Lichtenstein: NBA Diplomacy Now In The Hands Of New Nets Owner

Joseph Tsai high-fives New York Liberty players after their exhibition game against the China national team at Barclays Center on May 5, 2019.
Photo credit Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Images

Nets new owner Joseph Tsai was said to be instrumental in assisting with the release of the three UCLA men’s basketball players, including LiAngelo Ball, accused of shoplifting while in China two years ago.  Some believe more instrumental than President Donald Trump.

If Tsai, a Taiwanese-Canadian who became the Nets Governor only a few weeks ago after buying out Mikhail Prokhorov’s majority stake, can now pull his club’s two scheduled exhibition games in China versus the Lakers out of a hat, he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.

As of this writing, Thursday morning’s contest is up in the air. Multiple planned events, both media and charitable, have been cancelled. Murals advertising the event were hastily taken down.  Whether or not the games go off, it won’t be televised in China.

The Chinese government and its associated ministries have taken their outrage out on the NBA after Houston general manager Daryl Morey tweeted (and subsequently deleted) support for protestors in Hong Kong. The league’s efforts at defusing the situation through PR statements have seemingly only inflamed the matter.

It seems folks of every political persuasion in this country, from those engaging in Schadenfreude at a league which constantly slaps itself on the back for its “wokeness” as well as those who believe American companies should only do business with pristine counterparts, are flexing their muscles.

So let me be one of the few who is standing with the NBA, its commissioner Adam Silver, and Tsai.

I don’t want to hear from the New York Times that the NBA sold out to a country with a history and a present containing various human rights abuses. Their editorial writers probably then took a break to scroll through apps on their indispensable IPhones, which has a few parts made in, you guessed it, China. The economy is global and no amount of hollering from any side will change that. 

The NBA has been the one U.S. sports league that has made tremendous inroads in China. You’re more likely to find one of their citizens wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey than those of Tom Brady or Aaron Judge. 

A report in Bloomberg estimated that roughly 800 million people watched NBA games on Chinese TV and other platforms last season. A five-year contract with Chinese Internet provider Tencent for streaming rights is reportedly worth $1.5 billion.

With U.S. viewership of the league’s games at best plateauing given all the entertainment options at young peoples’ disposal, the potential growth in Asia is likely one of the top reasons why Tsai was forced to pay a record $2.3 billion for a franchise that isn’t even the top draw in its own city. Tsai reportedly tacked on an additional $700 million for Barclays Center.

Tsai accumulated his dough by co-founding Alibaba Group, an e-commerce goliath that dwarfs Amazon.  He didn’t get that kind of access to the Chinese markets by poking at the ruling class.  That explains the language in his statement depicting Hong Kong as a “third-rail” issue instead of a human rights one.  He is trying to walk a tightrope here.

Silver, meanwhile, had to reassert the rights of individuals associated with the league to express their views. Privately, however, I doubt that he appreciates anyone who criticizes a crucial business partner.  He expects folks to be smarter. As we now see, the Chinese government is sensitive and spiteful. Even Yao Ming, the former Rockets star center who now runs the Chinese Basketball Association, is said by Silver to be “extremely hot” over the matter.

It will be up to Tsai, Silver, Yao and others to get in a room to attempt to salvage this situation — and not just these two meaningless games. They can be cancelled and moved to another location. No, this is about a long-term understanding. I would suggest that the NBA has a lot more to lose here, since I’ve read how adept the Chinese have been in pirating entertainment. 

As for the rest of you, get over the NBA’s mission to bring its beautiful game to China. I would argue that these exhibitions serve as the best form of diplomacy this country can offer.  The Chinese government can focus on basketball as a five-man team sport while its public can be captivated by the individual athletic freedom in the amazing performances of a Kyrie Irving or a LeBron James.  Openness, not shutting our eyes, holding our hands over our ears, and screaming, “Foul,” is the only way to heal differences.       

And if the NBA’s owners and players can make some bucks off it, that’s the American way.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter: @SteveLichtenst1.