NBA star LeBron James on Monday criticized Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey for his recent tweet supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, saying Morey “wasn’t educated on the situation at hand.”

“So many people could have been harmed,” James said during a brief news conference prior to a matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors on Monday. “Not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually.”

James’ statement was his first public comment on the issue since he and the Lakers returned to the U.S. from a trip last week to China, where the team took part in two preseason games with the Brooklyn Nets. That same week, Morey’s since-deleted tweet, which included a picture emblazoned with the slogan “Fight for freedom, stand for Hong Kong,” create significant fallout between China and the NBA. The league currently has a $1.5 billion deal with a Chinese streaming company to show its games.

The Lakers arrived in China to outrage over the tweet, which resulted in state broadcaster CCTV’s decision to not air the scheduled games against the Nets, as well as the cancellation of community and publicity events. Some Chinese companies and state-run offices also reportedly cut ties with the league as part of the fallout.

Last week, the league issued a statement in which it said it recognized that Morey’s comments “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable." But NBA commissioner Adam Silver attempted to walk that statement back, later saying that the league will “protect our employees’ freedom of speech.” James, meanwhile, said on Monday that Morey’s tweet could have endangered Lakers and Nets players during the China trip.

“Yes, we do 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 you’re thinking about yourself,” James said. “So just be careful what we tweet and what we say and what we do. Even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, it can be a lot of negative that comes with it.”

James received swift backlash online for his comments. Florida Sen. Rick Scott, for example, accused James of “kowtowing to Communist China & putting profits over human rights,” while Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse accused the NBA star of “parroting communist propaganda."

In an attempt to “clear up the confusion” over his statements, James wrote on Twitter that he was “not discussing the substance” of Morey’s tweet, but rather focused on the timing.

“My team and this league just went through a difficult week,” James wrote. “And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it.”

Demonstrators in Hong Kong responded to James’ comments yesterday by stomping on his Jersey and chanting for Morey.

Demonstrators stomp on LeBron James jerseys during a rally Tuesday in Hong Kong.
Mark Schiefelbein / AP
Demonstrators stomp on LeBron James jerseys during a rally Tuesday in Hong Kong.

Controversy about the NBA’s response to the protests in Hong Kong has also occurred locally. Last week, two Sixers fans were thrown out of the Wells Fargo Center after displaying a pro-Hong Kong signs at an exhibition game against the Guangzhou Loong-Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association. Previously, the Sixers distanced themselves from the controversy.

The signs, held by fans Sam Wachs and his wife, who asked to not be identified, read “Free Hong Kong” and “Free HK.” A sign policy for the Wells Fargo Center states that signs must be no larger than 14 inches by 14 inches, and must be “in good taste and appropriate for the event,” though the arena notes that the policy is “subject to change … without notice.”

“It brought a human rights issue to the NBA. I felt I had to do something,” Sam Wachs, a video and podcast producer for a Philadelphia nonprofit, told the Inquirer last week of the outrage over Morey’s tweet. “I don’t think the NBA should be bending over backward to please China.”