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Trump rips NBA for ‘pandering to China,’ but says league has to work out dispute on its own

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President Donald Trump speaks during an “Opportunity Zone” conference with state, local, tribal, and community leaders at the White House in Washington, April 17, 2019.

Carlos Barria | Reuters

President Donald Trump criticized the NBA for what he called “pandering” to China on Wednesday even as he declined to take a stance on the sports league’s dispute with Beijing.

“They have to work out their own situation. The NBA’s — they know what they’re doing,” Trump told reporters. “I watched the way that [Golden State Warriors coach Steve] Kerr and [San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg] Popovich and some of the others were pandering to China, and yet to our own country, it’s like they don’t respect it.” 

The NBA has tried to contain the economic damage in its massive China market this week after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. As organizations and businesses in China cut off their relationships with the NBA, critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere have said the league put cash over human rights by not initially defending Morey’s comments strongly enough. 

A spokesman for the NBA did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the president’s remarks.

Trump specifically accused Kerr and Popovich of hypocrisy in their reactions to the dispute with China because they have frequently criticized the president’s domestic policies. He claimed Kerr “was like a scared little boy” when he was asked about China on Monday. 

Asked if he had thoughts about the conflict between the NBA and China, Kerr said, “I don’t.” He added that “it’s easy to speak on issues that I’m passionate about and feel like I’m well-versed on” but suggested he did not have enough knowledge to talk about China politics. 

On Tuesday, Popovich said Silver “has been a heck of a leader.” He took a veiled shot at Trump, saying that “compared to what we’ve had to live through the last three years, there’s a big difference gap there leadership wise and courage wise.” 

An initial league statement in response to the tweet on Sunday said the NBA recognized Morey’s views “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.” In subsequent comments Monday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he acknowledged “our initial statement left people angered, confused or unclear on who we are or what the NBA stands for.” 

“It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences,” Silver said. 

He continued: “However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”

This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.

— CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger contributed to this report

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