It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Los Angeles Lakers may have faced the most difficult and emotionally exhausting road to a championship that any NBA team has ever taken. It’s not just the mental toll of playing in the NBA bubble during an ongoing pandemic while isolated from the friends and family during a period of social unrest as the country grappled with issues of race being brought to the forefront by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. Every team had to go through that.
The Lakers were unique in that they as a team were especially hard-hit by the loss of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna before the season was put on hold and subsequently moved to Disney World. And months before that, they had to face something no other title contender did: They were trapped in China, isolated in their hotel rooms in a prelude to the bubble that no one saw coming at the time. But this pseudo-quarantine wasn’t brought on by a virus. It was caused by a tweet.
Every Lakers fan remembers the story. Then-Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey sent a tweet with a photo that simply said “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” amid ongoing anti-government protests there as the Lakers and their families were in the air on their way to China for two exhibition games. Morey quickly deleted his post, but the damage was done, as the Lakers vs. Nets preseason games were nearly canceled as the two teams were forced to isolate in their hotels as the Chinese government was furious about Morey’s missive. Players lost out on endorsement opportunities, Chinese broadcaster CCTV stopped televising NBA games in the country, and most importantly, members of the team who had brought their families with for a trip abroad feared for their safety and ability to leave the country.
Lakers star LeBron James was the most vocal in his anger about the situation, both behind the scenes — where he reportedly lobbied for NBA commissioner Adam Silver to punish Morey — and in front of reporters, where he drew widespread criticism for calling Morey “misinformed” and “not really educated” on the situation.
While many used James’ remarks in bad faith to say he was just protecting the money he makes in China — a possible factor — or that he was against free speech — lol — his initial comments made it pretty clear what he was really annoyed about: He felt like Morey had put him, his teammates, other staffers and their families at risk abroad while he was safe and sound at home (emphasis mine):
“I think when we all sit back and learn from the situation that happened, understand that what you could tweet or could say (could affect people),” James said then. “We all talk about this freedom of speech. Yes, we all do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, and you’re only thinking about yourself.
“I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke, and so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and what we say, and what we do. Even though yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.”
James tried to further clarify his comments the next day, but the damage to his reputation was done. People who don’t like other things James has to say about social justice twisted his words to imply that he didn’t care about the plight of Muslim Uighurs, who are subject to appalling human rights abuses in China, treatment that has been declared a genocide by the US State Department. But that wasn’t what James was saying at all. He was simply concerned for the safety of his family, friends and co-workers.
After the Lakers won the title, head coach Frank Vogel remembered feeling like “enemies of the state” at the time, and in his new short book on Amazon — “Inside the NBA Bubble: A Championship Season Under Quarantine” — veteran forward Jared Dudley described the surreal and scary trip in as candid of detail as anyone has.
In the process, he also made it clear why LeBron was really upset (emphasis mine):
Back in the United States, Houston GM Daryl Morey tweets out sentiments that the Chinese government takes as an attack. And we’re the most high-profile American citizens in China at the time. Now he’s made things very hot for us. We were supposed to appear at a Special Olympics benefit event in Shanghai. You can see this giant twelve-story billboard from our hotel, which is advertising our appearance, and we watch in awe as they take it down.
There are people surrounding the hotel where we’re staying. We’re getting death threats from pro-government people. We can’t leave. We didn’t practice. We didn’t take any tours. We just came over here because it’s our job to play the game, because the league wants to make money in the huge market. Now we’re not entirely sure if and when we’re going to see our families again.
Adam Silver comes to China, literally sweating, to help cool things off for us. He has to negotiate his way in just to be able to see us and ensure our safe passage out of there. We just wanted to play our games and get the hell out. So when LeBron criticizes Daryl Morey for that tweet, everyone acts like he’s standing against free speech, but what he’s really saying is: You tweet something like that from the comfort of your own home, while actual players in your league are stranded in China, that’s not cool. You need to think for a minute about what the impact of that is on other people. Everyone’s hating on Bron, talking about how disappointed they are in him, but we see where he’s coming from.
And just like it’s easy to send a tweet advocating for causes one (justifiably) cares about as Morey did, it’s easy to criticize James and the Lakers from the comfort of our own homes. But Dudley’s words, in conjunction with what we’ve heard from James, Vogel and others, paint as clear a picture as possible that to the Lakers, this wasn’t a free speech issue.
There are plenty of legitimate criticisms to be had of the NBA’s ethically fraught ongoing relationship with China and of the Chinese government itself. So in a vacuum, no one should have any issue with what Morey tweeted. The Lakers took issue with the timing, and putting them and their friends and family in a situation they felt was dangerous while Morey was an ocean away. You can say it wasn’t actually that bad, but if the people there were actually worried they wouldn’t be allowed to leave or were in physical danger, they are entitled to have felt that way based on what we’ve heard about the situation.
All that noted, Dudley pointed out something that Vogel did as well: There might have been a small benefit for the Lakers in the experience, even if it wasn’t something they wanted to go through then, or ever again.
Point is, if you want to give a team a bonding experience, an experience that forces them together, forces them to look out for each other, forces them to have each other’s backs no matter what, then I can’t think of anything better than what we experienced in China. Because really, that trip was the prologue for a dark, challenging year.
It was a bubble before the bubble, and maybe the best preparation for it possible. Still, when listening to Dudley tell it, it’s revealing of what James was really upset about, and a reminder to people using his anger for bad-faith criticisms of his other activism that James isn’t against free speech. He’s against he, his teammates, co-workers and their families being put in danger.
Now some will still say James and the NBA were just protecting their money. Dudley’s book is filled with perspective on that, and why the money is about more than just personal enrichment; it’s about propping up entire communities of color during finite careers that can be ended with one wrong twist of a limb. His perspective is worthwhile for that, as well as to hear him talk about the China trip, for his candid bubble memories of LeBron’s leadership, for why the Lakers really had beef with the Clippers, and whole lot more.
The book is worth a read — or listen, as Dudley reads the audio version — for any Lakers fan who wants to know the real inside story of what happened with the team last year. I blew through it in one sitting, and you can buy it for $2 on Amazon here.