CHICAGO, Ill. – The NBA and USA Basketball are still considering playing in China later this year, though the complexities of both the political rift caused by a tweet last fall and the ongoing health concerns in the world’s most populous country are making those plans seem decidedly uncertain.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the discussions in both cases — pre-Olympic games for USA Basketball and the preseason games for the NBA — are ongoing, and said the decisions are not necessarily linked. It’s possible the U.S. may play there this summer and the NBA does not send teams this fall, Silver said.
“Those are issues that haven’t been decided yet,” Silver said Saturday night at his annual All-Star weekend news conference.
Things are not back to normal for the league when it comes to relations with China. The strain started Oct. 4, when Houston general manager Daryl Morey tweeted an image that read “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” referencing several months of pro-democracy demonstrations in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
The tweet wasn’t up for long. The fallout was massive and continues. A pair of preseason games between the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers in China were played days after Morey’s tweet, though without the support of several sponsors and with both teams playing in silence — none of the customary pre- and post-game media availabilities were held. The Chinese Basketball Association suspended its relationship with the Rockets, Chinese media giant Tencent and Chinese state television pulled some NBA broadcasts and Silver said the NBA quickly began experiencing significant financial losses.
Silver said it’s possible the NBA could lose as much as $400 million in revenue this year because of hits to the China market.
“Our games have not returned to CCTV, the government broadcaster,” Silver said. “My sense is they will at some point in the future. We are not pressing them. It’s a decision that is outside of certainly our control and I’m often not even sure where that decision lies.”
The NBA and Chinese officials have been talking, or at least were talking until much of the Chinese resources were redirected toward dealing with COVID-19, a disease stemming from a new form of coronavirus.
Basketball, understandably, has been pushed aside while the Chinese deal with a massive crisis.
“This game of basketball is a huge game, and I've been blessed and fortunate enough to travel to China a number of times,” All-Star Chris Paul of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who also is president of the National Basketball Players Association, said on Saturday. “A friend of mine, Pooh Jeter, plays over in China, and I actually wrote ‘Wuhan’ on my shoes the other night in a game in New Orleans. (But) this isn't just a Wuhan problem. It's an everyone problem.”
Wuhan is the city at the center of the outbreak. China’s government suspended most access to Wuhan on Jan. 23. Restrictions have expanded to cities with a total of 60 million people in the broadest anti-disease measures ever imposed. Restaurants, shops and other businesses nationwide were ordered to close.
Through Friday, China reported a total of 66,492 cases of the virus, officially saying it was responsible for 1,523 deaths. Japan -- which will play host to this summer’s Tokyo Olympics -- reported about 259 cases through Friday, with one death.
International competitions in at least 14 different sports have been affected by the virus and the resultant concerns. Tokyo Olympic organizers and the International Olympic Committee have insisted that there are no plans to cancel or relocate the games.
“It’s impossible to predict which direction this epidemic will take,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization.
It also makes it impossible to predict when matters between the NBA and China return to normal.
In other matters Silver addressed Saturday:
The NBA is immediately renaming the All-Star MVP trophy in honor of Kobe Bryant, the 18-time All-Star who — along with his daughter Gianna and seven others — died in a helicopter crash in Southern California last month.
All-Star weekend has taken on a somber tone this year, largely because of multiple tributes for Bryant and NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern, who died Jan. 1.
“I know it will be especially meaningful to that player that wins the first Kobe Bryant MVP,” Silver said. “So I'm sure there will be other honors as well, and as I mentioned, there are other things that we will be discussing with our board, the NBA board, when they meet in April to honor David. But this one seems so appropriate here at All-Star because nobody embodied All-Star more than Kobe Bryant.”
Silver said he remains optimistic that schedule changes he has wanted — including an in-season tournament — are viable possibilities.
The NBA was targeting adding such a tournament in 2021-22, the league’s 75th anniversary year. But plans for an April vote on such a change were tabled weeks ago, and the timetable is uncertain.
“I may have been a little naive in thinking that for the 75th anniversary, we could say let's make all these changes,” Silver said. “We'll sort of see what happens in the 75th anniversary, and we'll go from there.”
All-Stars polled by The Associated Press earlier Saturday about the potential of schedule changes were largely supportive of the notion, though the majority also said they do not know enough about the plans to have a strong opinion.
“I don’t know. I mean our season is already long,” said Portland guard Damian Lillard, who is missing the All-Star Game with an injury. “I think if we’re playing for something that would count, I can see it being OK, but there’s a price for everything.”