SHANGHAI – Two young men stood in the middle of a sidewalk after dusk, dimly lighted by street lights and a glowing television screen across the street. They had brought hundreds of small Chinese flags with them and each clutched a handful to offer the fans who approached Mercedes Benz Arena in a steady stream.
Most of the fans accepted, some after confirming the flags were free. With a heavy police presence, the crowd's energy was subdued. Many of them wondered if the night's game would include protests or other shows of national pride. Very few wore jerseys on the street, though many changed into them after entering the arena.
In the days, hours and minutes leading up to Thursday's exhibition game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets, the fallout from a tweet by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong disrupted the NBA's routine in China. Speculation swirled that the game might be canceled, or that if it wasn't fans wouldn't attend.
In the end, few theatrics occurred. The Lakers lost to the Nets, 114-111, falling to 1-1 this preseason, capping a wild week filled with uncertainty. Tension from the preceding week was not absent from the night. All interviews with players, coaches and commissioner Adam Silver were canceled at the behest of the Chinese government, signs advertising the game had been removed around the city and it was not broadcast on Chinese television. But upon tipoff, the spectators there behaved just like a crowd full of Lakers fans. And they loved LeBron James.
They delighted at a tightly contested matchup. With 20.9 seconds left, as Nets guard Theo Pinson attempted free throws with the score tied at 111, the crowd booed heartily, egged on by Dwight Howard and James. Former Lakers player David Nwaba, a star with their G League affiliate, scored the Nets' final points, and a potential game-tying three-pointer by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed at the buzzer, eliciting a groan from the crowd.
James and Anthony Davis each played 25 minutes in their second preseason game, with James scoring 20 points and Davis adding 16.
JaVale McGee, Danny Green and Avery Bradley started in their exhibition opener on Saturday in San Francisco. On Thursday in Shanghai, Howard, Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo joined James and Davis in the starting lineup.
Rondo had 18 points, six assists and five rebounds while Caldwell-Pope added 11 points and Howard finished with five points in 18 minutes. JaVale McGee contributed six points, with 10 rebounds, five blocks, three steals and an assist.
Each time James had the ball, the crowd erupted. Even pregame, he looked to put on a show, drawing the first big cheer of the night with a dunk in the layup line. The Lakers star, whose image adorns billboards around town, and whose apparel fills Nike stores in the city, has been quiet this week. No players in China have been available to reporters, and James has kept his social media presence minimal.
The week's controversies were inflamed by several factors. Tensions are high in China over demonstrations in Hong Kong. The United States' trade dispute with China has impacted national sentiment as well. And the Chinese Communist Party celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China last week.
Hong Kong, which was a British colony until 1997, is a semi-autonomous region within China. The protesters began demonstrating in June against an extradition bill that would have allowed deportation of suspected criminals to China. That bill has been withdrawn, but the protests have evolved into a movement demanding greater police and government accountability as well as electoral reform so voters can choose their own representatives.
Morey's since-deleted tweet enraged the Chinese government. They were further angered on Tuesday when NBA commissioner Adam Silver championed Morey's right to free speech, while also saying he hoped the league could continue its relationship with China.
The Lakers are scheduled to travel to Shenzhen, which is 17 miles from Hong Kong, on Friday for a Saturday rematch with the Nets, but it's unclear what awaits the two teams.
A broadcaster on China's state television channel, CCTV, said they were "strongly dissatisfied" with Silver's response and that "any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability does not lie within the bounds of free speech."
Chinese sponsors pulled out of ancillary events and the exhibition game, forcing the league to remove sponsor logos from the Mercedes-Benz Arena court. Every opportunity for the teams to interact with the media or fans had been canceled by either the NBA or the Chinese government. When the Lakers first arrived in Shanghai, fans at the hotel hid their faces from cameras to avoid recognition.
It seemed to be setting up some dramatic display during the game. The two men who passed out small flags on the streets outside the arena were two of many.
"If we choose, we will choose to support our country," said Ma Shipeng, who brought 900 small flags to disperse according to the Associated Press. "We only like some particular basketball players, but we don't like the NBA anymore. I give away Chinese flags tonight, as I hope people put the national interest in front of following NBA. I will continue to support James. But none of our Chinese people would accept what Morey and Silver said."
Once in the arena very few fans waved their small Chinese flags, and those who did were mostly small children. Several fans wore stickers that said I (heart) China with the heart shaped like the Chinese flag. Others had a Chinese flag painted on their cheeks.
That was the extent of their visible demonstration.