Why neither Houston Rockets GM, owner were wrong in China controversy

Houston Rockets Daryl Morey (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
Houston Rockets Daryl Morey (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images) /

There were a lot of fireworks early Saturday morning regarding tweets sent by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey and owner Tilman Fertitta.

Over the weekend, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey posted a now-deleted tweet expressing his support of Hong Kong seeking its freedom and independence from China. As is always the case, once a tweet is out there, someone has ahold of it, meaning it’s never truly deleted. The political tweet prompted Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta to rebuke Morey on Twitter.

As our own Lachard Binkley wrote, the Rockets have generated significant revenue from China ever since the Rockets drafted Hall of Fame center Yao Ming in 2002, and the support continued when the Rockets later signed Jeremy Lin. The fact that the Rockets just played against the Shanghai Sharks is an example of the support they receive in the Chinese market.

Fertitta’s tweet in response to Morey’s is what seemed to make the story blow up even more. While Daryl’s was an image stating “we stand with Hong Kong”, Tilman had a strongly-worded tweet shortly after that had a very serious tone.

Listen….@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization. @espn https://t.co/yNyQFtwTTi

— Tilman Fertitta (@TilmanJFertitta) October 5, 2019

Tilman Fertitta’s side

One likely reason Tilman Fertitta decided to take such a strong stance against Morey’s tweet is he knows much of the Rockets’ support comes from China. Although it seems disrespectful to publicly bash Morey on a public platform, he probably took to Twitter because Morey initially made his own views public on Twitter initially.

If he had sent Morey a text or called him to tell him to remove them, it wouldn’t have garnered any favor with China because they wouldn’t have been able to know such a conversation took place.

It’s important to remember that Fertitta is a businessman and is simply trying to protect the brand that is the Houston Rockets. The Rockets haven’t finished better than 13th in league attendance since acquiring James Harden, so the Chinese contributions are a significant source of revenue for the Rockets outside of the Houston market.

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Fertitta wants to keep the Rockets out of political rhetoric, as he knows that could go wrong very quickly, especially when directed to one of its biggest markets. ESPN’s Tim McMahon shared some comments from Tilman on Saturday that revealed more:

Tilman Fertitta to ESPN: “I have the best general manager in the league. Everything is fine with Daryl and me. We got a huge backlash, and I wanted to make clear that [the organization] has no [political] position. We’re here to play basketball and not to offend anybody.” https://t.co/tS15GIOpMh

— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) October 5, 2019

Daryl Morey’s side

From Morey’s perspective, he’s never been known to hold back from speaking his mind, as we all know. A good example of this was Daryl saying James Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan, which is unfair to both players as they played in significantly different eras.

Morey has every right to speak his mind and express his opinion and Fertitta knows that’s who Morey is. On top of that, Morey was obviously not trying to endorse any riots or voice support of a war, as many are trying to infer from his comments. Sure, it’s completely outside the realm of basketball, but it doesn’t make it wrong for Morey to voice his views, because after all, they are his views.

There have already been calls for Morey’s firing, which is completely asinine, as Morey is viewed by many as one of the league’s best general managers and has built the Rockets into a powerhouse from the ground up. The Rockets have been lifted into contender status ever since the acquisition of James Harden, who Morey was able to get by trading Kevin Martin.

Neither Fertitta nor Morey should lose their jobs, as many people have already been suggesting.  The last time an owner was forced out of the league was a much more serious situation. In 2014, Clippers owner Donald Sterling was forced to sell the team after recordings of him making racially insensitive comments regarding African-Americans came out. The whole ordeal was an extremely bad look for the league, so it’s not surprising that the league forced him to sell.

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There’s also no precedent for a general manager to be forced to step down over a situation like this. One instance of a GM being forced to resign is when former Atlanta Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry also made racially insensitive comments regarding Sudanese forward Luol Deng during a conference call with Hawks owners.

The situation led to a Hawks minority owner and Ferry being forced to resign. The important thing regarding that situation is both resignations were at the request of the Hawks owner, not the league. Again though, the Rockets’ situation is nothing near the severity of this past ousting.

At the end of the day, neither Morey nor Fertitta were wrong in how they handled the situation. Morey is fair in speaking his views, and Fertitta is fair in seeking to protect the team’s assets and revenue. While each could have handled the situation differently, neither of them were wrong in how they chose to handle it.

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As long as Morey and Fertitta communicated afterward and were able to get on the same page, it will all be water under the bridge. Based on Fertitta’s comments to McMahon, it seems they have already done that.