LeBron James’ decision to criticize a Houston Rockets executive who tweeted in support of Hong Kong protestors has caused a furor in the US while earning praise in China.
According to the Los Angeles Lakers superstar, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was “misinformed or not educated” when he tweeted “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” a little over a week ago.
In James’ view, the tweet could have led to alarming “ramifications” for NBA players. On October 5th, hours after Morey tweeted, the Lakers landed in Shanghai for a preseason showcase. James says Morey should have “waited a week” to comment on the Hong Kong protests.
“My team and this league just went through a difficult week. 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.”
By criticizing Morey in what seemed like an attempt to appease China, James now stands accused, just like the NBA, of being motivated purely by financial interests.
So what are the basketball star’s business interests in China?
The Beaverton, Oregon-based sportswear company signed James as a teenager. Initially, the deal was worth $100 million but was extended for a lifetime four years ago and is estimated to be worth over $1 billion. In China, James has had the best-selling jersey for multiple seasons.
James is also an investor in the United States’ fastest-growing restaurant chain, Blaze Pizza. He acquired a stake worth $1 million in 2012, and this has now appreciated to a value of at least $40 million. James also owns 21 franchise locations in the fast-casual pizza chain.
Blaze Pizza has already embarked on expanding abroad, and with China’s fast-food market worth nearly $180 billion, the world’s most populous country is an opportunity waiting to be tapped by the restaurant chain.
Other US fast-food chains that have already led the way with impressive results include KFC, McDonald’s, and Domino’s. KFC boasts over 5,000 restaurants in over 1,000 Chinese cities, while pizza chain Domino’s is targeting to open 700 stores in the next five years.
In 2013, James signed a deal with Chinese tech giant Tencent to serve as a brand ambassador for the Chinese version of the NBA 2K video game franchise. Among other responsibilities, James was to serve as the cover athlete, spokesperson for the game, and provide some creative input. James was also cover athlete for NBA 2K19.
By seeming to prioritize his Chinese financial and business interests over human rights activism, James has put his social justice warrior credentials at risk.