BROOKLYN — The Nets and the NBA hoped the controversy that occurred in China would largely be left behind overseas once they returned home, but Friday’s Nets-Raptors preseason game made it clear that isn’t the case just yet.
Hundreds of pro-Hong Kong protesters were vocal during the game at Barclays Center, sitting together mostly behind a basket. Though attendance was listed at 12,380, in reality, the venue was half full at most. Late in the fourth quarter, some of those protesters unfurled signs and stood under the Raptors’ net while chanting, some in Winnie the Pooh costumes.
Many Nets players refused to address the protest after the game, but Kyrie Irving gave an extended interview with the assembled media about the team’s trip to China, the protesters at Friday’s game, and the meeting Nets players had with Adam Silver about the situation that was sparked by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeting support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong.
More sights and sounds from protestors in Barclays Center. pic.twitter.com/d8O2YT1Sqg
— Malika Andrews (@malika_andrews) October 19, 2019
“I can understand why protesters come to the game,” Irving said. “America was built on protesting. It was built on slavery, let alone. But things happen across the world and we’re just taking notice. And social media puts it right in front of everyone’s faces.”
Irving spoke to the media for the first time since the trip to China for a pair of preseason games against the Los Angeles Lakers, exhibitions that were seen as in jeopardy of even happening as the situation played out. Friday night’s 123-107 preseason loss to the Raptors was Irving’s first game in Barclays Center as a Net, and though his homecoming and the adjustment period that came with his first extended action this year would be a story, protests in the thinning crowd quickly became one, too.
One banner, which was eventually taken away by Barclays Center security, said “Tsai & LeBron: Morey was right.” It was directed towards Nets owner Joe Tsai, who penned a letter critical of Morey that NBA commissioner Adam Silver called “a fairly lengthy explanation from his standpoint on why his words are so hurtful to Chinese fans.”
1. Producer and activist Andrew Duncan bought 300 tickets to tonight's Nets vs Raptors game and is hosting hundreds of Chinese pro-Democracy activists to protest the NBA.
They're all wearing "Stand With Hong Kong" t-shirts pic.twitter.com/pIcUwSLaPB
— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) October 19, 2019
Earlier in the week, LeBron James also spoke about Morey’s tweet, calling him “misinformed or not really educated” about the situation and the impact supporting protesters might have, both on the league’s relationship with Chinese business partners and the players who were abroad. James almost immediately softened his language on the situation, saying he knew his word would be taken out of context.
Irving didn’t address Morey’s tweet directly on Friday, nor did he share what he said during the meetings between players and Silver in China as uncertainty unfolded about whether the preseason games would happen. He did make it clear, however, that he talked to Silver about the situation and expressed his commitment to speaking out in favor of what he described as his “pillar” values.
“I stand for four things: Inner peace, freedom, equality, and world peace, so if that’s being conflicted inside of me then I’m definitely going to have something to say,” Irving said while speaking to reporters in a pink shirt that read ‘Protect Kids Not Guns.’ “And I left that in that room.”
Irving called it a “group decision” that his teammates made to play in China despite the dropped television coverage of the events and dropped sponsorships. While he didn’t directly support protesters in Hong Kong or Brooklyn, he did make it clear that he wants to advocate for freedom.
“When you think about communities across the world, I think that a lot of people would stand for world peace,” Irving said. “Then governments get involved and they impact different communities in different ways. The reality is that as individuals it’s our job to stand up for what we believe in. I understand that Hong Kong and China are dealing with their issues, respectively, but there’s enough oppression and stuff going on America for me not to be involved in community issues here as well. And that’s one of those four pillars.”
Irving shared a similar sentiment to what LeBron said about addressing issues in America because of his familiarity with them and their complexities, which also could be interpreted as a much gentler rebuke of what got some upset about both James’ reaction to Morey’s tweet.
“If you’re not thinking with a selfless attitude,” Irving said. “You can kind of get yourself caught up in a few things politically that really impact a certain group of people and an area of the world.”
Still, Irving addressing politics at all was much more direct than others who watched protesters chant in the dying seconds on Friday night’s game.
“I’m gonna continue not to weigh in on politics,” Nets coach Kenny Anderson said afterward. “I did see it. I’m not gonna lie about that — I did see it. But I tried to keep my focus on the game. We were obviously down 25 points at that time, so I was trying to rally the troops.”