President Trump on Wednesday ripped a pair of NBA coaches for “pandering to China” as the league faces backlash for its initial response to a league general manager backing pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
Trump was asked about the controversy, which has engulfed the league since Sunday. Instead of addressing it directly, Trump singled out Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who have both been prominent critics of the president, for their evasive answers about China.
“I watch this guy Steve Kerr, and he was like a little boy he was so scared to even be answering the question,” Trump said.
“He’ll talk about the United States very badly,” Trump added. “I watched Popovich, sort of the same thing but he didn’t look quite as scared actually. But they talk badly about the United States but when it [comes to] China they don’t want to say anything bad.
“They have to work out their own situation. The NBA is, they know what they’re doing,” Trump continued. “But I watched the way that, like, 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.”
The NBA has been embroiled in controversy since Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey voiced support for the Hong Kong protesters on Sunday in a since deleted tweet.
Chinese companies suspended ties with the Rockets in response. China is a major revenue source for the league, and players and league officials largely avoided backing Morey in what was viewed as an effort to appease Beijing.
The muted response from the league drew widespread rebukes from Republicans and Democrats who bashed the NBA for caving to pressure from China.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on Tuesday sought to reverse course, saying the league was not apologizing for Morey’s tweet and that it would support freedom of expression regardless of the costs in China.
Popovich on Tuesday praised that statement, calling it a “courageous” response and implicitly knocking Trump.
“He’s been a heck of a leader in that respect and very courageous,” the Spurs coach said. “Then you compare it to what we’ve had to live through the past three years, it’s a big difference. A big gap there, leadership-wise and courage-wise.”
Kerr, who is one of the most outspoken sports figures on matters of politics, evaded questions about the Hong Kong controversy on Monday, The Mercury News reported. He told reporters that it was a “bizarre” story that he didn’t want to wade into.