Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong on Tuesday trampled and burned jerseys of NBA star LeBron James in light of his critical comments about a league executive who expressed support for their demonstrations.
Weighing in on the issue on Monday night, James said the international controversy stemmed from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey speaking out on a topic he wasn’t educated on. While acknowledging that the U.S. enjoys free speech, James said that people could have been harmed “not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually” by Morey’s tweet backing the activists in their demonstrations against Beijing.
Protesters in Hong Kong responded by gathering in a circle and burning the Los Angeles Laker’s jersey during a rally in at the Southern Playground, according to photos from The Associated Press. Demonstrators also threw basketballs at a photo of James taped to the backboard of a basketball hoop.
Each time the basketball hit its target, the group of about 200 onlookers cheered, footage from the AP showed. The demonstrators also reportedly chanted support for Morey, whose tweet sparked outrage in Beijing and prompted Chinese companies to suspend ties with the Rockets.
“People are angry,” said James Lo, a web designer who runs a Hong Kong basketball fan page on Facebook, adding that he’s received a video of a fellow demonstrator burning a James jersey.
“Students, they come out like every weekend. They’ve got tear gassed and then they got gun-shot, like every weekend. Police beating students and then innocent people, like every day. And then he just comes up with something [like] that. We just can’t accept that.”
James’s controversial remarks came as the NBA grapples with the ongoing fallout from Morey’s tweet.
The Hong Kong protests, which began in opposition of a bill that would have allowed some residents to be extradited to the Chinese mainland, have gone on for months and in recent weeks have grown increasingly violent.
China is a major revenue source for the league, and many players and executives have tried to avoid commenting on the issue, a decision that has prompted outrage from lawmakers and human rights advocates. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) on Monday likened James’s remarks to “communist propaganda.”
Following a wave of criticism, James attempted to clarify his remarks, stating that he did “not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet.”
“I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk About that,” he tweeted.
“My team and this league just went through a difficult week,” he added in a separate tweet. “I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver last week said the league would not apologize for Morey’s tweet, vowing to endorse freedom of expression regardless of the potential costs in China. But Democratic and GOP lawmakers have ripped the league over its initial response seeking to walk back Morey’s remarks, saying that it is “outrageous that the NBA has caved to Chinese government demands for contrition.”