It’s not the first time LeBron James has seen people burn his jersey because of something he’s said.
But previous instances of fiery fan discontent involved the NBA superstar switching squads — the backlash Tuesday was a matter of global politics and had the potential to be a far more lasting stain on the perennial All-Star’s career ledger. James caused seething outrage in Hong Kong after he said Monday night Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was “misinformed” when he tweeted his support for the pro-democracy protesters. James doubled down in a series of tweets later, again saying Morey decision to tweet the message on the eve of the NBA’s exhibition trip to China was bad timing.
In response, a large group among the throngs of Hong Kong demonstrators were seen stomping on jerseys and shirts bearing the superstar’s name — and even gathered to watch the burning of one of the garments.
A demonstrator stomps on Lebron James jerseys during a rally at the Southorn Playground in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
James, who has been one of the most outspoken athletes on social justice issues in the U.S. in a league that prides itself on being one of the most progressive in sports, was deferential to the NBA and the Chinese government when he broke his silence about Morey’s remarks days after his return to the U.S. after playing two preseason games in China. Morey had tweeted, “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” last week prior to the Rockets’ preseason games in Japan.
The tweet had consequential effects on the NBA’s bottom line, with the Chinese government blacking out games on its streaming service Tencent and several Chinese sportswear brands suspending or cutting ties with the Rockets. It was in that climate that James made his first comments about the controversy Monday night.
“I’m not here to judge how the league handled the situation,” he told reporters. “I just think that, when you’re misinformed or you’re not educated about something – and I’m just talking about the tweet itself – you never know the ramifications that can happen. We all see what that did, not only did for our league but for all of us in America, for people in China as well. Sometimes you have to think through the things that you say that may cause harm not only for yourself but for the majority of people. I think that’s just a prime example of that.”
Demonstrators hold up photos of LeBron James grimacing during a rally at the Southorn Playground in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
He added in a tweet: “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.”
In Hong Kong, protesters blasted James’ message.
“People are angry,” said James Lo, a web designer who runs a basketball fan page on Facebook. He added he expects more backlash from protesters who have been demonstrating on the streets and battling police because of concerns that the international business hub is losing its freedoms.
“Students, they come out like every weekend,” James Lo said. “They’ve got tear-gassed and then they got gun-shot, like every weekend. Police beating students and then innocent people, like every day. And then he just comes up with something [like that tweet]. We just can’t accept that.”
A demonstrator wearing Houston Rockets jersey holds up his hand with fellow demonstrators during a rally at the Southorn Playground in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
Protesters also said that James’ comments amounted to a double-standard because the Los Angeles Lakers star has used his fame and celebrity to press for social issues unique to the U.S.
“Please remember, all NBA players, what you said before: ‘Black lives matter.’ Hong Kong lives also matter!” William Mok said to an applauding crowd of protesters.
Others said James was likely more worried about protecting his wealth than the geopolitical issues of his Hong Kong supporters.
“James was trying, you know, to take a side, on the China side, which is like ridiculous,” Aaron Lee, a 36-year-old marketing director, said. “He was being honest, financially. Financial is money. Simple as that. LeBron James stands for money. Period.”
Demonstrators set a Lebron James jersey on fire during a rally at the Southorn Playground in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
Before wading into the Hong Kong controversy, James had been vocally supportive of social justice causes. On his HBO discussion show, “The Shop,” James in March discussed his respect for former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the trend of taking a knee during the national anthem to draw attention to perceived racial biases in the justice system. But Kaepernick soon found himself without a job, as NFL franchises uniformly declined to bring the lightning rod player aboard.
“Kap stood for something that was bigger than him,” James said. “How many people can wake up and say ‘You know what, I’ll give up everything that I’ve worked for my whole life, for the better of the conversation. I’m gonna lose everything I’ve got personally to better the conversation?'”
In January 2018, James tweeted a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “-Injustice Anywhere Is A Threat To Justice Everywhere- Our Lives Begin To End The Day We Become Silent About Things That Matter- #ThankYouMLK50.”
Fox News’ Cody Derespina and the AP contributed to this report.