The four men often argue, discuss and laugh over any NBA topic. So why would it be any different with how TNT’s “Inside the NBA” panel addressed the league’s controversy with China?
In a press luncheon at Shaquille O’Neal’s self-named restaurant in downtown L.A. on Tuesday, Shaq, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson all spoke candidly about the fallout. They all offered varying opinions on Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeting out support for the Hong Kong protestors, the NBA’s business relationship with China as well as how NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James discussed the issue.
On one corner of the restaurant, O’Neal reiterated his belief in the First Amendment.
“I didn’t have a problem with what Daryl Morey did,” O’Neal said. “That’s how he felt. He’s allowed to say it. A lot of people try to mix money and business and all of these things. But am I concerned about the backlash? The answer to your question is no.”
In another corner of the restaurant, Barkley questioned Morey’s tweet, and how it affected Silver, the Rockets and James before the Lakers and Nets hosted a pair of exhibition games two weeks ago in Shanghai and Shenzhen.
“I thought Daryl Morey has the right of freedom of speech. But he also has to understand he works for the Houston Rockets, which is the No. 1 brand in China for the NBA because of their affiliation for Yao Ming,” Barkley said. “You can’t insult a foreign country and go make money there. He should’ve looked at the big picture. If he believes that so much, he should not work for the Houston Rockets.”
Morey tweeted “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong” on Oct. 4, about a day before the Lakers and Nets flew to Shanghai. Shortly after, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta publicly stressed Morey’s remarks were inappropriate and did not reflect the organization’s thinking, and Morey then deleted the tweet. In two subsequent tweets, Morey then wrote that he “was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event.” Morey added, “I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”
In the NBA’s initial statement, Silver considered it “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet offended the Chinese government and citizens, while stressing the NBA did not agree with Morey’s stance. In a subsequent statement, Silver declined to apologize to China while defending Morey’s right to free speech. After the Lakers’ week-long trip there, James called Morey “uneducated” and “misinformed” for not anticipating the ramifications. James also questioned the timing considering this could have affected both players’ safety in China as well as their various business ventures there. James received immediate criticism considering his previous track record for speaking out on social issues and for having business stakes in China through Nike.
“I thought it was unfair for everybody to jump on LeBron,” Barkley said. “He probably shouldn’t have said that about Daryl Morey being misinformed. But you have to understand when you work for the company, you are speaking on behalf of the entire company. I can’t get on TV and say what I want to just because I’m trying to prove a point. We’re not going to change China”
“Everybody does business in China. I thought it was really unfair to put the NBA, LeBron and Nike into a fight they had nothing to do with. Every company in the United States does business in China. We got singled out. I thought that was unfair.”
Just like when they debate about basketball, Smith and Barkley then engaged in an honest and direct conversation about the China issue. Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous region in China that has been experiencing protests for months stemming from a proposed extradition bill.
“I believe Daryl has the right to express his opinion politically or socially, regardless,” Smith said. “I do feel he has that right. He also has to take the consequence for it. Obviously there are people in China who feel what he does.”
Barkley interrupted Smith shortly after he made his points.
“That’s the issue there. He didn’t get no consequences,” Barkley said. “Daryl Morey has not been seen. That’s another thing that pisses me off the most. Daryl Morey has not been heard from since he put out the tweet.”
“That’s your opinion,” Smith countered.
“That’s a fact,” Barkley responded.
“Not necessarily,” Smith said.
“Why is that not a fact?” Barkley asked.
“He did follow up on the tweet,” Smith said.
“He apologized,” Barkley conceded.
“That’s not hiding,” Smith said. “I’m not defending him. I just think he has the right to express his opinion, regardless, especially on social and political issues. But you have to be factual and back it up with facts. As an African American, I can point to social issues we’ve had to speak about that people were making billions of dollars off of, but we had to become factual after the fact. So if you go do that and once you jump in the pool, you have to be in it.”
As often happens after O’Neal, Barkley and Smith engage in a spirited discussion, Johnson sat patiently and listened attentively. He then tied everything together.
“Everybody has the right to free speech. If you see something wrong, speak out about it,” Johnson said. “I also think there is responsibility to know the time and score, to use a basketball analogy. Why are we in China? What is the purpose of our trip? What could this tweet do? Can I wait a little bit? I had no problem with what he tweeted. I just had a problem with the timing.”
Johnson then shared his thought process when he traveled in Cuba in 1991 with ABC for the Pan-Am games. Although dictator Fidel Castro had a poor human rights record under a communist government, Johnson considered it inappropriate “to call out Fidel Castro in a broadcast and say, ‘This guy has to go.’ ” Instead, Johnson considered it more important for the United States to establish inroads with Cuban citizens through baseball.
“What you look at what Daryl Morey wanted to tweet and what he did tweet, content is OK,” Johnson said. “Timing needs work.”
Various NBA promotional events were canceled in Shanghai and Shenzhen. Various Chinese shoe companies, including Peak and Anta, announced they would halt future endorsement deals with NBA players. CCTV, the country’s state-run television, declined to showcase the Lakers-Nets’ preseason games as well as the league’s season opener. The station also has said it will not broadcast any future Rockets games. The NBA players union and the league agreed to halt media appearances to avoid players receiving inquiries about the controversy. Afterwards, James expressed physical safety and financial concerns.
Meanwhile, Silver said he declined to listen to China’s demands to fire Morey, something the Chinese government has disputed. Either way, the NBA has no plans to reprimand Morey. So how should the NBA and the Rockets handle Morey moving forward?
“That’s a great question,” Barkley said. “Listen, he was not wrong. But I thought he put the NBA, the Rockets, LeBron and Nike in a really bad situation on something they had nothing to do with. I don’t know how to answer that question. I don’t want to give you no bogus answer. That was a tough situation to put the NBA in. I hope it goes away. But your guess is as good as mine.”
The normally outspoken O’Neal sounded just as uncertain.
“This is why I vowed to stay out of politics. I have no idea,” O’Neal said. “But Apple has a lot of money in China. Everybody does business in China.”
Therefore, Smith suspected the NBA will continue its business relationship with China. Even if the NBA may experience more financial fallout from canceled telecasts, Smith sounded skeptical China would ever derail any future NBA exhibition games and promotional events over there. Instead, Smith predicted that time will eventual heal these fresh wounds.
“It can be reconciled. It just has to be explained,” Smith said. “When something is different, it doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong. It has to be explained. Adam will have to do a good job of explaining to a culture that doesn’t operate that way.”
O’Neal, Barkley, Smith and Johnson did their best to explain their views. O’Neal had already supported Morey leading into the Lakers-Clippers’ season opener on Tuesday. And he sounded apathetic toward any praise or criticism for those remarks.
“If I wasted my time trying to go answer what every blog said,” O’Neal said, “I wouldn’t have time to smoke hookah.”
By Mark Medina