NBA's Adam Silver, Charles Barkley fire back at Pence over China criticism

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and on-court legend Charles Barkley defended the league’s handling of its controversy over China, hours after Vice President Mike Pence accused it of “acting like a wholly owned subsidiary” of the country's Communist Party.

Pence ripped the NBA and sportswear giant Nike on Thursday during a speech outlining the Trump administration’s current approach to ongoing negotiations toward a trade agreement with Beijing. Speaking at the Wilson Center in Washington, Pence accused both entities of choosing their business interests in China over American values.

The criticism stemmed from a dispute between the NBA and China over Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s Oct. 4 tweet in support of pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. The post prompted strong criticism from the Chinese government and the NBA’s sponsors in the country, and the league's initial distancing from the remarks earned the organization a bipartisan skewering by lawmakers.

Later, Silver clarified the league’s stance by expressing support for Moray’s right to freedom of speech, generating renewed backlash in China.

“We’ve adhered to our core values from the first moment,” Silver said during an appearance on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” on Thursday night. “To the extent that there was any doubt about that, we reinforced that those are our core values. And I’ll just say again, once again, we’re going to double down on engaging with the people of China and India and throughout Africa, around the world, regardless of their governments.”

If the U.S. government advises the league not to do business "in certain territories or countries, we won’t,” Silver added. “But I’m a firm believer that through sports, independent of governments, you bring people together, they acknowledge that commonality, they create empathy.”

Barkley, the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and TNT analyst, had a more pointed response.

“First of all, Vice President Pence needs to shut the hell up,” Barkley said during an NBA pregame event on TNT. “All American companies are doing business in China.”

Chinese sponsors responded to the controversy by suspending business ties with the league, while state-owned television network CCTV pulled NBA programming off the air. Silver said he rebuffed demands from the Chinese government that Morey be fired.

China’s boycott of the NBA has stretched into the 2019-20 regular season, and CCTV didn't air the NBA’s slate of opening night games, as it has traditionally done.

Pence’s critical remarks toward the NBA came days after President Trump ripped Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich for failing to speak out against oppression in Hong King.

Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James also drew universal criticism after he accused Morey of failing to consider the financial ramifications of his Hong Kong tweet.

“Some of the NBA’s biggest players and owners, who routinely exercise their freedom to criticize this country, lose their voices when it comes to the freedom and rights of other peoples,” Pence said. “In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime.”

Nike stores in China pulled Rockets merchandise from their shelves in the days after Morey’s tweet. The country's market is one of the fastest-growing segments of the shoemaker's business, generating more than $1 billion in revenue in its most recent quarter alone.

“Nike promotes itself as a so-called ‘social-justice champion,’ but when it comes to Hong Kong, it prefers checking its social conscience at the door,” Pence said. “Nike stores in China actually removed their Houston Rockets merchandise from their shelves to join the Chinese government in protest against the Rockets general manager’s seven-word tweet: “Fight for Freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”

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Nike shares fell slightly in trading Thursday. The company didn't return a request for comment.

The U.S.-China trade conflict has roiled international markets for months, with each country imposing tariffs on goods manufactured in the other. High-level trade talks between the two nations yielded progress earlier this month and sparked optimism about a truce.

“The United States does not seek confrontation with China. We seek a level playing field, open markets, fair trade, and a respect for our values,” Pence added.