The Houston Rockets executive unwittingly exposed an issue that may have been too much for the National Basketball Association: support for protesters in Hong Kong, which infuriated China. It was quickly deleted.
But the damage was done, and the NBA quickly moved to smooth things over in a lucrative market that generates millions of dollars in revenue. The league said it was "regrettable" that many Chinese fans were offended by the comment.
Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the Rockets and Morey's boss, publicly rebuked Morey but said later that the general manager's job was not in danger.
Sponsors in China paused their deals with the Rockets, and the country's main broadcaster said it would remove the team's games from its schedule. Two exhibition games scheduled for a low-level team affiliated with the Rockets were also canceled.
The league's statement, in turn, inflamed supporters of the Hong Kong protests and many fans in the United States, where the protesters are generally seen as battling a repressive government. Democratic and Republican politicians found agreement in calling the league gutless, accusing it of prioritizing money over human rights.
The involvement of the Rockets is particularly troublesome for the NBA, given the franchise's longtime status as among the most popular team in China. Yao Ming, considered the crown jewel of Chinese basketball, played for the Rockets from 2002 to 2011.
James Harden, a Rockets guard and one of the NBA's biggest stars, directly apologized to Chinese fans on Monday.
Joseph Tsai, the first Chinese owner of an NBA franchise, said in a statement late Sunday that Hong Kong was a "third-rail issue" in China, calling the efforts by protesters a "separatist movement."
Speaking ahead of a scheduled preseason game between the Rockets and Toronto Raptors in Japan, the NBA's commissioner, Adam Silver, acknowledged the fallout but said the league supported Morey's right to free expression.
Now, about 200 NBA employees work in China in offices in Beijing and Shanghai. Games are streamed live and Chinese media cover all the league's biggest events such as All-Star weekend and the NBA Finals. The league has played preseason games there for years, has three NBA academies in the country — designed to find the next star prospect — and big-name players go there every offseason to promote their brand.
Retired Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade has a lifetime contract with Chinese apparel company Li-Ning. Golden State guard Klay Thompson has a 10-year deal with another Chinese shoe company, Anta. Five-time champion Kobe Bryant has been visiting China annually for about two decades and is a massive star there, even now that his playing career is done.
The league has navigated its way around one thorny issue related to the U.S. and China in recent months: a trade war between the nations that includes back-and-forth tariffs. The Hong Kong tweet, though, is likely to present a much bigger test for the NBA.