San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich used NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s tepid defense of free speech and delayed response to the league's China controversy to praise the league boss and take shots at one of his favorite targets, President Trump.
Popovich, an ardent critic of Trump and his administration, praised Silver for his progressive stewardship and “courageous” statement on the situation between China and Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey. Popovich then launched into a tirade about Trump’s presidency without naming the commander-in-chief.
“[Silver has] been a heck of a leader in that respect and very courageous. Then you compare it to what we've had to live through the past three years, it's a big difference,” Popovich said. “A big gap there, leadership-wise and courage-wise. It wasn't easy for him to say. He said that in an environment fraught with possible economic peril. But he sided with the principles that we all hold dearly, or most of us did until the last three years. I'm thrilled with what he said. The courage and leadership displayed is off the charts by comparison.”
While Silver toed the line between supporting Morey’s free speech and having to navigate through the league’s business dealings in China, Popovich said Silver’s message “helps you understand what direction you need to go in.”
“We've all talked about or heard about all the talking heads have and everybody for the last three years, 'What kind of country do you want to be? Who are we? Where do we want to go?' Adam said something that helps you understand what direction you need to go in, rather than the cowardice of not being able to respond to something of the murder of Mr. [Jamal] Khashoggi. There are many, many incidents like that where leadership and courage mean nothing. It's all about personal aggrandizement. I was thrilled.”
Silver released a statement before a news conference. He said the league “will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues.”
“It is inevitable that people around the world – including from America and China – will have different viewpoints over different issues,” Silver said in the statement. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”
Silver added: “This is about far more than growing our business...Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA -- and will continue to do so. As an American-based basketball league operating globally, among our greatest contributions are these values of the game.”
The current flap arose after Morey tweeted a picture of a slogan reading “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” But Morey deleted the tweet after significant blowback — including a tweet from Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta saying Morey "does NOT speak for" the team. Morey later backtracked on his advocacy.
“I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” he wrote. “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.”
He added: “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.”
Morey's initial tweet led to several Chinese sportswear brands suspending ties with the Rockets. The Chinese Basketball Association also canceled a preseason event involving the Rockets’ G-League affiliate, according to The Athletic.
China later canceled two NBA Cares events, putting the preseason game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets in jeopardy.
Silver said later at a press conference the league was “apologetic” over the outcome, but was “not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of speech," though Morey appeared to do that himself in his damage-control tweet. Silver added that he “regrets” how so many Chinese people and NBA fans were upset by Morey's message.