NBA story is trojan horse of our times

It has nothing to do with basketball, but everything to do with sports.

Sometimes writers just need to get their thoughts onto paper. This is one of those moments for me. I have spent years following both China and the NBA, so this story is right up my wheelhouse.

‘The optimist edition’ is coming soon. It turned out to be a fairly significant (but beneficial) project. It should be in your mailbox this week.


“This League!”

That phrase is an American talk-radio joke that pokes fun at the NBA, which is often more attractive for its off-the-court drama than the actual playing of the sport of basketball. 

For example, the summer of 2019 was the wildest offseason in recent memory — highlighted by the best player on the championship team bolting for Los Angeles after just one season. It was so crazy that NBA-diehards expressed consternation that the league had gotten too crazy. 

Little did we know that “This League!” would outdo itself. 

Thanks to one tweet, the NBA is now facing its most serious crisis since Los Angeles Clippers Owner Donald Sterling was forcibly removed from the league after being recorded in an incident of overt racism. 

Let’s recap what happened over the past few days. 

Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted (and deleted), a post in support of the Hong Kong protests. The outrage was both swift and fierce. 

Over the past couple of days, Morey, the NBA, the Houston Rockets ownership and the team’s superstar players have all issued apologies. In the United States, this strategy backfired spectacularly, with celebrities and politicians arguing that China had successfully managed to restrict free speech in China. 

Joseph Tsai, who is a Co-founder of Alibaba and owns the Brooklyn Nets franchise, went after Morey in a long Facebook post that attempts to give a broad historical justification for China’s outrage. This reignited fury in the US. 

Today, China’s Education Bureau cancelled a dedication ceremony of a Learn and Play Center as part of the NBA Cares programme.  Other major Chinese brands have pulled their partnerships with the NBA.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver came out with a strong defence of Morey and the Rockets — and CCTV (China state television) subsequently pulled the league from its broadcasts. 

What is becoming increasingly clear is this story will become the trojan horse moment of the US-China trade war. It already has quickly moved beyond basketball because millions of Chinese and Americans care deeply about the future of the league.

Regular people understand exactly what is happening here (unlike the daily soyabean market rates), so it becomes a vessel by which the rest of the trade war is debated.

It is hard to put a finger on ‘why’, but there is something unique about athletics that creates a strong — and deep — bond with the teams and leagues an individual follows. 

Sports generate an emotion that consumer products simply cannot reproduce. The World Cup can stop a war; no fashion label has ever pulled that off.  

Plenty of brands have run afoul of China’s political sentimentalities, and they usually blow up for a day before dying off after an apology. This is different. The reaction is remarkably furious — on both sides. 

The NBA is a league that millions of people interact with, some on a near-daily basis. People understand the story because people use the product. (A lot of Chinese folks knew exactly who Daryl Morey was before he jumped into the boiling political hotpot). 

This knowledge background means the NBA will become a trojan horse to discuss much larger topics. It will be the ‘Space Race’ of the US-China trade war. 

The NBA will come to represent something much larger than itself and the outcome will largely be seen as an indicator for the entire political dispute.

Can the NBA withstand the pain of losing China to stand up for the ethics of its home nation? Should the NBA take the heat at home to hold onto the Chinese market? Should China lose some face to preserve a much beloved American product? 

These are hard questions, and nobody has the answers. The shift we are seeing today is that these questions were not even being asked just a week ago. 

It is an important change in dynamics because it marks a reframing of the “regular-person” conversation about the US-China trade war. 

Previously, and anecdotally, the average American certainly was aware of trade war but it probably ranked between 50-100 on their top priorities. Most people did not delve into the specifics. Until now. This incident is the specific. 

The story is easy to understand and, in our polarised world, it can be leveraged to make broader points about the overall relationship between the two superpowers.

From a particular American political perspective, it is a clear example of China using its economic muscle to wound “America’s sport”. From a particular Chinese political perspective, it is another example of arrogant Westerners dismissing the legitimate viewpoints of a non-white fanbase. 

This is not to say either argument is correct (when topics get this heated it is a safe bet to assume everyone is wrong). 

The real-world impact is that this incident has turned an abstract idea of ‘foreign interference’ and made it concrete. For some Americans, China just forced self-censorship onto a US product. For some Chinese, Americans just bullied their way into a third-rail domestic political issue. 

This change in tenor is similar how people react more strongly when they see a video of a cool dunk (let’s keep the basketball metaphors going), versus when they read about the exact same moment. 

Reading about it is nice, but there is something different about witnessing the video. It also means that the problem will not go away — a fact Adam Silver seems to understand.

For non-sports fans, it might seem silly to, “have all this talk about basketball,” but it’s not a basketball story. This is the infancy stage of the most important US-China story for the rest of 2019. This thing is only going to get bigger. 

“This League!” has moved far beyond basketball and has suddenly found itself at ground zero in the most significant political rivalry in the modern world. 

How is that for some offseason drama?