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Joe Tsai: ‘I’m in the eye of the storm’

In interviews with the New York Post’s Brian Lewis and Wall Street Journal’s Stu Woo, the Nets new owner says he’s trying to act as a cultural translator in the ongoing —and escalating— dispute between the Chinese government and the NBA but he admits the NBA China Games between the Nets and Lakers could be affected.

Asked if the games, scheduled for Thursday in Shanghai and Saturday in Shenzhen, will go on, Joe Tsai told WSJ’s Woo, “I hope so.”

“That’s my assumption. Right now from the Nets’ standpoint it’s business as usual,” Tsai told Lewis. “We’re here to play basketball, we’re here to entertain the fans and develop our affinity with the Chinese fans. That’s all moving forward.”

Both CCTV, who was to broadcast the games on television, and TenCent, the NBA’s digital rights holder in China, said early Tuesday that they do not plan on airing either game.

Tsai declined to get into details about his conversations with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and league officials, WSJ reported. Moreover, he wouldn’t disclose whether he was having any discussions with Chinese officials, saying only: “I’m in the eye of the storm.”

“I’ve communicated with a bunch of people on both sides and my role is to help everyone understand the other side’s perspective,” said the U.S.-educated Tsai who is executive vice-chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.

On Monday, as China criticized Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting Hong Kong protests, Tsai penned an open letter to fans. In it, he wrote the protests in Hong Kong represent a threat to China’s “territorial integrity” and referred to the protesters as a “separatist movement,” borrowing language often used by Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong.

Tsai, a Hong Kong citizen who has residences there and outside San Diego, told the Woo that he was just trying to illustrate how most Chinese people view Hong Kong protesters. He said many people found his letter informative because it offered a different perspective.

“What I’m simply pointing out is how mainland China feels about this issue…It’s definitely a third-rail issue for Chinese people on the mainland,” said Tsai to Lewis. He said he believes the NBA is in China to grow the game globally, and is trying to make sure it’s not stunted.

“I wanted to make sure that people in China don’t view the NBA as an anti-Chinese organization. I believe the NBA, because of its global nature — a quarter of the players are international…a business that has income from sources all around the world — is an international entity.”

However, in the short term, he added that he’s trying to keep the exhibition games alive, but was not sure he’d succeed.

Tsai said he hadn’t proposed any concrete solutions, saying only that he hoped cooler minds would prevail and that the two sides would put sports above politics.

“This is new to everyone,” he told Woo.

Tsai told Lewis that although the Chinese Education Ministry cancelled a team visit to a Shanghai school, he went anyway.

“I went to visit the school to see the principal, told her [in these] unfortunate circumstances they have to do what they have to do,” said Tsai. “The NBA is donating the court, the court is built, but we don’t get a chance to have a dedication. But the good thing is some of the kids are going to get a chance to come watch the game Thursday.”

He hopes. “It’s kind of a day-to-day (situation).”