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'Disgusting': U.S. politicians call out NBA for cowing to China amid Houston Rockets controversy

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By Allan Smith  with NBC News Politics
Image: Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey at a press conference in
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey at a press conference in Texas in 2013.   -   Copyright  Bob Levey Getty Images file

Republican and Democratic lawmakers criticized the NBA for cowing to China amid a controversy stemming from a Houston Rockets executive posting a tweet backing the months-long protests in Hong Kong.

"Basketball fans and the American people more broadly should have absolutely no doubt about what is happening here: The NBA wants money, and the Communist Party of China is asking them to deny the most basic of human rights," Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in a statement Monday. "In response, the NBA issued a statement saying money is the most important thing."

The international kerfuffle began after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet Friday expressing support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Morey quickly deleted the tweet and posted a clarification, saying he "did not intend" to offend any Chinese fans, but damage to the league's lucrative relationship with China — a country with billions of dollars invested in the sport — was already done. The NBA's Chinese partners suspended ties with the franchise, Chinese sponsors pulled their money and Chinese TV outlets said they would no longer broadcast Rockets games.

Mike Bass, an NBA spokesman, said in a statement on Sunday that Morey's tweet was "regrettable" and "deeply offended" many of the league's Chinese fans. He added that Morey's views did not represent the Rockets or the league, although he suggested Morey had a right to express his view.

The Rockets, a franchise for which Chinese superstar Yao Ming once played, are one of the league's most popular teams in China.

Chinese state media has cast the Hong Kong protesters as rioters amid months of clashes which began when proposed legislation would have allowed China to extradite suspects in Hong Kong to the mainland. Hong Kong's leader pledged last month to withdraw the legislation.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joined the chorus of voices expressing outrage at the NBA's response to the ordeal, tweeted that the league was "throwing" Morey "under the bus to please the Communist Chinese Govt."

"Disgusting," he added. "They allow #China to punish a U.S. citizen for free speech in order to protect NBA's market access in China. Grotesque."

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., tweeted that with the Rockets under pressure from China to fire Morey, the ordeal will prove to be a "moment of truth for" the league.

"Will they bow to pressure from repressive, authoritarian govt?" he tweeted.

And Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wrote he was "proud" to see Morey's tweet, adding that the league, "in pursuit of big" money, was "shamefully retreating."

Democrats expressed dismay over the episode as well. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tweeted: "No one should implement a gag rule on Americans speaking out for freedom."

Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro — a 2020 presidential contender — tweeted that China "is using its economic power to silence critics — even those in the U.S."