SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) - Thousands of Chinese fans cheered and clapped through an NBA exhibition game in Shanghai on Thursday after days of controversy and online vitriol over a now-deleted tweet by a team manager backing anti-China protests in Hong Kong.
The crowd waved Chinese flags in the arena before the game started, but the packed stands gave the players a huge welcome on court and shouted enthusiastically throughout the game.
The Nets won 114-111.
The tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey supporting sometimes violent anti-government protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong sparked a furore in China，with a fan event canceled and Chinese partners cutting ties with the National Basketball Association (NBA).
The exhibition game was most notable for a facial injury to Nets guard Kyrie Irving a minute in. Irving, one of the headliners in the NBA’s promotion, was taken off immediately and did not return.
“Most people are very rational today,” one spectator said. “We all love basketball. But if NBA players or officials continue to make some of these wrong comments, we have no choice” but to protest.
Roads near the stadium were blocked off ahead of the game and those attending had to go through two rounds of security checks.
Street vendors were selling Chinese national flags outside the arena and some people had called online on those going to the game to carry flags in a show of force.
Some people protested before the game outside the stadium against Morey and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who has spoken out in support of the tweet.
“There are no Lakers or Nets fans tonight. We are all Chinese basketball fans,” one protester said.
NBA events scheduled on Tuesday and Wednesday were canceled and Chinese sponsors and partners have suspended or severed ties with the league. Sponsors’ logos were noticeable by their absence on the court.
State broadcaster CCTV and Tencent (0700.HK) did not show Thursday’s game and will not show the rematch scheduled for Saturday in Shenzhen.
The Hong Kong protests began in opposition to a bill allowing extradition to mainland China but have since evolved into broader calls for democracy, with activists throwing petrol bombs, setting street fires and trashing metro stations.
China has accused the West of stirring up anti-Beijing sentiment in Hong Kong, and Chinese state media has characterized Morey’s tweet as the latest example of meddling in China’s own affairs.
The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula guaranteeing it wide-ranging autonomy.
The NBA’s business in China, which took years to cultivate and is estimated to be worth more than $4 billion, is under immense pressure.
The NBA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Saturday’s Lakers-Nets game would take place.
Houston Rockets sneakers and other merchandise have been pulled from several Nike (NKE.N) and NBA stores in major Chinese cities, with the franchise’s direct association with Morey making it a central target of the furore. Managers at some of the Nike stores said they had been instructed to remove the goods via an internal memo from management.
A specialist NBA store at a major shopping center in Shanghai removed all Rockets merchandise, as did the basketball-themed NBA Playzone family entertainment centres in Beijing and Shanghai.
“Rockets products were hot before and when you stepped into the store, it was full of red. Now, it is mostly yellow and blue,” the colors of the Golden State Warriors, said a manager at the Shanghai Playzone, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Nike and the NBA did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
Chinese state and party-backed media continued to publish items critical of the NBA. The official English China Daily published an editorial cartoon on Thursday playing on the NBA’s official logo of an athlete dribbling a basketball. The cartoon instead put a bomb labeled “politics” in the athlete’s hand, leaving the basketball fallen by the wayside.
U.S. sports broadcaster ESPN was also criticized for its coverage of the row after using a map that appeared to endorse Beijing’s claims to both self-ruled Taiwan and disputed territories in the South China Sea.
Reporting by Se Young Lee and Ryan Woo in Beijing, Winni Zhoug, Xihao Jiang and David Stanway in Shanghai; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Nick Macfie