The NBA And Hong Kong Protests As protests continue to unfold in Hong Kong, the NBA and star LeBron James continue to be drawn into the controversy. NPR's Steve Inskeep speaks to The Ringer's Jordan Ritter Conn.
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The NBA And Hong Kong Protests

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The NBA And Hong Kong Protests

The NBA And Hong Kong Protests

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The pro basketball league suffered consequences from China when a team executive wrote down his opinion about Hong Kong in a tweet. Now the NBA faces criticism from Hong Kong. Protesters supporting democracy there have noticed the backpedaling statements from NBA stars like LeBron James.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEBRON JAMES: Yes. We all do have freedom of speech. But at times, there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you're not thinking about others and you're thinking about yourself. So many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet.

INSKEEP: That's LeBron James some time ago. Jordan Ritter Conn writes for the online journal The Ringer and is just back from Hong Kong. Good morning.

JORDAN RITTER CONN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How much did people follow this story in Hong Kong?

CONN: They followed it very closely. I mean, Hong Kong is, like mainland China, a place that is into the NBA, that follows the NBA. But right now in particular, people who are involved in the protest movement are following any bit of international news that has anything to do with their movement. And so they were following everything from Morey's initial tweet to all of the aftermath extremely closely. And people really in particular latched onto what LeBron James said. As the league's most famous player, as the league's best player over the last decade, he is the person who everyone there has some name recognition for.

And as soon as he weighed in, there was - on one hand, people were extremely disappointed and frustrated and saying they like everyone in the NBA except for LeBron James and burning his jersey, and on the other hand, people who also just felt really excited that this meant that people were talking about their cause, this meant that people were talking about what's going on there.

INSKEEP: OK. Burning the jersey, act of protest. But of course, China, when China was unhappy with Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets for his tweet, they were able to impose pretty substantial financial penalties on the NBA by interrupting the NBA's business in China. Has Hong Kong found any way, besides burning jerseys, to put pressure on the NBA on their side?

CONN: No. No, they have not. At this - I mean, it's a city of 7 million and in a country of 1.4 billion. So the economic interest for the NBA is just - just pales in comparison. And so really at this point, all they are trying to do is talk about it, and continue talking about it and make sure that their voices are heard. And they've done so by protesting at NBA games here in the States and in Canada and Toronto - people showing up to games wearing shirts that say stand with Hong Kong - and finding any way to kind of get their message out for why they're protesting and why these comments are hurtful to them and to their cause. But aside from that, in terms of kind of throwing around any sort of economic weight, they pale in comparison to Hong Kong as a consumer market.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking about the fact that when I've moved around China, I've seen lots of people playing basketball, basketball courts. I know that American flags have sometimes been waved at these Hong Kong protests. What kind of attitude do people take toward this American sport, and do they feel it is in some way on their side and part of their cause, even if the NBA wasn't as strong as they would like it to be?

CONN: You know, they love the sport. There are courts where you can play basketball all over the city. People are still very invested in basketball itself and have been pleased with some of what they've seen out of the NBA. Shaquille O'Neal came out very much supporting them. And they saw that, appreciated that and, I think, would love for others to do the same, whether that be LeBron James or anyone else affiliated with the league.

INSKEEP: Jordan Ritter Conn of The Ringer. Thanks so much.

CONN: Thank you for having me.

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