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Players angered, frustrated by China experience

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Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn Nets - NBA China Games 2019 Photo by Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

Players from the Nets and Lakers expressed both frustration and fear in their last days in China, according to reports filed with The Athletic, ESPN and the Los Angeles Times.

Much of the frustration played out in a meeting with Commissioner Adam Silver who met with the players last Wednesday in Shanghai before their game at Mercedes Benz Arena. According to more than one report, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving spoke up in the Silver meeting.

At the center of what became an international incident, of course, was the October 4 tweet by Rockets GM Daryl Morey who tweeted out a meme in support of protests in Hong Kong, now six months old and increasing in intensity. It read, “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong,”

Making matters even more tense, the games were being held the same days the U.S. and China negotiators were discussing the increasingly hostile trade war between the two countries.

According to Shams Charania, the key moment came in Shanghai last Wednesday following a series of moves by the Chinese government, state-owned media and big e-commerce companies, including Joe Tsai’s Alibaba, directed first at the Rockets, then at the NBA as a whole.

Silver arrived in Shanghai last Wednesday and addressed both the Nets and Lakers in the afternoon, explaining the complications that had spread in China as a result of Morey’s tweet. Silver himself had addressed the world via a full statement and press conference from Japan on Oct. 8, supporting Morey’s freedom of expression and saying he would travel to Shanghai to meet with Chinese officials including Chinese Basketball Association chairman and former Rockets star Yao Ming.

The main issue was why, after Silver’s press conference in Shanghai had been canceled, should they have to face the Chinese media.

The concern among those in the room, sources have told The Athletic, was that the Chinese government had limited Silver from speaking publicly while in Shanghai by cancelling his press conference at the arena and thus the onus would have been thrust onto the players to carry the torch for the league.

Players had a number of issues, ranging from their own security to their belief that they were being put in the middle of the controversy. Silver had wanted the players to meet with the media to show the league’s openness. According to ESPN...

During the meeting, sources said, several prominent players voiced frustration about their perception that they were being put in the middle of the dispute between the NBA and China, and they said they were unhappy about being asked to address the situation by local Chinese reporters before Silver himself was scheduled to do so.

The Los Angeles Times —which has the most fulsome account of the meeting— James expressed his concerns on behalf of the players, saying it was “unfair.”

“I think it would have been very unfair for a kid like Talen Horton-Tucker, who is a 19-year-old rookie, to have to comment about such issues that he has absolutely nothing [to do with], that he has no knowledge about.

“And are we sure that he would have said, ‘Sorry guys, I have no idea what’s going on.’ Are we sure he would have said that? Or could have had said something that could have been detrimental to not only himself but for everyone that was there.”

Dave McMenamin of ESPN reported that Irving was particularly strong in his comments.

Kyrie Irving, according to sources who were in the room, questioned whether it was worth playing the games in such a charged environment. He said he was there to play basketball games, and if a requirement for those games was dealing with the fallout Morey’s tweet created, he would rather not play at all.

Some players, the Times’ Tania Ganguli reported, were concerned about their safety —including whether they would even be permitted to return home.

There were moments of frustration when some players asked if they could go home. If they said the wrong thing about Hong Kong or any other topic, would the Chinese government delay their flights home?

There was also a bit of anger over Morey’s lack of sensitivity in tweeting about something that appeared beyond his ken. As Brian Lewis of the Post has written, it is “arguably the most expensive tweet in history,”

During the meeting with the players, sources said, Silver was directly asked whether anything would happen to Morey, as several players said they believed that if a player had cost the NBA millions of dollars because of a tweet, there would be repercussions.

Morey will not face any league discipline for the tweet.

The players from both teams also held a players only meeting after the meeting with Silver. James, Irving and Kyle Kuzma (who had to cancel Chinese endorsement deals) spoke up, Charania reported, not detailing what Irving said, but nothing the theme was stick together.

They discussed making sure they felt safe and protected without thrusting themselves in unfair positions, sources said.

Ultimately, after the Shanghai game took place without incident, the league agreed to end all media availability but said individual players could express their opinions. None did publicly and the league restricted their movements. Ganguli wrote of the players...

They asked questions about security and were given assurances they would be fine. They were asked to stay together, though. That meant dinners and lunches with just each other — bonding aided by geopolitical forces.

By the time of Saturday’s game in Shenzhen, there were reports that Beijing was toning things down. The trip ended and the players departed, delayed only by a thunderstorm. The Lakers got home around 2 a.m. PT Sunday, the Nets touched down at Newark two hours later.

No Nets have spoken yet about the incident. The team gave everyone Monday and Tuesday off. But James expressed his frustration on Monday night before the Lakers game with the Warriors.

“I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke,” James said, referring to Morey. “So many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually.”

James later clarified his position on Morey in a series of tweets.

The Nets players will likely have their say on Wednesday.