The Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets are both back from one of the most surreal preseason trips in recent NBA history. As soon as they landed in China, both organizations found themselves at the center an international, geopolitical crisis none were prepared to deal with.
Shams Charania of The Athletic provided a behind-the-scene look at the entire situation, which involved both teams meeting with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, as well as a players-only meeting led by LeBron James that featured both teams:
The concern among those in the room, sources have told The Athletic, was that the Chinese government had limited Silver from speaking publicly while in Shanghai by cancelling his press conference at the arena and thus the onus would have been thrust onto the players to carry the torch for the league.
Lakers star LeBron James spoke up in front of everyone in the room and stated he believed that Silver and the NBA needed to explain and articulate the situation first, before the players would have to, multiple sources with direct knowledge of the meeting told The Athletic. James expressed concern that without the league being able to speak to media to address all of the questions and dynamics about China and the NBA, it was unfair for solely players to bear that responsibility.
In the latter meeting, a very prudent and fair question was asked from the players’ point of view:
“Why are we the ones to go through the risks of speaking out in China when the league should be the first to address the matter, with our voices to follow?” said one source with knowledge of the meeting and the players’ thinking in regard to James’ message.
They discussed making sure they felt safe and protected without thrusting themselves in unfair positions, sources said. Nets star guard Kyrie Irving and Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma joined James in speaking during the players-only meeting, sources said.
Given the volatile nature of the US-Chinese relationship — let alone the inherent complications of foreign politics — it makes perfect sense that the players would’ve wanted Silver to say literally anything so as to understand what tone to follow. Seeing as he didn’t provide that, though, it also makes sense that the NBA would go on to eventually cancel any and all media availability in China.
Transparency obviously is ideal under most circumstances, but it’s hard to argue the NBA wasn’t also protecting the players (along with their pockets) when it made that call.
Arguably the most pressing decision to make was whether or not to carry out the two games between Brooklyn and L.A. On that front, some players seem to have thought it wasn’t worth it:
Waking up on Oct. 9, the day of the meetings, Lakers and Nets players witnessed promotional posters and banners being removed in the streets and buildings across Shanghai. Most of them were getting alerts on their phones about trade wars and negotiations between the U.S., and China. During this time there was a sizable amount of Lakers and Nets players internally feeling that the games should not go on due to all of the chaos, sources said.
It’s hard to argue with those who didn’t want to play. At the time, it didn’t seem as if there was much to be gained by playing and, without knowing how the fans would feel about the proceedings and the reality that no one would eventually be forced to speak to the media, there seemed to be more legitimate potential downside than upside to playing the games.
As it turns out though, it seems those games helped remind China that they would lose out, too, if the bridge between that country and the NBA were to burn. The Chinese government went from fanning flames to instructing its media to back off the NBA, fans still showed out (with some minor protests sprinkled in, to be clear), the games went on and no one got hurt as a result of anything other than the basketball that was played.
Semi-related: We should get an update on Anthony Davis at some point soon.
The entire saga was insanely complicated from the start, and probably isn’t even fully behind us. Now that the immediate threat that comes with speaking out against and authoritarian regime while in that country is gone, it’s going to be interesting to see whether players start speaking up. But as the players pointed out, that responsibility should probably rest with Silver first, so that he can set a tone for everyone to follow.