Basketball icon Shaquille O'Neal has weighed in on the spat between the NBA and China, siding with Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey and his right to support pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
O'Neal, who played for multiple NBA teams before retiring in 2011, spoke on television network TNT Tuesday night as the NBA kicked off the first games of the season.
"As American people, we do a lot of business in China, and they know and understand our values, and we understand their values," O'Neal said. "And one of our best values here in America is free speech. We're allowed to say what we want to say, and we're allowed to speak up about injustices, and that's just how it goes. And if people don't understand that, that's something they have to deal with."
He added that the situation was "unfortunate for both parties," but that "Daryl Morey was right."
Morey set off a firestorm in China this month when he posted an image on Twitter that read, "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong." Soon after, the league's Chinese partners suspended ties, state broadcaster CCTV halted all broadcasts of preseason matches, and the Chinese government said the NBA needed to show "mutual respect."
Morey apologized and deleted the tweet, but the dispute has continued -- on Tuesday, Chinese state media didn't air the NBA's opening-night games, which it has done in previous years and NBA seasons.
O'Neal suggested that he and others would not be silenced by threats of financial repercussions, especially on their social media accounts.
"Whenever you see something wrong going on anywhere in the world, you should have the right to say that's not right, and that's what he did," O'Neal said. "When it comes to business sometimes, you have to tiptoe around things, but again, they understand our values and we understand our values and here, we have the right to speak. Especially with social media -- we're going to say whatever we want to say, when we want to say it."
Hong Kong has been gripped by more than four months of increasingly violent pro-democracy demonstrations, with rising anti-China sentiment among the protesters. China has taken a harsh stance in response, and many brands -- including Nike and South Park -- have been caught in the crossfire.
O'Neal is widely considered one of the best players in NBA history, and his comments are all the more striking given his massive popularity in China. While playing for the Miami Heat in 2006, he signed with major Chinese sportswear brand LiNing Company, which released a "Shaq Dunkman" line.
Shortly afterward, a towering 50-foot statue of O'Neal was erected in Beijing, at the gate of a city park.
The basketball craze in China has only grown since then. China makes up at least 10% of the league's current revenue, according to one analyst, and the country is expected to contribute even more than that over the next decade, perhaps reaching 20% of the league's revenue by 2030.
Other beloved NBA players have also spoken out about the dispute -- but not all are in support of Morey. Last week LeBron James, who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, said he was "misinformed."
"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," James told reporters. "I just think that when you're misinformed or you're not educated about something -- and I'm just talking about the tweet itself -- you never know the ramifications that can happen. We all see what that did -- not only for our league but for all of us in America, for people in China as well."
In a tweet after the interview, James clarified that he meant Morey wasn't educated on the repercussions of the Hong Kong tweet, rather than the situation on the ground. "I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet," he wrote. "I'm not discussing the substance. Others can talk about that."
James' comments stoked controversy, with many accusing him of placing the value of Chinese business over the American value of free speech. Some basketball figures, like former NBA player Charles Barkley, defended James. Others like Enes Kanter, who plays for the Boston Celtics, appeared to offer sly criticism. "Wow dude!" Kanter tweeted soon after James' comments.