The Week That Was: The NBA’s Chinese Problem

     This past spring Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Alibaba, China’s answer to Amazon, purchased the majority interest in the Nets from Mikhail Prokhorov.

      It wasn’t coincidence that the NBA, which has made a sizable investment in China, scheduled a pair of preseason games there between the Tsai’s Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers. The trip was supposed to be a victory tour for Tsai as well as establishing the Brooklyn Nets as one of the NBA’s premier brands.

     The team acquired two of the NBA’s biggest stars, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving as free agents this past summer, and you’d better believe that Joe Tsai had the Chinese market in mind when he signed them. The Nets may not have had much of a playoff presence in recent years but they have proven adept at merchandising.

     Tsai’s world, and that of the NBA in general, turned upside down two weeks ago when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey innocently tweeted support for the Hong Kong demonstrators who are fighting for the same freedoms that we take for granted in the US.

     The Chinese government immediately lashed out at the NBA and made it clear to the league that they shouldn’t take their billion-dollar market for granted. The NBA’s first reaction was a press release designed to assuage Beijing as much as possible by making it sound as if Morey was an outlier who would be dealt with harshly.

     In fairness, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver walked that back a few days later backing Morey’s right to express his opinion.  

     Joe Tsai’s first reaction was to back the Chinese government and refused to offer even the slightest support to the courageous Hong Kong demonstrators. Tsai conceded that Daryl Morey was entitled to his opinion. He also tried some PR spin by saying that the Chinese government was concerned about separatists as opposed to squashing basic human rights.

     It’s hard not to be somewhat sympathetic to Joe Tsai’s plight. This was a crisis that he didn’t create and was totally unprepared.. He runs a billion dollar conglomerate in China and the Xi government can shut any business down in a hurry. Nonetheless his support for Beijing over Hong Kong probably won’t play well in liberal Brooklyn.

     Before Donald Trump was president, I asked the Nets’ former majority owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, who was the first foreign national to own an NBA team, if he was concerned about how the inevitable tensions between Russia and the US might affect him.

    “We’d be better off if we left to the politics to the politicians and just enjoyed sport for its own sake,” he replied.

     History has shown however that’s not realistic.

     The Shadow League, a digital sports platform concentrating on athletes and entertainers of color, honored WNBA star, Jamaica native, and Christ the King High School alum Tina Charles Thursday night.

     Charles has spent the past six seasons playing for the New York Liberty. She was mum about her future with the team which has been of the worst franchises in the WNBA the last two years.

      Like many WNBA stars, Charles makes more money playing overseas than she does domestically. She is hopeful that will change with the next collective bargaining agreement between the WNBA and its players association but right now she is looking to play in China this winter.

    The annual Miami Project/Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis Sports Legends Dinner took place in Manhattan last Monday. As per custom a lot of sports A-listers were in attendance.

    Former NFL receiver Cris Collinsworth who now serves as the analyst on NBC Sunday Night Football was the emcee. Prior to the event I joked with Collinsworth that he should tell NBC Sports CEO Mark Lazarus to flex a New York Jets game to Sunday night.

     “That’s a mess over there! What are they going to do?” Collinsworth asked me. I told him that Jets season is obviously lost but it’s a chance for new general manager Joe Douglas to see which players on his team are worth building around. (Note: The Jets’ 24-22 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday where they had to hold on for dear life in the fourth quarter doesn’t alter the fact that they are not a very good team.)          

     Skier Lindsey Vonn has relocated from her native Minnesota to northern New Jersey because her fiancé is New Jersey Devils star PK Subban.

      As fate would have it, the Minnesota Twins were about to meet the Yankees that night in Game 3 of the American League Division Series.. “I always root for the Minnesota teams but I am not that hopeful about tonight,” Vonn said fully aware that the Twins are playoff patsies for the Yankees. Sure enough the Yankees went on to win that game and sweep yet another series from the Twins.

     Vonn brightened when I informed her that the American Dream theme park, which is scheduled to open late this month in East Rutherford after nearly 20 years of delays when it started out as the Xanadu project, would have an indoor ski slope.

     Also attending the event was fencer Monica Aksamit who won a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and is hoping to go for the gold at the 2020 Olympiad in Tokyo. Raising money for training is always difficult for any athlete who is in a sport that gets minimal attention even for the modelesque Aksamit who resembles Cybill Shepherd in her 1970s prime. Frankly I am surprised that NBC, which pays over a billion dollars for Olympics broadcast rights, doesn’t try to find a way to feature Aksamit more on various telecasts.

     The Mets’ firing of Mickey Callaway as manager had a domino effect 90 miles southwest in Philadelphia where the Phillies dismissed Gabe Kapler as their manager last Thursday.

     It was an agonizing decision for both Phillies general manager Matt Klentak who hired him two years ago and team owner John Middleton who liked him very much. They waited nearly two weeks after the season ended to fire him although some of the delay may have been because Kapler is Jewish and they may have feared that it would be bad PR to dismiss him during the High Holy Days.

     My guess is that had the Mets kept Mickey Callaway it would have been a lot easier for Klentak and Middleton to retain Gabe Kapler. The reality is that the Phillies finished five games behind the Mets in the standings in spite of adding a pair of All-Star players to their roster, outfielder Bryce Harper and catcher JT Realmuto. Thus they felt that they had no choice but to make Kapler walk the plank.

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