After an NBA pre-season tarnished by a conflict with the Chinese government, the free speech controversy has come to Toronto, where activists handed out pro-Hong Kong T-shirts to fans attending the Raptors home opener on Tuesday.
“We want to say no to Chinese inference and we want to say no to the censorship of freedom of speech and freedom of expression by handing out these T-shirts,” said Mimi Lee, a spokesperson for the Toronto HongKongers Action Group that made and distributed the shirts for free. “By wearing these T-shirts, you are supporting us. You are supporting these global values that we all have.”
In just 10 days, the group raised more than $34,000 online through a gofundme campaign. Seven thousand T-shirts were printed over the weekend — enough for more than one third of all the fans in Scotiabank Arena.
Lee said the group had not heard from the Raptors but didn’t anticipate any trouble, even though a man and his wife had been booted from a 76ers pre-season game in Philadelphia earlier this month.
“I’m not all that concerned because if they actually shut us down that only tells people that they are not standing with freedom of speech and freedom of expression, which is not a good PR,” she said.
MLSE spokesperson Dave Haggith confirmed the team would not prevent fans from wearing the shirts.
Two hours before tipoff, the group started handing out the stark black and yellow T-shirts emblazoned with a combination of the slogans of the Raptors and the Hong Kong protesters: The North Stand with Hong Kong.
Wearing the protesters’ signature face masks, they were ushered off Scotiabank Arena property by security and police, forcing them to set up on the sidewalk with cardboard boxes full of shirts.
Many fans happily took the free T-shirts and were allowed through security without incident.
Despite handing them all out, once inside the shirts were lost among the celebratory festivities and not very visible in the stands as the Raptors dropped their championship banner from the rafters.
The HongKongers group had been criticized online in the lead-up to the game by those who accused them of politicizing basketball — something Lee rejected out of hand.
“Politics is already in NBA, right? If you don’t want it, this is what you want to do. This is the way to tell people we don’t want it.”
The NBA’s China controversy began earlier this month when Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey tweeted — and later deleted — his support of the Hong Kong protesters.
The protesters, who have been battling police in the streets since March, originally came out against a law that would allow the Chinese government to extradite fugitives from Hong Kong. Since then, their push has grown to encompass wider political freedoms.
In response to Morey’s tweet, the Chinese government pulled several NBA pre-season games from television, a move league commissioner Adam Silver said has caused “substantial” financial losses. Several NBA events and exhibition games in China were also cancelled.
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China also asked the NBA to fire Morey, Silver said, though the league declined, saying it will support his freedom of expression.
NBA star LeBron James then enflamed tensions by saying Morey’s tweet was “misinformed.”