As the NBA continues to deal with the fallout from an executive’s controversial tweet, a man says he and his wife were kicked out of a Philadelphia 76ers game after showing their support for protesters in Hong Kong.
Sam Wachs of Chestnut Hill and his wife attended Tuesday night’s preseason game between the Sixers and the Guangzhou Loong-Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association at the Wells Fargo Center.
Wachs told NBC10 he and his wife were holding up “Free Hong Kong” and “Free HK” signs in reference to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Wachs said he lived in Hong Kong for two years and supports the protesters’ movement.
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“We were just sitting in our seats near the Chinese bench,” Wachs said.
As they were sitting, Wachs said security confiscated their signs. He then said they were kicked out of the game during the second quarter by security after they yelled, “Free Hong Kong.”
“We were saying, ‘Free Hong Kong,’’ Wachs told NBC10. “What’s wrong with that?”
In a statement on Wednesday, the team said Wells Fargo Center security staff made the decision to eject the couple "following multiple complaints from guests and verbal confrontations with others in attendance...."
The Wells Fargo Center, in its own statement to NBC10, said "After three separate warnings, the two individuals were escorted out of the arena without incident. The security team employed respectful and standard operating procedures."
The incident comes amid a firestorm of controversy for the NBA in relation to the Hong Kong protests. On Friday, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted out "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong." Morey subsequently deleted his tweet and he offered an explanation for his actions after Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta tweeted that the GM didn’t speak for the team.
The damage was already done for the NBA, however. Several companies in China, including some of the league’s major business partners there, lashed out over Morey’s original tweet. The Chinese Basketball Association — whose president is former Rockets star center Yao Ming — said it was suspending its relationship with the team.
China state broadcaster CCTV also announced it would not air two exhibition games between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday in Shanghai and on Saturday in the southern city of Shenzhen, which neighbors Hong Kong.
Basketball is very popular in China, driven by roots put down there for three decades by the NBA, and by Yao's popular career as the first and only Chinese superstar in the league.
The NBA has a China office, just announced plans to add a gaming team in Shanghai to the NBA 2K League, and officials in both countries say as many as 500 million Chinese watched at least one NBA game last season. Several current and former NBA stars go to China annually to promote their individual brands, and the World Cup held in China this summer saw countless fans attending in NBA jerseys.
The protests that started in June over a now-shelved extradition bill have since snowballed into an anti-China campaign amid anger over what many view as Beijing's interference in Hong Kong's autonomy that was granted when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Protests continued raging this weekend after the shooting of a 14-year-old boy Friday night — the second protest victim of police gunfire — stoked fears of more bloody confrontations. An 18-year-old protester was shot at close range by a riot officer last week. He was charged with rioting and assaulting police, while the younger teen was arrested.
The reaction to Morey's tweet from the NBA provoked strong reactions from critics, including U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who accused the league of not supporting Morey or the Hong Kong protesters due to their lucrative business partnerships with China.
"We're better than this; human rights shouldn't be for sale & the NBA shouldn't be assisting Chinese communist censorship," tweeted Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who said he is a lifelong Rockets fan.
Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro, a former U.S. Housing Secretary from Texas, tweeted "China is using its economic power to silence critics — even those in the U.S."
NBA commissioner Adam Silver later backtracked amid the backlash, saying first in an interview with Kyodo News that the NBA supports Morey, and then issuing a statement that said in part that, "Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA -- and will continue to do so."