The showing of American professional basketball games on China’s state broadcaster CCTV was viewed as an icebreaker when Sino-US relations dipped to freezing point in 1989.
CCTV stopped such broadcasts in May 1999, however, after the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed and three journalists were killed during a NATO airstrike. The ban was lifted months later as Beijing resumed talks with Washington about China’s entry into the WTO. The hugely popular NBA basketball games were suspended by CCTV two further times although the moratoriums also lasted only for months amid a flip-flopping in Sino-US relations.
The latest ban, however, was of a quite different order of magnitude: it has lasted for nearly two years. This explains the excitement of Chinese fans when they discovered last week that NBA games had reappeared on CCTV’s schedule.
NBA executives found their lucrative operations in China had taken a hit when Daryl Morey, then general manager of Houston Rockets (the most popular NBA franchise in China thanks to Yao Ming), tweeted in support of anti-government protestors in Hong Kong in 2019. Coming at a time of escalating trade and tech rows, the fallout only heightened when the NBA’s commissioner Adam Silver refused to offer an apology and defended Morey’s right to speak freely.
Months then years passed. The subsequent lifting of the ban came after a phone call between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his counterpart Joe Biden last month (the second between the two leaders since November).
In these verbal exchanges both sides appeared to have identified a few areas of common interest that could be worked on to improve overall relations (including the listing status of Chinese firms in New York, see Talking Point).
Moreover, Sina Sport noted, the NBA has been sending more friendly overtures to China in the past two years, such as making a donation to Wuhan when the city was locked down after the first major outbreak of Covid-19. The organisation has also been taking part in charity activities such as basketball training camps for Chinese kids.
Some NBA executives obviously want to get over the fallout and focus on promoting the sport in what remains the US basketball league’s largest overseas market.
One of them is Tyronn Lue, a former player and now coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, who got into a Twitter debate with Morey, who is now president of the Philadelphia 76ers. After exchanging tweets about free throw scores (the 76ers had beaten the Clippers 122-97) an exasperated Lue let fly with this takedown: “Last time he [Daryl Morey] tweeted, he cost the NBA a billion dollars so I don’t think he should be doing too much tweeting.”
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