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Two NBA teams played as expected Thursday night in Shanghai an exhibition match in front of Chinese enthusiasts, despite the current crisis between the North American Basketball League and China, born of a polemic tweet about Hong Kong.
Doubts lingered over this lost encounter (111-114) by Los Angeles Lakers of superstar LeBron James against the Brooklyn Nets. But it was maintained and finally went without incident.
The crisis between China and the NBA began Friday after a tweet from the general manager of the Houston Rockets' Texas franchise, Daryl Morey, who expressed support for the Hong Kong protesters.
Hong Kong is an ex-British colony returned to China in 1997 and now autonomous territory. Since June, sometimes violent protesters demand more autonomy in the face of Beijing's growing control.
The central government and many Chinese netizens expressed dissatisfaction after the tweet, perceived as foreign interference and a challenge to the country's territorial integrity.
In front of the Mercedes-Benz Arena, where the Lakers-Nets meeting was taking place, a Chinese man was holding a red banner on which was written in yellow letters and in English: "Morey, fuck you".
But inside, the match was held under strong police presence and in a festive atmosphere. Many fans were dressed in NBA jerseys and cheering for their idols – in a country where basketball is the king sport.
– 'I sweat' –
"I'm super excited, I can finally see the superstar I dreamed to see, LeBron James," says AFP Cai Zhicong, a spectator. "I'm sweating hands," he adds.
The match is a little surprise, after the cancellation this week of a series of NBA events planned in China, and the stall in Shanghai posters touting the meeting Lakers-Nets.
But the North American basketball league confirmed Thursday afternoon that the match would take place.
A representative of the NBA also told AFP that another meeting between the two franchises was still held Saturday in Shenzhen (southern China).
Sign of the sensitivity of the case, the press conferences before and after the match were canceled Thursday. And the national anthems have not been played, perhaps to avoid possible boos for that of the United States.
Chinese public television CCTV had canceled the broadcast of this meeting and that scheduled Saturday. And Chinese sponsors have announced that they have cut ties with the NBA.
At the beginning of the crisis, the North American basketball league had said in a statement to be "deeply disappointed by the inappropriate remarks" of the leader of the Rockets.
But the institution, lambasted by US officials for these words seeming to be right in Beijing, then said Tuesday, through the voice of his boss Adam Silver, she would not apologize and continue to support "the freedom of expression".
– Free flags –
To add to the pressure, a group of eight US parliamentarians on Wednesday urged the NBA, in an open letter, to suspend all activities in China, until broadcasters and Chinese companies give up their boycott.
Outside the Mercedes-Benz Arena on Thursday night, people offered small Chinese flags to spectators arriving at the scene.
"It is necessary to express our love for our country," said Xiong, who introduced himself as a "basketball fan" and hoped to distribute 10,000 of these flags.
If there is still doubt about Saturday's game, a suspension of the broadcast of the NBA season in China is not on the agenda.
Such a decision would be difficult for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): it could alienate a part of the population, the NBA is probably the most followed sports championship in the country.
On Wednesday, Apple found itself in the People's Daily's viewfinder, the CCP's main newspaper, about a controversial app that allowed Hong Kong protesters to locate police officers on a map.
The American giant quickly responded to criticism and withdrew Thursday the offending application.
© 2019 AFP