Those protests have significant support in Western democracies, but are seen by Beijing as destabilizing and dangerous. The demonstrations, now in their 18th week, have become increasingly violent, with protesters targeting Chinese businesses and banks, and burning the national flag.
Morey has since apologized, and the NBA issued a statement distancing itself from his tweet, saying his views “have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”
Despite this however, a handful of Chinese businesses have already cut ties with the Rockets over the controversy, and broadcasters have said they will not show Rockets games in the country. On Tuesday, CCTV Sports said it was halting all broadcasts of pre-season NBA games in China, one of which is due to take place in Shanghai later this week, between the Brooklyn Nets and the LA Lakers.
The NBA has spent years and many millions of dollars investing in China, helping build courts, giving broadcasting rights away for free and bringing its stars over for preseason games.
Today — as the Morey scandal shows no signs of flagging — the country’s fans are increasingly stuck between a rock and a hard place: abandon a league they love, or risk seeming unpatriotic.
As a man in his sixties who lacked muscle definition and hops, former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao always looked somewhat out of place on the hardwood.
But it never stopped him from hooping and encouraging others to do so.
Wen was part of a government that saw China become both an economic powerhouse and a basketball-crazed nation.
Its no coincidence that they coincided — with all that money coming in, the ruling Communist Party was concerned about the possibility of its citizens becoming lazy and lethargic.
Basketball was a logical investment. Courts are easy to build and the game is easy — and cheap — to pick up. Success is predicated on hard work and cooperation, key themes that the government wanted to encourage in children.
Stern led the league for 30 years, and in 1989 — early in his tenure — he secured a deal with Chinese broadcasters to air the games in the country before the other North American big four sports leagues.
He also presided over the league during key events that helped grow China’s basketball craze.
But the China David Stern dealt with was significantly different than the one Adam Silver faces.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has become more nationalist and patriotic. Companies that don’t toe the line on hot button issues like the status of Taiwan, Tibet or Hong Kong have suffered serious consequences.
Many corporations have folded under the pressure. But the NBA enjoys a reputation as North America’s most progressive sports league, and Silver himself encourages free speech among its players. These are the same athletes who travel to China in their off season on promotional tours, greeting hoards of adoring fans at every stop.
“They really do have a global league … and as a result they have a very global fan base” Dreyer told CNN. “They have to legitimately cater to all sides of those fan bases.”
Facing a further backlash in the US and Hong Kong over its statement meant to placate Chinese fans, it may be impossible for the NBA to thread the needle on this issue.
On Tuesday, major Chinese e-commerce companies Taobao and JD.com pulled Rockets merchandise from their stores.
“We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Silver’s stated support of Morey’s right to free speech,” CCTV said in a statement. “We believe any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability do not belong to the category of free speech.”
If the NBA continues to stand behind Morey and respond to its domestic critics who accuse the league of selling out its values to retain its most valuable market, it puts Chinese fans in a tough spot.
They may be forced to choose between sports loyalty and patriotism, and there’s no clear answer whether the NBA’s massive popularity and cultural relevance will outweigh the nationalist fervor that’s swept through China.
CNN’s Steven Jiang contributed reporting from Beijing.