The backlash was immediate.
N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver later said that he had rejected a demand from the Chinese government to fire Morey. But criticism came domestically as well, after the league issued a statement calling it “regrettable” that Morey’s views “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” Several prominent American politicians, like Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, have criticized the N.B.A.’s continued business relationship with the authoritarian country.
In September, Silver told CNN during a live event: “At the end of the day, I think those are decisions for our government, in terms of where American businesses should operate. I continue to believe that the people-to-people exchanges we’re seeing by playing in China are positive.”
Protesters began to appear at N.B.A. games when the regular season began. The league’s relationship with China came under more scrutiny in July, when ESPN reported about abuse at N.B.A.-sponsored basketball academies there, a partnership that the league announced it would be “re-evaluating.”
The N.B.A. has long made global expansion — particularly into China, where it now has more fans than in the U.S. — a core part of its mission. In 1979, the Washington Bullets became the first N.B.A. team to travel there, playing exhibition games against the Chinese national team. The scoreboard referred to the team as the “American Bullets.”
In the late 1980s, David Stern, the former league commissioner who died in January, negotiated a deal with CCTV to begin airing games in China. In 1994, the N.B.A. finals were broadcast there live for the first time. A decade later, the league held a preseason game in Beijing for the first time. By then, Yao Ming had entered the N.B.A. and become a dominant figure both on the court and culturally in the U.S. and China, his home country.
Stern, in a 2006 interview with Sports Illustrated, acknowledged that China’s repressive human rights record concerned him, but he added: “At the end of the day I have a responsibility to my owners to make money. I can never forget that, no matter what my personal feelings might be.”
David Chen and Claire Fu contributed reporting.