to what mattered most. And so, when he was asked how he’d deal with a player who might want to protest or express an opinion in the manner Morey did, Sixers coach Brett Brown said: “People can do what they choose to do. They’re big boys. They can handle it how they choose to. That’s how I would handle it.”
But Brown doesn’t have to worry. Funny: His players appeared to have forgotten everything that had been said during their morning meeting about the Morey incident. “I don’t know the details,” Ben Simmons said. “I haven’t heard much about it and am still catching up on it,” Kyle O’Quinn said.