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When Hoops And Free Speech Collide

There’s an axiom that goes freedom of speech isn’t free. Daryl Morey may learn that lesson the hard way.

Morey, the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, has, heretofore, been best known for bringing analytics to professional basketball management.

That, and blowing up his roster on occasion when he perceives the need, as in this past offseason, when Morey gambled Houston’s future by dealing away multiple first round picks to Oklahoma City for mercurial guard Russell Westbrook.

But Morey may have made his biggest professional wager late last week in a seven-word tweet that puts on display the intricate dance between freedom of speech, global politics and good old American commerce.

For some time now, residents of Hong Kong have been protesting the Chinese government, which rules the territory on the southern end of the country.

In case you hadn’t heard, China is a brutal regime, one that denies basic human rights to its people, imprisoning some and physically harming others.

Moreydared to wade into the protests last Friday, posting a tweet with a graphic and the words "fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong."

Seems pretty understandable that a freedom-loving American citizen, as Morey appears to be, would express such a view.

Heck, even politicians with as disparate views as Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro have spoken on Morey’s behalf.

Morey’s problemis that he isn’t just a freedom-loving American citizen. He’s an executive for a team in a major U.S. professional sports league.

These days, that means not only selling your product to kids and their parents in Chicago, but also hawking your wares in Shanghai.

Indeed, this week, the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers are slated to play preseason games in Shenzhen and Shanghai as a part of the NBA’s ongoing attempt to crack the world’s biggest market.

Those efforts have been in play for some time and borne fruit recently, as the league struck a five-year, reported $1.5 billion extension with Tencent Holdings, a Chinese tech company, to stream game telecasts into China.

The linkage between China and the NBA extends onto the very court. Yao Ming, a 7-foot-6 center came to the U.S. as the first overall pick in the 1997 draft and spent 14 seasons here.

His career was successful enough to land him a place in the Hall of Fame. Ironically, Yao spent his entire career with Houston and the Rockets retain a substantial following in China to this day.

In short order, Morey’s tweet drew a reaction from the Chinese Basketball Association, whose president is Yao. The CBA announced that it would suspend its relationship with the Rockets, a decision joined by a number of Chinese companies.

And that, in turn, brought Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta out of the shadows to remind everyone that Morey spoke for himself, a view expressed by NBA officials.

Daryl Morey was certainly hoping to see if his career might implode over something he did. It may turn out that he loses his job over something he said.

And that’s how I see it for this week. 

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.