The Houston Rockets sent a video message wishing fans a happy Chinese New Year on Friday, months after the team’s general manager ignited an international controversy that caused major disruption to the NBA’s business in China.
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“To all the Chinese fans: we appreciate your love and support,” Rockets stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden said in the video, which features most of the team’s roster sending holiday greetings.
The Rockets’ message for Chinese New Year drew criticism on social media, with some pundits noting that Twitter is banned in China. Rockets and NBA officials have sought to salvage their relationships with Chinese fans since last October, when Houston general manager Daryl Morey tweeted a message in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
Morey’s tweet generated an immediate backlash among the Chinese government and fans. Chinese state-run television pulled NBA games off the air in protest, while corporate sponsors suspended their business ties to the NBA.
The Rockets were hit particularly hard due to their direct involvement in the dispute and massive local fan base, as Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and Nike stores pulled the team’s gear off shelves.
The Rockets lost nearly $20 million in revenue from canceled multi-year sponsorships with Chinese sponsors, ESPN reported. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at the Time 100 Health Summit last October that the league’s losses “have been and may continue to be fairly dramatic.”
The Rockets front office attempted to distance itself from Morey’s comments. Team owner Tilman Fertitta publicly criticized his remarks, while Morey issued an apology.
U.S. politicians were critical of the NBA’s response to Morey’s tweet, with some, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), arguing the league had failed to defend freedom of speech and pandered to a communist regime. Vice President Mike Pence ripped the league for “acting like a wholly owned subsidiary” of the Chinese government.
Silver has repeatedly defended the NBA’s handling of the dispute.
“These American values — we are an American business — travel with us wherever we go,” he said last October. “And one of those values is free expression. We wanted to make sure that everyone understood we were supporting free expression.”