SHANGHAI/NEW YORK -- Comments by the Houston Rockets general manager supporting the protests in Hong Kong have unleashed a political tornado, sparking a boycott in the mainland but also drawing harsh criticism of the National Basketball Association from American lawmakers for apologizing to China.
The incident thrust the Rockets, once beloved by the Chinese as former star Yao Ming's old team, and the NBA into the lion's den, forcing them to tiptoe around democratic values and freedom of speech with billions of dollars on the line.
Daryl Morey, the basketball team's general manager, posted a tweet Friday bearing an image that stated "Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong." The now-deleted post sparked a firestorm of criticism online in China and prompted Chinese sportswear maker Li-Ning to suspend a partnership with the Rockets.
"We strongly criticize the post," Li-Ning said in a statement Sunday. "We firmly oppose acts that harm the national interest."
The cooperation deal mostly entails Li-Ning supplying the Rockets with basketball goods and buying advertisements during games.
Also on Sunday, the Chinese Basketball Association said it would suspend cooperation with the team as well, while state-run broadcaster CCTV announced it would cease airing games featuring the Houston Rockets.
Morey tweeted an apology Sunday night, saying that he did not intend to offend fans in China.
"I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives," Morey wrote. "I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA."
The NBA also released a statement the same day, saying that Morey's comments "deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China" and calling the incident "regrettable."
"We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together," Mike Bass, the league's chief communications officer, said in the statement.
James Harden, the Rockets' superstar guard, also apologized on Morey's behalf Monday.
"We apologize. You know, we love China. We love playing there," Harden said during an interview at a practice in Tokyo. "They show us the most important love."
The Chinese backlash and subsequent apologies set off a new wave of criticism, this time in the U.S.
Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted Monday that: "NBA players have no problem speaking out on politics & social issues in America. But they apologize to #China for a pro democracy tweet from an @NBA team executive. Hypocrites."
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who calls himself a "lifelong fan" of the Rockets, tweeted that he originally was proud of Morey for calling out "the Chinese Communist Party's repressive treatment" of protesters in Hong Kong.
But the senator said the NBA "is shamefully retreating" in the pursuit of money. He said "human rights shouldn't be for sale" and faulted the NBA for "assisting Chinese communist censorship."
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, also from the Rockets' home state of Texas, tweeted on Sunday night: "The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights. What an embarrassment."
Critics also noted that the NBA used different wording for its apology in Chinese, which it posted on the popular Chinese microblogging platform Weibo.
"We're extremely disappointed in Morey's inappropriate comment," the Chinese post said. "He has no doubt deeply hurt the feelings of Chinese fans," it said. These words did not appear in Bass' original statement.
Mainland China has grown more sensitive over the Hong Kong protests, which are entering a fifth month. Any foreign-owned business expressing sympathy with the demonstrators has faced heavy censure.
Versace, Japanese sportswear label Asics and other clothing brands that do business in China have issued apologies recently after consumers criticized merchandise or online store locators that suggested Hong Kong is an entity independent from China.
Beijing frames the issue as an internal affair and accuses foreign parties in the U.S. and elsewhere of challenging Chinese sovereignty.
Joe Tsai, the Taiwanese-Canadian owner of the NBA's Brooklyn Nets and co-founder of Chinese internet giant Alibaba Group Holding, on Sunday night posted an open letter on Facebook, saying that Morey stepped on a highly charged "third-rail" issue and explaining why the Hong Kong turmoil is sensitive for Chinese fans.
"The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country's sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable," Tsai wrote. "I am going into all of this because a student of history will understand that the Chinese psyche has heavy baggage when it comes to any threat, foreign or domestic, to carve up Chinese territories. When the topic of any separatist movement comes up, Chinese people feel a strong sense of shame and anger because of this history of foreign occupation."
"By now I hope you can begin to understand why the Daryl Morey tweet is so damaging to the relationship with our fans in China," Tsai continued. "I don't know Daryl personally. I am sure he's a fine NBA general manager, and I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been. But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair."
The Rockets are one of the most popular NBA franchises in China because the team made Yao Ming, the now-retired Shanghai-born center, the league's top overall draft pick in 2002. His presence transformed the sport's popularity across China.