In his first public comments on the NBA’s ongoing rift with China, President Trump ripped Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr on Wednesday for declining to speak out about the situation despite a history of public remarks on social justice issues in the United States.
“I watched this guy Steve Kerr and he was like a little boy. He was so scared to even be answering the question,” Trump said at a press conference. “He couldn’t answer the question. He was shaking. He didn’t know how to answer the question and yet he’ll talk about the United States very badly.”
Kerr, who has been critical of the Trump administration on several occasions in recent months and has publicly advocated for stricter gun laws, declined this week to comment on the NBA’s relationship with China. All of the NBA’s Chinese sponsors, as well as state-owned CCTV and streaming partner Tencent, suspended their business dealings with the league after Houston Rockets general manager tweeted support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong.
Kerr referred to the incident as a “really bizarre international story.”
Asked for his reaction to China pressuring the NBA over Morey’s tweet, Trump said the two parties “have to work out their own situation.”
“The NBA, they know what they’re doing. But I watched the way that Kerr and Popovich and some of the others were pandering to China, and yet to our own country, it’s like they don’t respect it.”
Trump also criticized San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver “came out strongly for freedom of speech” after the Morey incident, but also fired what was perceived to be a veiled shot at Trump.
"Adam [Silver] said something that helps you understand what direction you need to go in rather than the cowardice of not being able to respond to something like the murder of Mr. (Jamal) Khashoggi," Popovich said, referring to the Saudi journalist who was killed last year after entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey. The incident received what some saw as a tepid condemnation from Trump.
"There are many, many incidents like that where leadership and courage mean nothing (and) it’s all about personal aggrandizement," Popovich added.
Like Kerr, Popovich is one of the NBA’s most outspoken voices for social justice causes.
“I watched Popovich, sort of the same thing, but he didn’t look quite as scared actually. They talk badly about the United States but when it talks about China, they don’t want to say anything bad. I thought it was pretty sad actually,” Trump said.
Silver and other NBA executives faced bipartisan criticism earlier this week from U.S. lawmakers who argued that league had favored its business relationships over American values.
In a second statement, Silver clarified that the NBA supported Morey's right to freedom of speech and expression.
"Daryl Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right as one of our employees," Silver said. "What I also tried to suggest is that I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences."