A media official for the Houston Rockets cut off a reporter during a press conference on Thursday after she asked two of the team’s star players whether they “feel differently” about speaking out on political issues in light of the tension between the National Basketball Association and China.
CNN’s Christina Macfarlane posed the question to James Harden and Russell Westbrook in Tokyo, where the Rockets participated in a preseason game, noting that the NBA “prides itself” on players and coaches “being able to speak out openly about political and societal affairs.” But before either of the players could respond, the official interrupted.
“Excuse me, we’re taking basketball questions only,” the staff member said, as seen in a video posted by Rockets’ reporter Alykhan Bijani.
Macfarlane responded that she was asking a “legitimate question” that the players hadn’t addressed. Harden and Westbrook stayed silent as the media official then asked other reporters for questions.
Macfarlane’s question was spurred by controversy sparked by a tweet posted last weekend by Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey expressing his support for democracy protesters in Hong Kong. “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” the brief tweet read.
Government officials in China, where the NBA had been growing in popularity, strongly objected. And to the dismay of many U.S. fans and politicians, both Morey and the NBA apologized, with Morey quickly deleting his tweet.
The treatment of Macfarlane and the thwarting of her question also prompted an NBA apology to her. In a statement, the league said the Rocket’s official “inappropriately interjected to prevent [Macfarlane] from receiving an answer to her question. We’ve apologized to Ms. Macfarlane as this was inconsistent with how the NBA conducts media events.”
Despite the NBA efforts to mollify Chinese officials, the country announced it would stop broadcasting Rockets game and that sponsors would began cutting their contracts with the league.
China began to embrace the NBA ― and especially the Rockets ― after Yao Ming, a Chinese national, was drafted by the team in 2002 and enjoyed a long career with it. The NBA reportedly makes hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue in China.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni also brushed off Macfarlane’s questions at Thursday’s press conference about the NBA’s apology to China, saying he stood behind NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s efforts to defuse the matter.
“It’s a tough situation, it’s very difficult. Adam Silver speaks for the NBA, I work for the NBA, I go with Adam,” D’Antoni said.
“I’m here to speak about basketball,” he added. “I coach basketball. I’m not a diplomat or around the world.”
Despite the NBA’s deference to China, Silver has maintained that free speech was essential to the rights of NBA players and officials.
“Daryl Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right as one of our employees,” Silver said during a news conference earlier this week. “What I also tried to suggest is that I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences.”