Kevin Arnovitz | ESPN
HOUSTON — A group of about 35 people staged a rally Saturday outside the Toyota Center before the Houston Rockets‘ 126-123 win over the New Orleans Pelicans to voice support for protesters in Hong Kong.
As fans filed into the arena, the demonstrators gathered in the entrance plaza, wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Fight For Freedom” on the front and “China, Stop Bullying” on the back. They held American flags as well as signs expressing support for free expression and criticizing the Chinese government. Two attendees held a large, gold banner that read, “Hong Kong’s fight is everyone’s fight.”
The rally was coordinated by two local groups: the Vietnamese Community of Houston and Vicinities and Texas for Hong Kong. The same coalition organized approximately 30 people on Thursday for the Rockets’ home opener, and they sat behind the south basket and stood holding their signs during stoppages in play.
The Rockets have been at the center of the conflict between the NBA and China that was sparked by the reaction to a tweet on Oct. 4 by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressing support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. In the days that have followed, broadcasters in China, Chinese sponsors and the Chinese Basketball Association have severed or scaled back agreements with the NBA.
Chris Wong, a research scientist and Hong Kong native who has organized events in Houston to bring awareness to the situation in his home city, helped assemble participants from the local Hong Konger community for both Thursday’s and Saturday’s home games.
“My reaction [to the Morey tweet] was, ‘Great, someone is supporting and publicly speaking for Hong Kong,'” Wong said. “But the reaction from the Chinese government and the machinery in China was such an overreaction just for someone sending out a symbolic tweet. I was mad.”
The Rockets, who featured eight-time All-Star center Yao Ming for nearly a decade and played in the NBA’s first game in China in 2004, are one of China’s most popular NBA teams. The franchise has cultivated extensive commercial partnerships in the nation since drafting Yao in 2002. Although Tencent, an ESPN partner, has resumed streaming NBA games in China, the Rockets have not appeared on the platform in the opening week of the season.
Tram Ho, an internist who emigrated from Vietnam to the United States in 1982 after spending six months as a refugee in Hong Kong, said she was inspired to help organize the events in Houston by activists inside Barclays Center during a Brooklyn Nets preseason game. Tram, who counts herself as a casual Rockets fan first drawn to the NBA by retired Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon, attended both Thursday’s and Saturday’s games and believes the current friction between China and the NBA is a harbinger of a larger conflict.
“China is not only bullying the United States right now, but [it] has been bullying other countries in Asia and South China Sea for a long time,” Tram said. “I feel very sorry for Hong Kong, a democratic society. The two systems — it’s not going to work.”
Fanny Wong, a certified public accountant in her 50s who immigrated to the United States from Macao in the 1970s, held a sign that read, “Stand with Hong Kong, Be Taller than LeBron, who kneels down for ¥¥¥ [the symbol for Chinese Yuan].” She wore a James Harden-style costume beard with a red zipper over the mouth to symbolize what she characterized as the self-censorship of many NBA players.
“I can understand that a lot of athletes, they have a lot of financial investment,” Wong said. “What I would appreciate is that they be honest about that. Just say, ‘We have a lot of interests at stake there, and there are certain things we need to compromise.’ I’d respect that. They stood for justice somewhere else when there’s no financial conflict of interest. But then where there is a conflict of financial interest, ‘Oh, wait a minute. We don’t understand.’ To me, that’s a lie. I’d respect it more if they were honest about it.”
As game time neared, the group began to chant, “Stand for freedom, no censorship,” before breaking into staccato chants of “Morey, Morey, Morey” and then “NBA, NBA, NBA.”
“We are currently seeing people seeking profit over freedom,” Jean Lin, a 28-year-old Taiwanese-American research technician, said when asked how the situation with the NBA and China is instructive. “Making that money and reaching that big market in China becomes more prominent, disregarding true American values.”