The general manager of a US basketball team has tried to defuse the rapidly growing fallout over a deleted tweet that showed support for Hong Kong anti-government protesters.
Daryl Morey, of the Houston Rockets, said he did not intend to offend any of the team’s Chinese fans or sponsors.
The issue stemmed from his tweeting of an image reading “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” – a reference to the protesters in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
His tweet led to Houston owner Tilman Fertitta using Twitter to say that Mr Morey does not speak for the Rockets, and sparking an outcry that included the Chinese Basketball Association — whose president is Yao Ming, the former Rockets star centre – saying it was suspending its relationship with the team.
Other criticism came from Tencent, a major media partner of the NBA in China with a streaming deal that is worth 1.5 billion dollars (£1.2 billion) over the next five years, and Chinese state television – both of which said they would not be showing Rockets games.
“I did not intend my tweet to cause any offence to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” Mr Morey tweeted from Japan, where Houston are playing this week.
“I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”
“I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention,” Mr Morey said.
“My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”
NBA chief communications officer Mike Bass said the league recognised that Mr Morey’s tweet “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable”.
He said: “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
The Rockets, largely because of former player Yao, have an enormous Chinese following.
But after Mr Morey’s tweet, even the Chinese government’s consulate office in Houston issued a statement saying it “expressed strong dissatisfaction” with the team.
“We have lodged representations and expressed strong dissatisfaction with the Houston Rockets, and urged the latter to correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact,” the consulate general’s office said in a statement on Sunday.
The protests that started in June over a now-shelved extradition bill have since snowballed into an anti-China campaign amid anger over what many view as Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong’s autonomy that was granted when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.