LeBron James sparked anger on social media on Tuesday after the Los Angeles Lakers star suggested that Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey "wasn't educated" when he sent a tweet in support of protesters in Hong Kong earlier this month.
Morey's tweet of support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong prompted Chinese sponsors and partners to cut ties with the league and forced the National Basketball Association (NBA) to answer difficult questions about free speech.
On Monday, James weighed in on the issue by telling reporters, "We all talk about this freedom of speech. Yes, we all do have freedom of speech. But at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you're not thinking about others."
He added: "I don't want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl," he added.
"But I believe he wasn't educated on the situation at hand and he spoke."
Many Twitter users responded to James's statement with displeasure. "Weak," said one user. Others simply posted emoji of bags of money.
Turkish player Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics appeared to address James's comments with a series of tweets.
A vocal critic of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's human rights record, Kanter was indicted by a Turkish court last year on charges of belonging to an armed terrorist group, which he denies.
"This is the price I am ready to pay if this is what it takes to stand up for what I believe is right," Kanter tweeted, with a link to an opinion piece he wrote in the Boston Globe about his criticism of Turkey. "It’s worth it."
"Haven’t seen or talked to my family 5 years," he wrote in a separate tweet. "FREEDOM IS NOT FREE."
In China, however, some internet commenters supported James, whose statements were trending on Weibo, China's equivalent to Twitter, and Douyin, a popular short video platform owned by Bytedance Ltd.
"My James is being attacked by Americans, Americans believe Morey should be supported, and James's words are basically opposing Morey," said one user on Weibo.
"Sigh, I love you James, hope you can continue to be healthy and play ball!"
James took to Twitter on Monday night to clarify his initial statements.
"Let me clear up the confusion," he tweeted.
"I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet. I'm not discussing the substance. Others can talk About that."
The Lakers played two exhibition games in China against the Brooklyn Nets last week, but the NBA cancelled media availability for the teams during the trip. A Rockets staff member also shut down a CNN reporter in Tokyo last week while trying to ask players a question about the controversy. The league later apologised to the reporter in a statement. James is one of the few NBA representatives to speak openly about the uproar.
"My team and this league just went through a difficult week," he tweeted on Monday. "I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it."
Chinese traders in online sneaker market punish NBA after Hong Kong controversy
On October 4, a Chinese trader noticed a sharp drop in the price of crypto tokens backed by Nike's Air Jordan sneakers on a US-based exchange after the general manager of the NBA's Houston Rockets tweeted support for the protests in Hong Kong.
The trader posted about the fall -- which he told Reuters was more than 10% at the time -- on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter. His post went viral, attracting thousands of comments and becoming one of the most searched items on Weibo last week.
The trader, who declined to give his name, said such price swings were not unusual in the speculative world of cryptocurrencies and asset-backed tokens.
"But it's clear sneaker speculators were pulling money out of the market" after the Chinese government and netizens responded angrily to the comment by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, he said.
Morey quickly deleted his tweet, but the damage was done.
Chinese state media started to attack him, the Houston Rockets and the National Basketball Association (NBA), accusing them of endorsing violence and peddling a "secessionist pipe dream."
Since the incident, quotes for tokens backed by the Air Jordan 1 Retro High Satin Black Toe shoes - the latest variant of the iconic 1980s model - have fallen 34%, according to Reuters calculations based on data from 55.com, a major global exchange for asset-backed tokens.
In China, the trading of tokens and cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin is banned, but Chinese investors are active on overseas exchanges. On 55.com, traders can exchange yuan for cryptocurrencies such as Tether via Alipay or WeChat to acquire tokens.
It is also possible on 55.com to trade tokens backed by other designer merchandise such as hoodies by Supreme, a US clothing brand under the Carlyle Group.
Hong Kong-based George Gao, a sneaker brand influencer in China with more than 38,000 followers on his YouTube channel, said the NBA backlash among mainland basketball fans was "unprecedented."
Global brands can suffer when they offend their client base in China, where millions of online citizens rapidly respond to perceived cultural slights or insults to the country. For NBA, the China market is estimated to be worth more than $4 billion.
Last week, Houston Rockets sneakers and other merchandise were pulled from several Nike stores in major Chinese cities.
Poizon and DoNew, two Chinese mobile shopping apps popular among fans of designer sneakers, also took NBA-logo shoes off their platforms, traders said.
Xu Xiaotian, an avid sneaker collector in the southern city of Guangzhou, said he would boycott "anti-China" brands and take political concerns into consideration during his next purchase.
But he also said individual NBA players were not directly involved in the controversy.
In June, Xu bought online a pair of Nike Air Jordan 1 Retro High "Pass The Torch" sneakers inspired by the Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard. Xu paid 13,000 yuan ($1,837.85) and sold them for 33,000 yuan that month.
Xu said he would invest in NBA shoes again despite his feelings about the NBA.
On mobile app Sneaker Sale Calendar, a popular tool for sneaker price comparison among Chinese collectors, the price of Nike's LeBron 16 "MPLS" shoes rose 142% to 1,944 yuan on Wednesday from a day earlier.
Other brands associated with the NBA, such as Nike and Adidas, have been largely unscathed.
Gao said the price of a new pair of limited-edition Nike shoes in collaboration with US rapper Travis Scott, which made their debut in China on Friday, surged more than fivefold to almost 8,000 yuan from 1,399 yuan in online resale markets.
"Political factors do affect my choice," said Chen Luwei, a Chinese sneaker fan studying in Australia.
"If there is any insulting speech by Nike or Adidas, it may affect my decision to buy their shoes," Chen said. "But I can't just throw away my previous ones, right?"