A 76ers fan says he was ejected from the Wells Fargo Center after holding signs and shouting in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong during the NBA team’s exhibition game Tuesday night against the Guangzhou Loong-Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association.
Sam Wachs and his wife were sitting just rows behind the visitors’ bench when, early in the first quarter, they held up green fluorescent poster paper signs with “Free Hong Kong” and “Free HK” inscribed on them.
Wachs said in an interview that security guards took the signs away and then ejected the couple after he shouted “Free Hong Kong” midway through the second quarter.
The Sixers and the Wells Fargo Center said in separate statements that the couple were escorted out of the arena because they were disruptive and others around them were complaining.
Wachs said he was disappointed that he was evicted before Sixers player Ben Simmons sank the first three-pointer of his career during the team’s 144-86 victory over the Loong-Lions. “I’m sorry I missed it,” he said.
The incident came hours after NBA commissioner Adam Silver sought to smooth over a brewing dispute with China sparked by a tweet that Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted and then deleted supporting the Hong Kong protesters. Basketball is popular in China, and the NBA has a $1.5 billion deal with a Chinese streaming company to show its games.
Wachs, 33, who lived in Hong Kong for a time while in his 20s, said he had not planned the protest before the controversy erupted over Morey’s tweet.
“It brought a human rights issue to the NBA,” said Wachs, who described himself as a big Sixers fan. “I felt I had to do something.”
“I don’t think the NBA should be bending over backwards to please China,” said Wachs, a video and podcast producer for a Philadelphia nonprofit.
He said he also was disappointed that the Sixers tried to distance themselves from the issue before the game and "just pretended to say nothing.”
Other teams are also facing repercussions, as it remains unclear whether the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers will play in Shanghai and Shenzhen as scheduled this week. Media availabilities with the teams, practicing in Shanghai, were called off Wednesday, as were an NBA Cares event to benefit Special Olympics and “fan celebration” in the city. Workers were also seen tearing down outdoor promotional advertisements for Thursday’s Lakers-Nets game.
Silver met with players from the Nets and Lakers, telling them that the league intended to play the games as scheduled. State broadcaster CCTV has said it will not air the games.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday criticized the NBA as “pandering” to China, but didn’t take a side in the dispute, saying, “They have to work out their own situation.”
The Sixers said security at the Wells Fargo Center is the responsibility of the arena’s event staff and that Wachs and his wife were removed “following multiple complaints from guests and verbal confrontations with others in attendance....”
The Wells Fargo Center’s statement said security staff “responded to a situation that was disrupting the live event experience for our guests” and escorted the couple out of the arena without incident after “three separate warnings.”
The statement added, “The security team employed respectful and standard operating procedures."
Wachs said he and his wife, who asked not to be identified, were silent until their signs were taken away but acknowledged standing on his chair to shout “Free Hong Kong” and debating with fans of the Chinese team who “swore at me and repeated Chinese government disinformation about the Hong Kong protests.”
He said the guards who escorted them out were “not particularly rude” and "just seemed to be just doing their job. "
“It’s just a shame that their job entails silencing people who try to speak out about the NBA’s business dealings with a corrupt regime,” Wachs said.
6ABC reporter Christie Ileto tweeted a shaky cell phone video showing Wachs and his wife being evicted.
The Wells Fargo Center’s policy for signs requires that they be no larger than 14 inches by 14 inches, not attached to a stick or a pole, and ”be in good taste and appropriate for the event."
“This policy is subject to change based on the Wells Fargo Center management’s discretion and without notice,” it says.
Staff writer Marc Narducci contributed to this article, which also contains information from the Associated Press.