Column: Clumsy words tarnish the LeBron brand

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James yawns as he sits on the bench during the second half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 104-98. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James sits on the bench during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Demonstrators hold up photos of LeBron James grimacing during a rally at the Southorn Playground in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. Protesters in Hong Kong have thrown basketballs at a photo of LeBron James and chanted their anger about comments the Los Angeles Lakers star made about free speech during a rally in support of NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, whose tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests touched off a firestorm of controversy in China. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
Demonstrators hold up signs in support of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey during a rally at the Southorn Playground in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. Protesters in Hong Kong have thrown basketballs at a photo of LeBron James and chanted their anger about comments the Los Angeles Lakers star made about free speech during a rally in support of NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, whose tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests touched off a firestorm of controversy in China. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

LeBron James had time, and plenty of it, to figure out how best to answer the questions he knew were coming. Long days in hotel rooms in China and a long flight home gave him every chance to carefully craft a response to a controversy he had no part in making but one that directly affects his bank account.

Instead James chose to wing it. He blamed the messenger instead of addressing the message.

And the LeBron brand may never be the same.

He's still one of the greatest basketball players ever, that hasn't changed. But in the space of just a few sentences Monday night James may have abdicated his spot as someone who should be listened carefully to when it comes to social issues.

No one was asking James to come out in support of protesters in Hong Kong. That was always a bridge too far for a player who makes millions in the lucrative Chinese market.

But a player who has always prided himself on speaking out on issues ranging from Trayvon Martin to Colin Kaepernick should have made sure in this instance that he was speaking out the strongest in support of free speech.

James didn't, at least when it comes to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and the firestorm Morey set off with his tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters. In his first comments since returning from China, James cast Morey as being "either misinformed or not really educated on the situation" in Hong Kong and not understanding how many people in the NBA could be affected by his tweet.

While James mentioned free speech, in his bungled attempt to chastise Morey what people heard was human rights are great. But don't let them get in the way of the NBA's China cash cow.

The words were clumsy, almost as if James himself was misinformed or not really educated on the situation. Seemingly realizing that, James followed them with a pair of tweets that did little other than rile up people even further on social media.

He also riled up some protesters in Hong Kong, where on Tuesday some were seen stomping on — and in one case — burning his jersey.

Not exactly the way James wanted to start the NBA season. Up until a few days ago, the biggest thing James had to worry about was meshing with new teammate Anthony Davis and finding a way for his Los Angeles Lakers to beat the Golden State Warriors.

Now he's under fire from both sides in a dispute he had no part in making, but one where he will pay a price — and not just in endorsement opportunities in China.

No one expects James to be an expert on the dispute in Hong Kong, where protesters are chafing under increased Chinese control. But they should expect him to do what NBA Commissioner Adam Silver did last week in China — acknowledge that everyone doesn't look at things the same but that everyone has the right to express their opinion and just leave it at that.

Those opinions were hard to find across the NBA on Tuesday, a week before the opening of the 2019 season. That was especially true in Houston where Morey has yet to resurface and players like James Harden and Tyson Chandler joined coach Mike D'Antoni in either declining comment or saying basically nothing.

Even Steve Kerr, the Warriors coach who has an opinion on most issues of the day and seems to relish sparring with President Donald Trump, is keeping relatively quiet. Kerr demurred last week when asked whether he thought Morey was wrong in sending out the tweet, saying instead that basketball "should be a force for the greater good."

That earned Kerr a tweet from Trump, who said it was "So funny to watch Steve Kerr grovel and pander when asked a simple question about China."

Indeed, James is not the only one caught in a heated dispute where middle ground will be hard — if not impossible — to find. He's not the only one who stands to lose money — and a lot of it — should the damage to a relationship carefully cultivated over three decades be undone by a Friday night tweet.

He's got a right to market himself in China without getting involved in the country's internal politics, and that's fine. Few begrudge James his millions, and few — at least on this side of the world — are particularly interested in what he thinks about the relationship Hong Kong has with China.

Words matter, though, and so does the right to voice them. Free speech may be an empty concept in China, but it's the very bedrock of democracy in the United States.

Like a lot of us, James is lucky to live in a country where that right is a given.

Hopefully he'll be thinking more about that the next time he speaks up.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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