“The people that dwell in the land are fierce. The cities are fortified, and very great.” (Numbers 13:28)
“We apologize. You know, we love China. We love playing there…They show us the most important love." –James Harden
IN CHINA, NBA LEAGUE PASS WORKS. Like, really well. A Tencent producer showed me their streaming app a few years ago. It's got the game, plus chatrooms, live stats and a host of other features all streamlined in one product. If it didn't work, you wouldn't have ten million people logged on to watch the Rockets play a regular season tilt on a Wednesday night in Charlotte. If it didn't work, it wouldn't be China.
The reason Chinese basketball streams will soon have VR functionality, but trying to fast forward through a clear path review in the U.S. yields total system failure is the same reason Daryl Morey's tweet will cost him his job — if not now, then in June. Some four hundred million hoops-hungry Chinese fans watched the NBA last season. There's just too much money at stake to get it wrong.
It's in the interest of no one in the NBA, really, to tamper with the Mandarin duck that laid the golden egg. Not the owners salivating over a few billion available customers between China and India, and not the players, who rake half of the league’s receipts under the current collective bargaining agreement. The only league-affiliated person who could conceivably stand behind Hong Kong in this scenario is someone who didn't realize doing so would be a big deal. In this case, it was a career consultant who glitched, blurted out something compassionate and now seems genuinely shaken by the occurrence.
To be sure, there are NBA fans in the U.S. and Canada who care about freedom of speech, if not democracy, too. Defending Morey (and by extension, the protestors), they have pilloried the responses to the tweet issued by Adam Silver, Tillman Fertitta, Joe Tsai, and even James Harden over the past few days. But if those fans aren't already outnumbered by their trans-Pacific counterparts, they will be soon. What's more, those fans have money to burn. The American Dream is alive, after all, in China, whose blooming middle class is underwriting the next round of supermax contracts, the global tourism industry and maybe your liberal arts university's scholarship fund, too.
An NBA executive tweeting "Fight for democracy / Stand with Hong Kong," did not broach the limits of basketball diplomacy as much as it punctured the myth of it, or whatever was left. The fallout has only reinforced a familiar truth — that the end game is and has always been markets, consumers, and eyeballs, not bridge-building. If an NBA Academy run by an ex-Gatorade League film room guy unearths the next Yao or Joel Embiid along the way, even better. But that's not what the NBA is up to in Xinjiang.
It begs the question: if the NBA is a business (everyone seems to agree at least on this much), and the biggest growth opportunity is in the Far East, should the league just move to China? It could stick a few teams in India, too, or make that the whole Western Conference. Player salaries would soar with the league’s global popularity and its near-monopoly in China. The diaspora would deepen old American rivalries. Michael Beasley and Gerald Green would be at home. The Jazz would be respected. Who says no?
It wouldn't even change the North American fan experience much; most fans can't afford to watch games in person here anyway. The players would willingly go to China; if the WNBA is indication, the best players follow the competition and the money even if it means playing overseas. Getting LeBron James to grow roots in Asia wouldn’t even be a tough sell for the aspiring billionaire. The league could kill the salary cap and never worry about financing a new arena again. College-age basketball players wouldn’t have to worry about racist amateurism rules in China — they could get paid to tear up the CBA on their way to the draft. Best of all, the league would get to plead the fifth, as it were, on matters that pit its brand against its business.
The balance Silver and company have been trying to strike, in China and beyond, is between making money and saving face. That isn’t playing here. Unlike the NBA leadership, or at least Silver, China knows what it wants, understands its leverage and how to use it. It knows the owners have seen the grapes of Canaan, and it smells fear; the question at first may have been how much Daryl Morey is worth to the NBA, but now the People’s Republic wants to know what purpose the league’s diplomatic veneer served to begin with.
The real reason NBA League Pass works in China but not in my apartment is because the league moved to China a long time ago. North America has been the secondary market since sometime in the David Stern era, and it just took one guy with a third-panel brain with an extremely obvious, first-panel, “democracy is good” take on Hong Kong — a conclusion that took him less than five minutes to reach, that would take anyone with a middle school education and Wikipedia five minutes to reach — to make that unmistakable.