Inside LeBron James' and Adam Silver's make-or-break moments in China


SHANGHAI’S SKYLINE IS breathtaking. The Oriental Pearl Radio & Television Tower looks like a giant ray gun pointed up to the heavens. The Shanghai Tower twists and climbs 128 stories into the clouds. The Shanghai World Financial Center showcases at its peak a trapezoid-shaped aperture so big that a helicopter could fly through it.

But as the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets stared out the windows of the dining hall in the Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong on Wednesday, Oct. 9, it was hard to notice anything other than the 30-foot banners of their likenesses being stripped off the side of a shopping mall across the street.

With the teams set to play in the first of two scheduled exhibition games the next day and no explanation available as to why the promotional posters were being taken down, a state of confusion — even fear — enveloped the room, sources present in China last week told ESPN.

“Nobody knew what to do,” one source said. As most NBA fans know by now, it all started with an image Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted on Oct. 4 to show support for protesters in Hong Kong. Morey quickly deleted the tweet, but the damage was done. What began on Twitter was becoming an international debacle.

“If this was tweeted by the Grizzlies’ GM or Phoenix, it wouldn’t have caused the same impact,” an NBA China employee told ESPN. The Rockets, who drafted former NBA and Chinese player Yao Ming, are the most popular U.S. team in China.

The issue of China’s sovereignty had been drilled into Team USA players who traveled to China for the FIBA World Cup just weeks before. One player from USA Basketball told ESPN he “couldn’t believe” Morey would take on the issue with a tweet after the way Team USA was warned about its complications.

It was with this backdrop that the Lakers and Nets buckled their seatbelts for their lengthy flights.

THE LAKERS DEPARTED LAX on Monday, Oct. 7 for the 14½-hour journey — and their plane had no Wi-Fi connection. As the teams crossed 15 time zones and the Pacific date line, the reaction to Morey’s tweet continued to escalate.

“We had zero knowledge of it before we took off,” LeBron James said of the backlash.

By Tuesday, around the time the Lakers landed in Shanghai, NBA commissioner Adam Silver was conducting a news conference in Japan in which he defended Morey’s tweet as “a freedom of expression.”

Silver’s stance didn’t help ease tensions.

As the Lakers took the bus to the team hotel, they got wind that the NBA Cares event, scheduled to be hosted by the Nets, had been canceled earlier in the day by the Chinese government. When they got to the Ritz, they found out the welcome reception for both teams that evening was canceled too.

“We started to kind of get a sense of what was kind of happening,” James said Monday.

By Wednesday, the league’s second NBA Cares event, this one hosted by the Lakers, had been canceled by the Chinese government. Undeterred, and hoping to get their jetlagged legs moving and salvage a day of training camp for their group full of new faces, the Lakers went over to the Mercedes-Benz Arena to practice.

The basketball didn’t last long.

After about 30 minutes of practice, the Lakers were rushed off the court by arena workers, sources told ESPN. The workers were tasked with sanding down and resurfacing the hardwood to remove the logos for the presenting sponsors of the China Games because those sponsors had pulled out.

While the games were losing corporate money, the players were feeling it in their wallets as well.

James, Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo — to name a few — all had appearances canceled. One Lakers player, sources told ESPN, had agreed to a $1 million endorsement deal with a Chinese company prior to the trip. When he arrived, poof, it was gone. A seven-figure payday out the window.

James, after having taken 15 consecutive summer trips to China, had skipped it this year to complete the filming of “Space Jam 2,” anticipating that the China Games would act as a substitute. Some of his most important appearances of the year — including two with Nike and one with Beats by Dre — were canceled during this trip.

According to public financial statements, Nike and other companies’ basketball shoe sales have been relatively flat in recent quarters in North America — but have been surging in China, where millions of teenagers save up to buy the latest signature models.

Eating an early lunch back at the hotel, players watched as the banners featuring their images — and the logos of former sponsors — were peeled off and pulled down until they laid in a clump at the base of the building. The players could only shake their heads at the sight.

“Everything was getting canceled right before things were [supposed to be] happening,” James said. “Everything was getting canceled.”

Just three weeks before, Silver had been in Beijing for the FIBA World Cup championship game where he was at the center of a feel-good basketball delegation. He had meetings and meals with some of the league’s partners in the country and celebrated 10-figure deals that had been negotiated over the summer that expanded business in China.

Now, Silver was flying from Tokyo to Shanghai and was unsure, according to sources, if the Chinese government would even let him into the country.

By early afternoon, the commissioner made it through customs, maneuvering through its fingerprint scans and facial-recognition technology. He’d have players and front-office personnel waiting for him at the hotel to navigate further.

The NBA moved up its scheduled 4 p.m. meeting between Silver and the Nets’ and Lakers’ traveling parties to 2:30, with urgency growing by the minute.

“It’s a long way to go for a high level of anxiety,” a Nets team source said.

What was supposed to be a commissioner’s meet and greet with players had turned into a make-or-break moment for the China Games.

SILVER STOOD AT a microphone at the front of the beige-colored Grand Ballroom 2 on the same floor of the makeshift dining hall at the Ritz. With tall ceilings and rows of sturdy-back chairs in perfectly straight lines, the room looked as if it could have been set up for a chamber of commerce convention the next day.

In the ordinary setting the commissioner laid out the extraordinary situation, spending 10 to 15 minutes, according to a source present, appearing “vulnerable and transparent” as he detailed the issues and challenges facing the league.

He expressed to the players that the best thing for the league would be for the Nets and Lakers to become ambassadors for the sport, to show a positive front and face the questions that would come from the throng of nearly 200 reporters set to descend upon the hotel in mere hours. One of the league’s core values is freedom of expression, Silver said, “it’s what you guys stand for.” And to not speak, he said, could lead to criticism for staying silent.

Silver opened up the floor. James raised his hand.

His question was related to Morey — and the commissioner’s handling of the Rockets’ GM. James, to paraphrase, told Silver he knew that if a player caused the same type of uproar from something he said or tweeted, the player wouldn’t be able to skate on it. There would be some type of repercussion. So, James wanted to know, what was Silver going to do about it in Morey’s case?

Silver pushed back, reminding the players that the league never doled out discipline when they publicly criticized President Donald Trump. Morey was exercising the same liberty when he challenged China. Regardless of the financial fallout of one versus the other, that’s not what should matter. He might have disliked the ramifications of Morey’s tweet, but he would defend his right to say it.

But James wasn’t done.

“I never speak for just me, things that just benefit me. I try to be educated as much as I can and speak from a pure heart of how can I protect not only me, but protect the players as well in that situation.”

LeBron James

Morey wasn’t there to answer questions, he countered. Silver hadn’t spoken to the media in China either. Why would this fall on the players to address?

James told the room it was too much for the players to take on in that moment — to explain a complicated issue with racial, socio-economic and geopolitical layers while visitors in China. It was time to follow the league’s lead.

“Obviously, when he speaks up, people pay attention,” a Nets source told ESPN.

Kyrie Irving, according to sources who were in the room, questioned whether it was worth playing the games in such a charged environment. He said he was there to play basketball games, and if a requirement for those games was dealing with the fallout that Morey’s tweet created, he would rather not play at all.

After about 30 minutes, Silver and others exited the room to allow for a players-only meeting. And once the others were gone, the players worked to find a consensus. James told the room he wanted both teams in total agreement about how they would approach the rest of the trip. His instinct was to shield his colleagues from a near impossible public-relations chasm.

“It’s always a responsibility with me as far as players, a protection for the players,” James said on Monday. “That’s always [on my mind]. I never speak for just me, things that just benefit me. I try to be educated as much as I can and speak from a pure heart of how can I protect not only me, but protect the players as well in that situation.”

SILVER HAD A breakout session with the teams’ ownership and front-office personnel on the ground while the players huddled up.

Lakers GM Rob Pelinka, according to sources, echoed James’ position to the commissioner. Advocating for the players, he thought, was a chance to build unity. If at the end of the day his 15 players believed their front office had their best interests at heart, then trust could be built. A small victory in a tough situation.

Silver eventually came back to the players: If they weren’t prepared to do media, then the NBA wouldn’t make them do it. End of story.

But everyone involved wanted to salvage the games.

“We were just hoping to play a little basketball,” James said Monday. “No matter what’s going on in my life or what’s been going on in any situation, the game of basketball has always put people in a great space. So we were just hoping we could get out there and play some ball.”

The self-imposed media ban proved moot. The Chinese government canceled the pregame and postgame news conferences — including Silver’s — for the Shanghai game, just as it had canceled the ancillary events that week. The feeling among NBA officials was that China viewed the games as the crown jewel. Anything that could potentially derail the games — like a player echoing what Silver said in Tokyo supporting Morey — needed to be eliminated.

After days of agitation, Chinese officials seemed to relent and hint that they too wanted to see the games played. While they didn’t offer certainty that day, they essentially “nodded,” according to an NBA China source.

For all the discomfort, the league had some leverage — there are hundreds of millions of NBA fans in China, after all.

And as a tumultuous Wednesday concluded, everyone went to bed that night confident there would be a basketball game played the next day.

EVEN THOUGH THE first game was on, the Lakers were unsure what type of crowd would greet them at Mercedes-Benz Arena.

Would there be protests? Would the arena be empty? Would it feel like any other preseason game?

“We were there just to play,” Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said Monday. “Even if the fans didn’t show up or they did show up, we still had to play a basketball game. That was our mindset.”

It was almost like any other NBA game, except it wasn’t. There were rough patches on the floor where the logos were scrubbed off. There were no national anthems — neither American nor Chinese — before tipoff. And many of the capacity crowd of nearly 16,000 toted hand-held Chinese flags that were distributed outside (a Lakers player, sources said, signed one of the flags that was thrust upon him when he was signing autographs for fans, causing some within the organization to question whether the well-meaning gesture would be taken as an affront on the flag).

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