Inside the NBA’s silent tension surrounding Daryl Morey

Inside the NBA’s silent tension surrounding Daryl Morey

NOBODY SAW MUCH of Daryl Morey in the days after the Houston Rockets landed in Tokyo for the NBA’s Japan Games. The Rockets’ general manager confined himself to his room at the Ritz Carlton in Roppongi Hills during the team’s six-day visit, spotted leaving for occasional jaunts to the Shake Shack located a half-mile away.

Morey had reason to shut himself inside. When he tweeted an image on Friday, Oct. 4, that read “Fight for Freedom, Stand With Hong Kong,” a sequence of events ensued that upended the NBA and one of its most recognizable franchises.

Yet apart from a follow-up tweet on Sunday that declared his intention wasn’t to offend Rockets fans and friends in China, Morey sequestered himself from public view. He didn’t attend the Rockets’ practice on Sunday. He skipped the team’s basketball clinic for Japanese youth on Monday. And though they were staying in the same hotel, Morey and NBA commissioner Adam Silver never met face-to-face. With Silver in Tokyo for less than 48 hours amid a packed schedule of public events and crisis management, they conducted their conversations over the phone.

During the week that the NBA set up shop in Tokyo, the Ritz Carlton felt less like a luxury hotel than a diplomatic retreat where a high-stakes international negotiation hung in the balance. With each passing day, those on the ground sensed the tension compounding.

On Wednesday, a day after Silver followed up the NBA’s initial tepid statement by backing every NBA employee’s right to political expression, Morey got off the elevator in his trademark mock turtleneck and walked to the hotel’s Lobby Lounge on the 45th floor. He looked haggard, an appearance that wasn’t helped by his tatty beard, when he received one of the only people he would engage in Tokyo: Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri.

That Ujiri, who projects a statesmanlike persona, was Morey’s executive counterpart in Tokyo was both coincidence and blessing. Ujiri has written op-eds on the kidnappings by terrorist organization Boko Haram and the Atlanta HawksDanny Ferry episode. He spoke out publicly against Donald Trump’s characterization of “s—hole countries” in the developing world.

Ujiri wanted to understand Morey’s interest in Hong Kong, his level of passion and its origin. Morey explained to Ujiri that MIT Sloan, where he received his MBA in 2000, was a thick pipeline to Hong Kong in the world of business. As conflicts between protesters in Hong Kong and the Chinese government in Beijing have grown increasingly contentious in recent years, Morey’s friends have continued to discuss the idea of political autonomy in Hong Kong. Morey revealed that the timing of his tweet coincided with the implementation of a new law in Hong Kong prohibiting protesters from wearing masks.

Ujiri told Morey he had spoken to a handful of general managers, who offered their support. Morey found that a bit unconvincing — he has never been widely popular among rival executives — but he thanked Ujiri for the well-wishes. Passersby in the airy room, be they team personnel or league staffers, couldn’t resist stealing a glance at Morey as they breezed by the small table.

Morey hadn’t seen Ujiri in person since the Raptors won the NBA Finals in June, and after debriefing on the China affair, the conversation drifted to basketball. Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry blossomed in Houston during Morey’s tenure. The two execs swapped stories about the competitive, occasionally maddening but incomparably singular player. They chatted about Nick Nurse, the Raptors head coach who came of age in the Rockets organization.

As Ujiri listened to Morey’s early impressions of the James HardenRussell Westbrook pairing, it dawned on the Raptors exec that as happy as he was to extend support, the most consolatory thing he could offer Morey was a chance to be himself. For an hour or two, Morey dropped back into the comfortable role of exuberant NBA GM, the trigger-happy swashbuckler who enjoys texting preposterous trade proposals to other execs or baiting an opposing NBA player on Twitter — the guy who loves being Daryl Morey, for better or worse.


THE TENSION THAT bubbled inside that Tokyo hotel persisted throughout the Rockets organization and the league for weeks. League sources say NBA leadership continues to monitor trade negotiations between the United States and China. They believe that a resolution both sides find agreeable could help soothe the league’s relationships in its most profitable foreign market.

Nobody at the NBA or with the Rockets wished to speak on the record for this piece, nor did players, team owners or executives around the league. The collective silence is a reflection of not just the sensitive nature of the conflict, but also the belief that there are significant inflection points ahead.

Some around the NBA marvel at this perfect storm, and the number of variables at work is remarkable:

Morey just happens to be the top basketball exec for the one franchise with the strongest claim of being “China’s team.” That team’s organizational ambassador over the past two decades: Yao Ming, who carried the flag for China during the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics Games in Beijing and now leads its top basketball league.

Morey published the tweet when NBA teams were literally boarding jets bound for China, and that matchup featured LeBron James, the NBA’s most influential star whose criticism of Morey would resonate the loudest.

On top of that, the United States and China had been engaged in one of the most contentious trade wars in recent history, while the Communist Party of China was celebrating its 70th anniversary in an environment of intense nationalism across the country.

Breaking Sports News

via http://www.espn.com – TOP http://www.espn.com

November 12, 2019 at 06:18AM

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