SHANGHAI -- Under normal circumstances, when NBA players come to China they are treated like rock stars. Throngs of fans wait for their buses outside hotels, wearing their jerseys, screaming for photos and desperately trying to get a glimpse of these athletes they idolize from thousands of miles away.
That is especially true for the Los Angeles Lakers.
This week what was normal has been upended by a controversy that began with a since-deleted tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in which he supported pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong who are demonstrating against the Chinese government. As the Lakers made the trans-Pacific flight from Los Angeles to Shanghai, the situation intensified.
By the time the Lakers landed in Shanghai, their plans had been completely disheveled. They didn't know what their schedule for the week would be. They didn't know if they would play either of their two scheduled games against the Brooklyn Nets in Shanghai on Thursday and Shenzhen on Saturday. Meanwhile, throughout China, NBA fans grappled with the conflict between the sport they love and their enraged country.
The Lakers flew without wireless internet on their charter plane, watching movies or TV shows, chatting among themselves, sleeping if they could.
On the ground in Shanghai, the front page of the English language Shanghai Daily on Tuesday morning led with a headline that read "Rockets in flames over HK comments." The paper is targeted to foreigners but must comply with the Chinese government regulations that all media must operate as propaganda for the government. Its story noted that the NBA, while having issued a statement Monday expressing regret for the effect of Morey's comments, didn't apologize.
At an NBA exhibit in Beijing, a Lakers jersey hung next to a bare patch on the wall. Employees had been instructed to remove all Rockets references Monday, an employee said, even images of Yao Ming when the Hall of Fame center from China played for the Rockets.
The exhibit was so popular that organizers had announced an extension past its ending date in mid-October into November.
Seven hundred to 800 visitors had come daily during last week's national holidays, said the employee, who didn't give his name because he wasn't authorized to speak with media. On Tuesday, there were less than 10.
"It's because of that 'free speech' incident," he said, pulling out his phone to scroll through trending topics on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter. Several were about state media and companies cutting ties with the NBA.